|Study the nature of compassion, and gain ideas and techniques for promoting compassionate behaviors in local settings for community benefit.|
This and other sections in the Tool Box chapter on Spirituality and Community Building (Chapter 28) have been written with the support and contributions of experts connected with the Charter for Compassion International. For more information about the Charter and its work, visit www.charterforcompassion.org.
An introduction to being charitable
A working definition of “being charitable”
The importance and benefits of being charitable
How being charitable is good for you
Being charitable and its community consequences
Some potential challenges to being charitable
How to become more charitable
An Introduction to Being Charitable
As noted in the Overview section, being charitable towards others is a spiritual asset—one that can contribute to community building. Some might even maintain that it is impossible to build a sense of belonging and community without some form of charitable practice.
An illustration is the South African view of community referred to as “Ubuntu,” which is usually translated as, “I am because of who we are.” Retired Archbishop and social rights activist Desmond Tutu believes that Ubuntu is the very essence of what it is to be human:
“You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality—Ubuntu—you are known for your generosity. We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole World. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.” [https://www.tutufoundationuk.org/ubuntu-youth-project]
This value, or way of life—Ubuntu—suggests a way of thinking, seeing, and acting in the world that we will explore in this section.
Tutu refers to being charitable as being someone with “generosity.” Whether you call it charity or generosity, each word translates to giving of one’s self for another, for the greater good of the community. This can be the giving of one’s time or finances, or something as simple as offering nonjudgmental and kind words.
Through charity or generosity of self, we create a deeper sense of community with each other. We begin to see ourselves as one—one community—connected with each other through Ubuntu. We begin to understand, and to acknowledge, that we are interdependent in a respectful and supportive way.
As human beings, as a social clan, we have a need to live within supportive environments where we are nurtured and can thrive together, where there is a strong commitment to the well-being of the community as a whole. We are fundamentally designed to live this way. Being charitable towards one another is not just “a nice thing to do”; it is an imperative for our survival as humans, and for our well-being as a local and global community.
A WORKING DEFINITION OF “BEING CHARITABLE”
Based on your individual experiences, you may have your own meaning for the word charity, or charitable behavior. The definition that we shall use for this section of the Community Tool Box is that charitable behavior creates feeling, which leads one to act voluntarily with kindness or goodwill towards another.
There are a number of synonyms or similar words to describe charity or charitable behavior that may be more comfortable for you; perhaps they resonate more with your values and beliefs. Here are a few based on Merriam-Webster dictionary definitions:
- Altruism: “unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of other’s feelings and behavior that show a desire to help other people and a lack of selfishness”
- Benevolence: “disposition to do good: (a): an act of kindness, (b): a generous gift”
- Compassion: “a feeling of wanting to help someone who is sick, hungry, in trouble, etc.; sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it”
- Generosity: “the quality of being kind, understanding, and not selfish: the quality of being generous; especially: willingness to give money and other valuable things to others”
That said, what words or phrases you use to define charity are not as important as taking some form of action to support those who are in need.
In your community, one person may volunteer six hours a month of his time to a homeless shelter, serving meals cheerfully and making everyone smile. Another person may donate money to the same shelter, yet never enter its doors. Another may offer her knowledge and skills by teaching a class on literacy once a month to the shelter’s clientele. All of these are examples of charity and of charitable behavior.
There are many ways one can be charitable to others. There is no one right way, only your way—the way that feels right for you.
Four Aspects of Charity
More specifically, some ways to be charitable include:
Time: Giving of one’s time, however long or short that may be. Giving time is not so much about quantity, as it is about quality—about being present with another to support them in a “hands on” way. This might mean serving meals in that shelter, helping out during disaster relief, volunteering to drive seniors to appointments, baking dinner for a sick neighbor, or any number of activities that help you get to know those you are serving.
Essence: Giving of one’s personal energy and vitality. You may have some personal qualities in abundance and want to share them with others – enthusiasm, hope, grace, gratitude, patience, love – or you may want to increase these qualities in your own life. Each of these qualities brings energy to the space you share with someone when you are truly present with them. Examples: Hearing an exhausted young mother laugh; listening patiently while a man struggles to share his story of being out of work; offering encouragement to someone who feels disheartened. Your own energy and vitality shifts to being more positive and optimistic when you share your authentic self with another.
Talent: Giving of one’s skills and knowledge, such as teaching, gardening, cooking, knitting, or singing; or sharing wisdom from life experience. Everyone has gifts and talents that they are passionate about. These talents come easily and give you joy when you have a chance to express and share them.
Money: Giving of one’s financial resources to provide aid, food, shelter, or clothing; or making a donation to a local or global cause. The sum of money given is not as important as the spirit of the gift. You could start off by giving what you can afford, knowing that even spare change is helpful, and then increase the amount when you are ready, willing, and able to do so.
