Getting Comfortable with Caring

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on January 22nd, 2010 in Articles, Thoughts & Commentary

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How do I say write this without sounding like an old fuddy duddy?  With great difficulty and a low likelihood of success!

I think it is absolutely marvelous that the Red Cross has collected over $100 million from around the globe for the victims of the Haitian earthquake, predominantly through the texting of pledges.  (Well, actually, I think it is marvelous that $100 million has been raised; I am a little dubious about the Red Cross receiving all of that money as their recent track record of using money collected for major disasters has not had the greatest integrity.

But I hope all of the changes they have made since Katrina have corrected all of that.)  But as Americans—I won’t speak for the rest of the world—we generally respond well to disasters.  And when we make responding to disasters easy—such as texting a donation on our phone, giving money at the cash register, etc.—we do even better.

Texting donations is great, as is dropping money in a bucket that is placed directly in front of us.  And responding to heart-wrenching photos of massive destruction and children bloodied and crying in the streets is a no-brainer.  But what about responding to the daily needs—food, clothing, shelter, education, health care–of people struggling to make it through the day without natural or man-made disasters?  What about responding to the need to preserve our open space, natural resources and cultural richness so that there are places to find solace from the storms all around us?  How are we going to ensure the on-going support our communities need to remain healthy, vibrant and humane?

Texting alone will not do it.  We must teach the value and importance of philanthropy And we must value it wherever and however it is found.  Peter Singer, in The Life You Can Save, makes the statement that Americans have norms against being “too charitable” and that we believe “that caring is in some ways deviant, the exception rather than the rule.” Is that really true?  Does, as he says, “selfless behavior makes us uncomfortable?”

Then let us hope that we get used to a lot of discomfort.  More and more elementary and secondary schools are building into their curricula the teaching of philanthropy.  Service-learning is well entrenched in institutions of higher learning; so now let’s add the teaching of philanthropy.  Civically-minded corporations encourage their employees to volunteer and may even match donations made to charities; some take it a step further and require that their future leaders serve on boards of nonprofits.  And some even take it a gigantic step yet further.  The former Bear Sterns (which would not win my praise in many other areas of performance) required more than a 1,000 of its senior managing directors to give 4% of their salary—and bonus—to charity.  And tax returns had to be produced to prove the giving!  Goldman Sachs recently announced, juxtaposed to the pending payment of large annual bonuses, that it is considering a mandatory charitable giving problem a la Bear Sterns model.

If that were to happen, and Goldman Sachs’ program hovered around the same mandatory 4%, estimates are that this program could produce hundreds of millions of dollars for charities.  (This giving program shouldn’t challenge our comfort level, however, as there is a clear suggestion that this program is being created to try and win public favor.)  Though not a fan of coerced behavior, there is enough literature out there to suggest that coerced behavior can lead, eventually, to similar volunteered behavior, so I’ll take it.

What is at stake here is the future quality of all of our lives.  We cannot rely on catastrophes or ease of giving to lead people to philanthropy.  There simply are too many needs and causes in our everyday lives that require on-going support.  We must engender in all an on-going sense of caring and appreciation for the power of philanthropy.  We need to get very uncomfortable.

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.