Fostering philanthropy: An extract from ‘Reconnected: A community builder’s handbook’

By: By Andrew Leigh and Nick Terrell

Not all giving is equal. A novel experiment randomly offered participants the chance to donate to one of two charities. The first group were asked whether they wanted to give money to UNICEF, a global body with ‘some 10,000 employees working on international priorities such as child protection, survival and development’. The second group were invited to donate to Spread the Net, a charity that provides bed nets to children in Africa, and told that every donation provided another bednet.

Co-authors Andrew Leigh & Nick Terrell. Images: Hilary Wardhaugh

There was no increase in happiness for those who gave to UNICEF, but a marked improvement among those who gave to Spread the Net. What is striking about the study is that Spread the Net is a UNICEF program. Participants didn’t respond emotionally to a generic appeal but loved being told that their donation was about ‘saving lives, one net at a time’. If we want to increase giving, says lead researcher Elizabeth Dunn, we need to stop thinking about giving as a moral obligation and start thinking of philanthropy as a source of pleasure. Dunn urges charities not to reward donors with pens or calendars, but ‘with the opportunity to see the specific impact that their generosity is having and to connect with the individuals and communities they’re helping’. She gives the example from her own life of supporting a refugee family through Canada’s community sponsorship program, which allowed Dunn and her family not only to give money but also to build personal connections with a family from Syria: picking them up from the airport, buying groceries, taking the children ice-skating. Humans evolved, says Dunn, ‘to find joy in helping others’.

Transforming giving from a worthy activity to a joyous one might sound difficult, but it is worth remembering how past public campaigns have changed Australian attitudes. In the early-1980s, the ‘Slip! Slop! Slap!’ campaign challenged the notion of the ‘bronzed Aussie’ and helped reduce melanoma rates.10 In the late 1980s, the ‘Grim Reaper’ campaign confronted the idea that HIV only affected marginalised communities. Since the 1990s, family violence campaigns such as ‘No Respect, No Relationship’, ‘Safe at Home’ and ‘Stop it at the Start’ have worked to change perceptions of family violence. These public health campaigns demonstrate that public attitudes can be shifted. In Canada, Governor General David Johnston spearheaded the ‘My Giving Moment’ campaign in 2013, partnering with charities, businesses and media organisations to boost support for philanthropy. Philanthropy Australia argues that a similar ‘National Giving Campaign’ could work here too.

We’ve seen that children get joy from giving, so to reshape the culture of philanthropy around the pleasure it can provide we should build better ways for young people to participate as early as possible. Kids in Philanthropy has to date engaged 1000 Australian children as ‘Agents for Change’ and involved over 5000 children in volunteering activities. The model involves parents and families, which allows the experience to extend beyond any one activity and into family discussions about purposes to support and how best to give back to the community. The ‘Agents for Change’ program is tailored for schools to provide to students aged five to fifteen. It develops empathy and inspires giving by showing children that philanthropy isn’t just for the wealthy but for anyone who cares enough to be strategic about their giving, be it time or money. Kids in Philanthropy’s ‘Hangout for the Homeless’ takes the CEO Sleepout and brings it down from the corporate level. Children do the sleepout with their parents, alongside homeless young people, to see the kind of social problems giving can alleviate. The ‘Made With Love’food preparation and giving circle enlists family groups to provide groceries and prepare nutritious homemade meals for the homeless and disadvantaged. They work with Youth Projects in Melbourne to support the clients of that program. Kids in Philanthropy’s mission is to engage, educate and empower children and their families through hands-on experiences that help communities in need.

Another aspect of enthusiasm is setting bold goals for giving. In 2010, Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett created something they called ‘the Giving Pledge’, in which they asked billionaires to commit to giving away at least half their wealth. Beginning with forty signatories, the pledge now includes over 200 billionaires. Among them are Elon Musk, Sara Blakely, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, Mo Ibrahim, Michael Bloomberg, and Australians Leonard Ainsworth, Nicola Forrest and Andrew Forrest. After committing to give away all but 1 per cent of his US$75 billion fortune, Warren Buffett said ‘I couldn’t be happier with that decision . . . my family and I will give up nothing we need or want by fulfilling this 99 per cent pledge’. Giving isn’t just for billionaires. Philosopher Peter Singer points out that if you are paying for something to drink when safe water comes out of the tap, then you have money to spend on things you don’t really need. Singer, who personally gives over one-third of his income to charity, tells his readers to try a level of altruism that is ‘significantly more than you have been doing so far’. Then, see how it feels. If it feels good, keep doing it.

An emerging model that has helped engage new philanthropists is the ‘giving circle’, in which participants decide collectively how to give their money away. By providing both information and inspiration, giving circles such as Impact100 and the Melbourne Women’s Fund are helping to raise the quality and quantity of philanthropic donations.

Many creative altruists are seeking to boost corporate giving. In 2014, a handful of technology companies formed Pledge 1%, an organization that asks firms to commit to giving back 1 per cent of equity, profit, products or employee time. Some companies choose to aim for all four objectives, while others focus on a single goal, such as giving 1 per cent of profits back to the community. Thousand of firms in over 100 countries have taken the 1 per cent pledge, with signatories ranging from Aussie Broadband to Zylo. Such targets reflect the optimistic view that philanthropy is an essential part of living well.

For donors, people like Feeney, Gates, Buffett and Ramsay epitomise the principle that generous giving and good living are inseparable. As social justice campaigner Henry Spira observed in his final years, ‘One wants to feel that one’s life has amounted to more than just consuming products and generating garbage. I think that one likes to look back and say that one’s done the best one can to make this a better place for others.’ For community builders, philanthropy is often the means of turning altruistic visions into reality. If you’re in the donor hunting game, we recommend the three Es of philanthropy: enthusiasm, ease and evidence. Tell an enthusiastic story to potential givers about how your work can make a positive difference. Create pathways that make it easy for people to give, such as rounding up for charity, six-second sign-up for workplace giving, or a simple way to donate a pre-loved laptop. And develop an evidence base – ideally through randomised evaluations – to prove to effective altruists that what you’re doing is truly transformative.

This an edited extract from Reconnected: A Community Builder's Handbook by Andrew Leigh and Nick Terrell. Published by La Trobe University Press. Available here or wherever good books are sold. 

Andrew Leigh is Shadow Assistant Minister for Treasury and Charities.

Nov. 05, 2020

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