You may want to take time to think about these four aspects of being charitable and evaluate which ones have most meaning for you and where to begin. You may also want to reflect on these questions:
- Do you have time, but limited funds to give; or do you have money, but limited time? What can do you for others with your time or money?
- Is taking a more personal approach, one where you would work side by side with others, more appealing to you; or do you prefer a more hands-off approach—where you give openhandedly, but don’t need or want to meet the recipients of your generosity?
There is no right or wrong answer—your answer is your personal choice. Once you determine what is most important to you, then you may want to begin by writing down some thoughts and ideas that come to mind on how you want to express your unique way of giving. Include names of people or organizations you may wish to support. Being charitable doesn’t need to be complicated; a simple gesture can be meaningful to the receiver. Now you may be more ready to share yourself with others.
THE IMPORTANCE AND BENEFITS OF BEING CHARITABLE
Being Charitable Enriches the Giver and the Receiver
There are rewards to being charitable, both for the giver and the receiver. Not only are you being helpful to those in need, you are developing positive character traits and behaviors in yourself. Charitable work allows you to see life from someone else’s perspective—their struggles and hardships, their triumphs and strengths. It is a privilege to be a witness to another’s life. And in being one, you gain appreciation and gratitude for your own life.
Martha is a manager whose young husband developed an aggressive, terminal cancer. She had her hands and heart full nursing him at home and caring for their two small children. Her co-workers organized themselves, and together they provided dinner every day, not for a month, but every day for six months. Martha’s co-workers were witness to her hardship and struggle, and they responded. They appreciated a need greater than their own. They were inspired to draw on the positive character traits and qualities that live within us all—caring, generosity, selflessness.
Martha’s story showcases how the act of charity in a workplace makes it a community. Because of her co-workers, Martha was able to concentrate on what was important during those precious few months before her husband’s passing.
Many nonprofit community organizations devote themselves to helping those who are suffering from hardship. They seek compassionate volunteers; they offer them the privilege of witnessing someone else’s life by lending a helping hand. By sharing what gifts they have to offer, volunteers receive a gift—they discover and nurture the best within themselves.
On its website, the U.S.-based nonprofit Share the Care states, “Whether you are a burned out caregiver or a novice caregiver, or a friend who wants to help, you can benefit from a system that lets everyone share responsibilities, creates a strong support network among the individual caregivers, and leads to making a profound difference in someone’s life.”
Similar to other website resources like CaringBridge and Lotsa Helping Hands, Share the Care’s mission is connecting caring citizens with citizens going through difficult times in their lives. They are creating small temporary communities of giving within the larger community.
When you give yourself the privilege of being a kind presence in someone else’s life, you will make a difference in theirs and learn a quiet appreciation and gratitude for your own.
Charitable Behavior and the Golden Rule
We all wish to be treated with respect and dignity, and to feel valued and listened to. In the spirit of charity, we would strive to do the same for others. One way to look at this principle is through the lens of reciprocity, known to many as the “Golden Rule,” which states, “Do to others as you wish done to you.” Here is an ethical code that instructs us to treat others the way we would want to be treated.
Although different cultures and faith traditions might have different words and language, all human cultures have a version of the Golden Rule. It advises us to treat our neighbors, families, and colleagues as we would wish to be treated, and shows how we can all apply empathy, understanding, and right action as our moral guideposts.
Depending upon your age or upbringing, you might remember the Golden Rule (or something similar) being introduced into your school, as part of your family values, or as a faith-based principle. It is a universal ethic, with the power to cut across gender, culture, age, beliefs, and social-economic status.
Wisdom traditions, such as the Golden Rule, date far back in our collective history and are expressed in a multitude of societies – both as lay philosophies, and as the vital cornerstone of the vast majority of faith traditions.
