During a tour of the East Coast a while ago, I spent a couple of days at a United Nations summit that, as a Forbes headline called it, “Inspires Next Generation of Billionaires to Give Back.” The young people assembled must have had enough aggregate wealth, power and influence, to have U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon address us.
Overall, I noticed an interesting trend in the youthful group of influential change agents. They all wanted to change the world, and do it in the quickest way possible. In a mad race for impact, plain ol’ philanthropy was quickly falling out of favor. Instead it was all about venture philanthropy and impact investing. Rinse, lather, repeat. And scale. Do it at Twitter speed. Be hyper efficient. If it doesn’t scale, you’re not doing it right. It’s almost as if the culture of rush, ambition, and greed had crashed into the calm waters of selfless giving.
When I heard a 21-year-old talk about creating an incubator for “billion dollar solutions” and laying out his vision for “privatizing diplomacy,” I had to smile.
Personally speaking, I give because it transforms me. That transformation creates a stillness in my mind and allows me to see more clearly. That clarity is the foundation for the decisions I take in my life and the systems I create for the world. And it all starts with a small act of generosity.
If we lose connection to that small and subtle, the “impact” is purely external. Surely that plays an important role in the world, but we can’t lose our sensitivity to the value of our inner experience. In New York, a few volunteers from nonprofit CharityFocus had organized a Wednesday gathering with about 30 folks. At the event, one person was in tears; another later said, “That was the most love-filled room I’ve seen in New York!” In just the elevator ride down 13 flights, people spontaneously started tagging each other with small gifts. That kind of value can’t be measured in numbers, but that doesn’t imply we don’t need systems to hold that value.
In my talk, I framed the work of CharityFocus across three domains—personal, organizational, and systemic. First, we honor the inner transformation that is a result of selfless service. That state of personal well-being is extensively documented across repeated research. Second, we incubate projects whose value can’t easily be monetized or counted. Kindness shouldn’t just be relegated to “corporate social responsibility” for Starbucks; good news shouldn’t just appear in a small column on Page C12 of the New York Times. If we, as a culture, don’t have platforms to amplify this kind of value, it’s going to get lost. Third, we create micro gift-economies where participants reframe transactions as gifts. All of us donate blood on a gift basis, but can we run a restaurant like that in Chicago or an art magazine in Oakland or a rickshaw in India? It doesn’t grow the GDP at all but it surely enhances a community’s social cohesion and trust, and creates a new dimension of value creation.
At its core, such kind of subtle activism requires a radical shift in one’s time-frame. The impact of such projects is multi-generational. Some progressive venture capitalists now speak about “patient capital,” but insiders will tell you that this “patience” is a far cry from the seventh generation guiding principle of Native Americans. These ideas most definitely have their place, but in a world where billion-dollar ideas like YouTube and FaceBook didn’t even exist a decade ago, how do we get centered in the long-term? When Japan faced the tsunami earlier this year, it was the only country to not have any looting or crime. It was remarkable. Yet, it wasn’t the work of a corporation, or an NGO, or a government—it was the work of a culture, whose anonymous ancestors planted those seeds generations ago.
Buildings will come and go, projects will come and go, people will come and go, movements will come and go but it is the underlying values that will make an impact for a long time to come.
What the world needs most are the seed planters of that kind of culture. Those are the value-based philanthropists of our time. Not just those with money, but even folks like me, who would be classified by the IRS as “poor.”
On my ride to the airport, my cab driver was a Pakistani man named Habib. Queens Tunnel was jammed so we took an alternate route, all of which made for a good excuse to connect. I learned all about the life of a cabbie. After 13 years of riding cabs, Habib had seen it all. “The worst is when kids come in and just run out of the cab without paying,” he tells me at one point. “Really? Does that happen a lot?” “Oh yeah, every day. It just leaves me in a bad mood, you know?” “Can’t you do anything about it?” “It takes too much time to report it, so we have to just move on to the next customer. But it really leaves a sour taste in your mouth, for the rest of the day, you know?” I knew. As I was leaving, I paid and left a nice tip. Just then, I found a little stuffed smile button in my pocket, so I leaned across the window separating us and told him, “Habib, I want to give you something small. It is a smiley-button made by women in the slums of India.” With a silent prayer, I hand it to him. “Whenever someone leaves your cab without paying, just look at this and remind yourself that good will prevail in the world.” He smiled genuinely. As I was rolling out my bags towards the airport screen doors, something told me to turn around. Sure enough, I saw him looking straight at me, waving his hand in a very cute, fatherly way.
It’s doubtful that the impact investors of today can find replicable, scalable, measurable value in that encounter with Habib. But I sure hope that our next-generation philanthropists do.
Nipun Mehta is the founder of CharityFocus.org that incubates gift-economy projects globally. Visit MovedByLove.org for their projects in India.