The text box below showcases how the Golden Rule is expressed in different faiths. You may also enjoy listening to youth reading the many expressions of the Golden Rule on this video:
The Golden Rule in Different Faith Traditions
In alphabetical order, each reads:
- Baha’i Faith: “Lay not on any soul a load that you would not wish to be laid upon you, and desire not for anyone the things you would not desire for yourself.” Baha’u’llah Gleanings
- Buddhism: “Treat not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” The Buddha, Udana-Varga 5:18
- Christianity: “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” Jesus, Matthew 7:12
- Confucianism:” One word which sums up the basis of all good conduct ~ loving kindness. Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.” Confucius Analects 15:23
- Hinduism: “This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you.” Mahabharata 5:1517
- Islam: “Not one of you truly believes until you wish for others what you wish for yourself.” The Prophet Muhammad, Hadith
- Jainism: “One should treat all creatures in the world as one would like to be treated.” Mahavira, Sutrakritanga
- Judaism: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah; all the rest in commentary.” Hillel, Talmud; Shabbat 31a
- Native Spirituality: “We are as much alive as we keep the earth alive.” Chief Dan George
- Sikhism: “I am a stranger to no one; and no one is a stranger to me. Indeed, I am a friend to all.” Guru Granth Sahib, p. 1299
- Taoism: “Regard your neighbor’s gain as our own gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss.” Lao Tzu, T’ai Shang Kan Ying P’ien, 213-218
- Unitarianism: “We affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” Unitarian principle
- Zoroastrianism: “Do not do unto others whatever is injurious to yourself.” Shayast-na-Shayast 13.29
Applying the Golden Rule
The Golden Rule is reciprocal because of its “give and take” intention. Reciprocity is created when one positive action generates another positive action and the cycle continues—a charitable word inspires a charitable action, which inspires another and yet another. Imagine how business would be changed if this concept of reciprocity were applied. Or, consider how family dynamics would improve and conflicts could be resolved more readily. And then there are the communities that would come together in neighborhoods where currently the majority are strangers to one another.
In theory, of course, we all would support reciprocity and agree with the Golden Rule. However, it takes both discipline and dedication to make this a daily practice.
- It takes discipline to apply the Golden Rule to one’s life. If you did, would you have handled a particular situation differently?
- It takes discipline to apply the Golden Rule to social justice issues, education, business, or healthcare. If we did, would collaborating with stakeholders be different?
- If you embraced an expression of the Golden Rule, would you be able to act with more charity towards others? What would such action look and feel like to you?
The Golden Rule can be applied to almost any situation, whether it involves family, community, or profit and nonprofit organizations, no matter what their size. You may also want to look within your own community and contemplate how applying the concept of reciprocity may create a more sustainable approach to the environment.
The Golden Rule has the ability, when used as a value or belief, to gently pull you back to your true self, to who you are, how you want to be treated and how you want to treat others. If the philosophy of the Golden Rule resonates with you, then you may want to make some further explorations:
- In Toronto, Canada, the Scarboro Mission, a nonprofit organization, has dedicated its work to supporting interfaith dialogue. They apply the principle teaching of “do unto others” because it is a common message of hope woven into many cultures. The Scarboro Mission’s website has further useful non-denominational tools.
- The Golden Rule Project is another example of using the Golden Rule concept in schools; it provides excellent free resources to get you started.
- If you are interested in applying the Golden Rule in a variety of ways, you will find additional activities in the Tools section.
HOW BEING CHARITABLE IS GOOD FOR YOU
An abundance of research reveals that giving to others is just plain good for you. Research by the Greater Good Science Center in Berkeley, California, for instance, supports the beliefs that being generous with others makes us happy, is good for our health, promotes social connection, evokes gratitude, and is, surprisingly, contagious.
In addition, Dr. Stephen Post, Executive Director of the Unlimited Love Institute, a nonprofit organization, suggests that we are hardwired to be charitable. He says:
“There is a care-and-connection part of the brain. Brain studies show this profound state of joy and delight that comes from giving to others. It doesn't come from any dry action – where the act is out of duty in the narrowest sense, like writing a check for a good cause. It comes from working to cultivate a generous quality – from interacting with people. There is the smile, the tone in the voice, the touch on the shoulder. We're talking about altruistic love.”
You might begin your own research on the positive effects of being charitable to others by checking out the research done by these academic sources:
- Stanford University has established a world-renowned center aptly named the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE). Using a multidisciplinary approach, the Center’s objective is to conduct research on compassion and altruism.
- At the University of California, Berkeley, the Greater Good Science Center conducts research in compassion as well as the six additional topics of gratitude, mindfulness, forgiveness, happiness, empathy, and altruism. Using podcasts, articles, discussion forums, and events, the Center showcases its studies and many other outstanding bodies of research under one roof.
- New York’s Stony Brook University has founded the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care, and Bioethics. The Center works with over 40 universities to better understand and teach compassionate care and its positive side effects.
Positive Side Effects – “Helpers High”
Further research suggests that charitable behavior is the gift that keeps on giving back to the giver. “Helper’s High” is a common phrase that originated in the late 1980’s with Allan Luks, who at the time was the Executive Director of the global Big Brothers and Big Sisters organization. Luks was curious about the side effects of committing charitable acts and surveyed a sample of 3,000 adult volunteers. When the results came in, an astounding number of those surveyed – 95 percent – experienced positive sensations or feelings after volunteering their services.
Continuing his research in 2001, Luks and co-author Peggy Payne wrote a book called The Healing Power of Doing Good –The Health and Spiritual Benefits of Helping Others. The authors define Helper’s High as a “euphoric feeling, followed by a long period of calm, experienced after performing a kind act.” Their research also indicated that individuals who experience Helper’s High routinely reported that they experienced fewer colds, an increase in joy and self-esteem, less stress, and even less physical pain.
You have probably discovered after reading this section that it is pretty hard to find an excuse as to why being kind and charitable to others could possibly be bad for you. There is no downside to being of service to others, as it supports both you and the receiver.
BEING CHARITABLE AND ITS COMMUNITY CONSEQUENCES
Everyone has the opportunity to express themselves in a charitable way – from giving smiles, volunteering services, or donating money. All are impactful and generous acts in their own way and necessary in our complex world. With so many charitable ways to give, Charity Navigator aims to help givers make informed decisions about spending their time or money. Charity Navigator distinguishes charitable classifications, conducts evaluations, gives ratings, and then pulls all this information together to report on charities that have a regional and global impact.
Another organization, the World Giving Index run by Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) in the United Kingdom, has a mission “to motivate society to give ever more effectively, helping to transform lives and communities around the world.” Each year this Foundation studies 135 countries and ranks them based on the charitable behaviors and actions of their citizens performed in the last 30 days, specifically (1) donations of money, (2) volunteering of time, and (3) helping a stranger.
- If someone asked you these three questions about your charitable actions in the last 30 days, how would answer them?
- How would your business, nonprofit, or congregation answer as a group?
Current trends seem to be positive. Quoting directly from the Key Findings and Conclusions of the World Giving Index 2015 Report:
“This year’s index shows welcome increases in the numbers of people giving their money, volunteering their time and helping strangers...the index shows high levels of generosity in countries facing turmoil – reflecting a pattern of giving in post-conflict nations as people help others through the most difficult of times. And it shows people’s innate desire to help others, even in nations which do not have anything like the standard of living enjoyed in the West.”
Of the 135 countries, first place in the World Giving Index is shared by Myanmar and the United States.
Giving and Happiness
In addition, the World Giving Index survey also showed that happiness had more influence than wealth on how much money was given away. This finding connects well with other research, which shows us that the happier you are, the more optimistic you are about yourself, your actions, and those around you. In 2007, a study at Syracuse University noted that people with giving dispositions were 42 percent more likely than non-givers to declare they were “very happy” and 25 percent more likely to report they were “in excellent health.”
Happiness, it seems, instills us with a desire to make the world a better place. The inspiration to contribute to a deeper sense of belonging and community grows within.
- What do happiness and generosity look and feel like to you?
- Have you noticed that the happier you are, the more generous you are?
Focusing on Collective Happiness
There are communities that subscribe to cultivating collective happiness as a standard for living. The country of Bhutan has become known worldwide for the creation of the Gross National Happiness Index (GNH). The GNH index uses nine domains (psychological well-being, time use, community vitality, cultural diversity, ecological resilience, living standards, health, education, and good governance) to provide a breakdown of happiness that is in alignment with Bhutanese culture.
The GNH Index sees the pursuit of happiness as a community or collective happiness, although it is also experienced individually. Jigme Thinley, the first elected Prime Minister of Bhutan, spoke about the concept of happiness and community:
“We have now clearly distinguished the ‘happiness’ … in GNH from the fleeting, pleasurable ‘feel good’ moods so often associated with that term. We know that true abiding happiness cannot exist while others suffer, and comes only from serving others, living in harmony with nature, and realizing our innate wisdom and the true and brilliant nature of our own minds.”
SOME POTENTIAL CHALLENGES TO BEING CHARITABLE
Extending Charity Beyond the Home
One of the challenges of being charitable to others is where to begin. “Charity begins at home” is an ethic many have grown up with. For certain, we have a responsibility to care for our loved ones by taking care of family and relatives. However, in order for communities to flourish, we must strive to widen our circle to include others.
Karen Armstrong, author of Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, writes, "We are all intimately connected globally. Charity begins at home but can't end there. We must have concern for everyone.”
You may want to think about ways to explore this concept of charity by extending your goodwill to those you don't know in your immediate vicinity. Some examples:
- Offer to watch the home of next-door neighbors while they are away.
- Shovel snow for an elderly couple.
- Volunteer your talents to mentor youth at a community center.
- Support local environmental groups by picking up litter in parks or planting trees.
It is important to look around your neighborhood—is there anywhere you can see an immediate need?
The Latin word for charity is “caritas,” meaning “unconditional love.” Loving your neighbor as yourself and giving generously in some way to those in need are expressions of a compassionate person; they are core beliefs woven into religious and secular traditions around the world.
Seeking Charitable Models
There are many ways to give, based on traditions, personal beliefs, and values. Many people wonder if how or what they gives matters.
We know we can measure the amount of money people donate. Yet, it seems that something else truly powerful plays a deeper role in giving. Monetary data may be helpful, educational, and enlightening, but do they capture the full essence of charitable action? Perhaps not, for in addition to giving money, people generally want to make a difference in the lives of others.
Consider the following example: Giving Tuesday, the global day of charity, was launched in 2012. Individuals, businesses, and nonprofits have jumped on board to belong to something bigger than themselves. In a few short years, Giving Tuesday has grown to include 68 countries. Its official website reads, “We have a day for giving thanks. We have two for getting deals (Black Friday and Cyber Monday). Now, we have #GivingTuesday, a global day dedicated to giving back.”
The first Tuesday in December is a designated day during which “charities, families, businesses, community centers, and students around the world will come together for one common purpose: to celebrate generosity and to give. It’s a simple idea. Just find a way for your family, your community, your company, or your organization to come together to give something more. Then tell everyone you can about how you are giving. Join us and be a part of a global celebration of a new tradition of generosity.”
Giving Tuesday asks people to do one charitable act on that day as a run-up to Christmas Day. If you don’t celebrate Christmas, there are many other holidays that Giving Tuesday can be attached to. The organizers of this online movement want to “spread the word that Giving Tuesday is a movement for everyone who wants to give something back.” This giving back can take multiple forms: volunteering one’s time, making a financial donation to your favorite charity, or giving a helping hand to a neighbor locally or globally.
You may also want to learn more about the Compassion Games, designed to create a fun community-driven initiative around committing acts of kindness in the spirit of “coopetition” instead of competition.
The Crossroads of Charity: Fix, Help, or Serve
In recent years the question "how can I help?" has become more meaningful to many people as they expand their awareness from “charity begins at home” to their community at large. As this shift takes place in your life, perhaps there is a deeper question you might consider. Perhaps the real question is not "how can I help?" but, rather, “how can I be of service?"
There are clearly times when you can fix a situation for some people. For example, you might donate some of your family’s food or clothing to people affected by a local disaster. There are other times when you can help another person out of a tough situation – so you might help a senior to run errands after an operation; or, as the owner of a local sandwich shop, you might sell sandwich tokens to your customers to give to the poor or homeless in your area. There are also times and places where you might serve by giving of your skills or expertise to a community organization – for instance, by coaching a football team of at-risk youth, or by being on the board of a local co-operative.
All of these – fixing, helping, and serving – are good and necessary in different places and times. At a deeper level, fixing, helping, and serving are also related to how we see the intended recipient of our charity; and therein lies the opportunity for self-reflection by all of us who give to and for other people.
As the giver of charity, you may want to spend some time discerning how you approach fixing, helping, and serving. Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen (www.rachelremen.com), a Clinical Professor of Family and Community Medicine at the UCSF School of Medicine, notes an important distinction among the three. The key is that we are all equal human beings. Charity should bring us together, not drive us farther apart.
Here are some thoughts of Dr. Remen’s, adapted for this section, for you to consider further:
Fixing: When we choose to “fix” something we need to keep in mind that many things do require fixing; however, people are not gadgets or things. When we choose to “fix” someone, we run the risk of treating them as being broken, or judging them for not being perfect, somehow incomplete. There is a time and place where fixing a situation is imperative. Be careful of your intentions, however, if you give your time, talents, or treasure because you believe that the recipients need to be “fixed.” While fixing might alleviate someone’s pain in the short term, in the long term it may hurt and demean the recipient.
Helping: When we choose to “help,” we need to be careful not to create a relationship founded on seeing one another as unequal, thus creating an imbalance of power. If I see you as needing my “help,” I may perceive you as weaker than I am. Dr. Remen reminds us that “People feel this inequality. When we help we may inadvertently take away from people more than we could ever give them; we may diminish their self-esteem, their sense of worth, integrity, and wholeness.”
Helping in the moment may well be lifesaving; however, over the long term, seeing the recipient as needing your help may cause anger, resentment, and damage to the relationship. It is important to keep the self-respect of the recipient of our charitable act intact when we choose to fix or help in the short term.
Serving: On the other hand, when we make a decision to “serve” others, we are recognizing that we have all had difficult lives in different ways. Each of us has limitations and triumphs. In serving, we choose to see ourselves and others as whole. We use our life experiences to serve others, and when we serve from the whole of who we are, we strengthen and grow. We know we are not defined by our circumstances—we are all equals to one another. We are connected. And Dr. Remen says, "We can only serve that to which we are profoundly connected.”
Serving happens when I am more engaged with the recipient and know more about who they are. Serving, for example, might be exemplified by a banker who offers free budgeting advice to single mothers so they can better manage their money. The banker knows that she or he will have to spend some time with the single mothers to give them the best advice for their financial needs.
On the surface then, fixing, helping, or serving all have their place. We are more effective in our charity, though, when we are being present for another. When we treat each other as equals, we imbue ourselves with purpose and offer belonging and hope to others. And when we let someone know, “You are important and I am here for you,” charity can then become magical.
- In being charitable to others, have you noticed whether you tend to perceive people differently when you are “fixing,” “helping,” or “serving”?
- Upon reflection, how does Dr. Remen’s model resonate with how you see or are present with others?
- Is there anything you would want to do differently to meet the sustainable needs of your clients or community? If so, what might that be, and how would you >express it?
Fixing, helping, and serving are all acts of being charitable in different ways. What is most important is to offer up compassion, a non-judgmental place of accepting people exactly where they are in life, not where you think they could or should be. Being charitable can be difficult, because we may not be certain of what to do or say when a fellow human being is afflicted with any form of pain or discomfort. The key is to listen—and to know that your presence alone will speak volumes for you.
HOW TO BECOME MORE CHARITABLE
Choosing the Best Way to Give
Mother Teresa offered up enough charity for many lifetimes with her humanitarian efforts. She offered this advice about giving from abundance versus acting with abundance. She said: “Do not give from your abundance. I don’t want your money. Let us not be satisfied with just giving money. Money is not enough, money can be got, but they [those in need] need your hearts to love them."
She went on to encourage people to make physical efforts to help the impoverished and to spend time with them, rather than simply writing a check. Mother Teresa’s reflections on giving are thought-provoking when considering whether you want to make a financial donation, give your time, or a combination of both. We have discussed how meaningful and personal interaction and reciprocity are in community building. Charity may be like trying on different coats until you find the right fit for you and the recipient of your kindness.
Perhaps you’ve heard of the old adage that if you give a person a fish, they will eat for a day, but if you teach them to fish, they will eat for a lifetime. Yet, there are many for whom a donation can be a “hand-up” rather than merely a “hand-out.” When considering the many varied ways to be charitable, you may want to assess each situation on its own merits, making a conscious choice of whether the situation warrants giving a person a “hand-out,” such as a shelter bed for the night, or a more sustainable long-term “hand-up,” such as creating affordable housing.
The Global Soap Project. This simple idea grew to be a global project. The Global Soap Project was started by Derreck Kayongo, who saw a need for better hygiene in refugee camps he visited. Kayongo asked hotels to donate the discarded soap from hotel rooms; then he recreated it into new bars of soap.
The list of ways to give is endless—from your local village to your global community. If you wish to express yourself charitably through sharing financially, here are a few ideas to get you started:
- A starting choice point is whether you choose to give to a particular cause you care about, or to a multi-purpose charity. Especially if it’s a single cause, you might wish to research the performance of that charity on sites such as Charity Navigator. If you prefer a multi-purpose charity, the United Way is one of many that are well known; its mission is to “improve lives and build community by engaging individuals and mobilizing collective action.”
- Another form of charitable giving involves “micro lending” (for example, Kiva, Global Giving, or FINCA, where start-up small enterprises in various parts of the world are funded directly with the understanding they must pay back the loan. You can sometimes decide to whom you want to loan your money.
- There is also much talk and action about moving away from this “middle man” version to a more direct method from the giver to the receiver, which involves a more human touch and lasting approach. For example, Mobile Movement is an app that connects entrepreneurs in the so-called developing world with entrepreneurs in the so-called developed world in real time, using smartphones for investment, advice, collaboration, and co-learning.
- In addition, you can consider crowdfunding as a means to fund a project or venture by raising money for your cause from large groups of people using the internet. Three examples of well-established crowdfunding sites are Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and Gofundme.
Using the Four-Step RISE Framework
Some people have more time, some have more money; therefore, a variety of ways and means to act charitably is important, based on what works for you.
Investment specialist Warren Buffett, together with Rebecca Riccio, Director of the Social Impact Lab at Northeastern University, has created a free online program called Giving with Purpose to help people decide. Riccio created a method using the acronym RISE, which is a powerful framework for supporting community building. In her RISE practice, there are four questions to be considered when wanting to “give with a purpose” and help people make clearer decisions on where to invest their energy or dollars:
- Relevance: Is the work meaningfully connected to the community, the stakeholders it serves, and the need it addresses?
- Impact: Is the work making a difference?
- Sustainability: Is the organization financially viable?
- Excellence in Management Operations: Is the organization built to get the job done?
Consider the organizations, regardless of size, to which you have previously been charitable.
- Have they met these RISE criteria?
- Are these criteria important to you? Why or why not?
- Are some criteria more important than others?
- Are there other criteria you would suggest?
As you learn more about being charitable to others, you may want to think about bringing a group of people together who want to begin a conversation, and to deepen the dialogue on what you value about charity work, what you have learned thus far, and potential next steps.
Adapting and Changing Your Charitable Strategy
Being charitable to others may be as brief as a one-time interaction with someone, such as giving up your seat on the bus to an elderly gentleman; or it may be a long-term project that takes months or even years to reach fruition. Depending on the circumstances, you may want to use different methods for different situations.
An example of someone who adapted her strategy is Veronika Scott. Ms. Scott is a young entrepreneur who was given a challenge in her college design class to create a product that would “meet a need in the physical world.” Veronika was assigned a homeless shelter to volunteer at and observe what the patrons needed, so she could gather ideas for her school project.
After spending time talking with patrons, Veronika decided she wanted to help those who would be sleeping on the street in the cold winter months. She designed a coat – but not just any ordinary daytime coat. This was a coat that would convert into a warm, comfortable sleeping bag for nighttime use.
One day while Veronika was handing out convertible coats, a homeless woman said to her, “We don’t need your free coats.” After reflection, Veronika realized the woman was trying to tell her that she didn’t need a handout (remember the word “help”) as much as a hand-up (remember the word “service”) in finding work.
As a result, Veronika moved from “helping” and “fixing” to “serving.” She founded The Empowerment Plan, a nonprofit organization empowering women to get back on their feet by employing them to make the very coats many of them wore. The women were now able to earn an income and also to contribute to meaningful work to support others.
Veronika’s coats have been received by hundreds with gratitude and certainly have made a difference in their lives.
Engaging in Socially Responsible Buying: The Charitable Consumer
Another way to increase our charitable consciousness and actions is to become more aware and thoughtful about what we purchase. In a global economy, what and how we choose to buy affects not only us as consumers, but, more importantly, affects the sellers.
- When you purchase merchandise, are you mindful of how the makers of the merchandise and the planet are treated?
- Do you have ethical criteria to guide what you purchase? Do you know how the product was grown or made, or if wages and trade were fair and principled?
- Are the products or services you purchase in alignment with your values? And do these products, services, and values have a positive impact on individuals and communities locally and globally?
- Is there room to express the Golden Rule in your buying habits?
A general term for socially responsible buying is “Fair Trade”—where purchases are justly traded to benefit all (producers, traders, consumers, and workers) fairly. In making a fair trade, we are making a connection between the product and its maker. We are remembering we are purchasing something made by a member of our larger community. We are contributing to everyone’s health and economic sustainability through buying responsibly.
Many of the products we purchase are from developing countries where the farmers, artisans, and factory workers are living and working in impoverished conditions. Where coffee and bananas are grown, there are Fair Trade associations supporting everything from improved education and environmental preservation to health care and community infrastructures. Coffee and bananas are just two examples of products where socially responsible buying can have an impact.
Other ways to blend socially conscious buying with charity are to buy products that give back usable dollars to worthy causes, or to invest in ethical funds that support companies practicing a “Triple Bottom Line” approach of helping people, profits, and the planet.
The late American author and founder of The Human Kindness Foundation, Bo Lozoff, wrote:
“In the midst of global crises such as pollution, wars and famine, kindness may too easily be dismissed as a soft issue or a luxury to be addressed after more urgent problems are solved. But kindness is in the greatest of need in all those areas, kindness toward the environment, toward other nations, and toward the needs of people suffering. Simple kindness may be the most vital key to the riddle of how human beings can live with each other and care properly for this planet we all share.”
We share this planet, and kindness and charitable acts are about taking a holistic approach to how we treat our global community. Being mindful of our purchases is an easy and less time-consuming way of practicing kindness and charity. We know intuitively this may have a limited return emotionally for the giver, yet it still has an impact and makes a difference—one cup of coffee or one investment at a time.
Teaching Children to Be Generous
Being generous is a part of being charitable—“she was generous with her time to help others.” But being charitable is bigger than simply being generous. It is an ethic, a way of being in the world—a way of being that takes one outside of the self, and towards other people. This ethic can be taught to children.
Generosity, as one kind of charitable behavior, is a simple concept for children to understand. Teaching children to be kind and generous in their words and actions towards others is vital for their learning how to thrive in the communities they will live in as they mature.
Michael practiced being generous to others when he turned eight years old. What young boy doesn’t want a birthday party and a room full of presents and fun? But Michael believed in the power of sharing with others less fortunate than himself. He felt he had enough toys; so he asked all his party friends to bring a gift for kids who couldn’t afford birthday parties. Then he donated all of his presents to a local children’s charity.
A Charitable 10 Year Old: Another great example of children’s generosity is Xavier Elliot. From his own experience of poverty, he started to use his allowance to buy fabric to make clothes for homeless kids. Xavier found a way to use his own personal background to give back.
Is there anything from your own early (or more recent) experience to support you to be more charitable? Does your own experience influence what direction or way you would want to be more charitable to others?
You may want to consider different ways to inspire generosity in your children or children you work with:
- Teach children random acts of kindness, by giving their time and actions without expecting any reward in return.
- Take on a family or group project, such as raking leaves or shoveling snow for an elderly neighbor, or learning to be kind to pets at a local animal shelter.
- Look up charitable organizations online and discuss what they are doing.
- Consider raising money for a specific charity, or encourage children to contribute a portion of their allowance.
- Talk about generosity and kindness at the dinner table, at school, or playtime.
- Allow children to pick their favorite food when grocery shopping and donate it to the food bank.
- Encourage reading books about kind and compassionate heroes.
- Have children donate their unused toys and clothing.
- Model positive and generous behaviors; then praise those behaviors in children when you observe them.
In addition, you may consider finding your own ways to celebrate national holidays in your own country that relate to the topic of charity. This is an excellent place to begin, by using those special occasions as teaching tools for positive behaviors and values. Three examples include:
- Martin Luther King Day, in the United States
- Gandhi Jayanti, to celebrate Mahatma Gandhi’s legacy in India
- Nelson Mandela National Day, in South Africa
One can draw from a large list, both locally and globally.
To educate children further on this topic, the global website of the Charter for Compassion is full of excellent global initiatives and resources for children and adults to learn more about compassion to others.
Setting a Giving Intention
One additional way to become more charitable, and to put these types of ideas into action, is setting a giving intention or purpose in your own life.
You might begin with an action closer to home—perhaps helping out a neighbor or writing a thank-you note to someone who has made a difference in your life. Express to them how important they are, how much you appreciate them, and for what reasons. Some other suggestions:
- Make a commitment. Kindness is contagious. Pledge to become a positive role model in your community, at work, in your personal life, or globally.
- Apply any of the Four Aspects of Charity (time, essence, talent, and money). Apply one that fits your personality or one that means the most to you. Try out all four methods to discover which one is most comfortable. Consider tackling one that makes you stretch as well.
- Expand your thoughts and actions outwards. Make a sincere effort to reflect the behaviors of a kind and giving person, such as assisting a friend or colleague who feels overwhelmed. Ask what you could do to be of service to them.
- Combine your methods of giving. Once the choice has been made to give, try mixing your methods so you are being generous both with your financial donation and your spirit, by giving of yourself in a “hands-on” way—roll up your sleeves and become more personally involved.
- Look around your community. Working alongside others in your community creates a deeper sense of belonging. Begin with researching charitable causes or people you are passionate about serving. Your choice should be one that you know you can connect with either on a short- or long-term basis. Volunteer your talents and skills to make a difference to this individual or group.
- Don’t judge what you can do—just do something. Start giving in small ways. A few dollars or a can of food goes a long way when added together with a collection of other donations. Communities thrive because of many small acts of kindness that make up a greater whole.
- Create positive giving habits. Random acts of charity and kindness are great; making them a conscious habit and a way of life is even better. Make it a practice to do something good for someone, or something, a minimum of two or three times a week.
- Invite in uncomfortable situations. You may not also know what to do or say, and that is okay. Remember that your actions will speak louder than words. Aim to reach out to those who make you feel uneasy, or perhaps that you may have some judgments about. By talking with a homeless person as an example, you will begin to break down barriers that cause separation and start to connect as human beings.
Throughout this section, we have discussed various ways to be more giving and generous with our time and resources. We’ve noted the benefits to the giver and the phenomenon of “Helpers High” from our kind acts. And we’ve learned that being charitable to others is an intentional choice we make to contribute to the world around us in a more meaningful way. Having surveyed these topics, what general conclusions might we draw?
One basic conclusion is that charitable giving varies; it draws upon our own individuality. His Holiness the Dalai Lama says that “each of us has been granted a precious life and each day upon awakening our first thought should be that we are fortunate to have woken up this day and that we are very much alive. I am not going to waste it.” He further instructs us to tell ourselves. “I am going to use all of my energies to develop myself and to expand my heart out to others. I am going to benefit others as much as I can.” This can be done in many individual ways.
The Dalai Lama’s words may appear to set a lofty standard, and yet we cannot shift the current state of our world, locally or globally, unless we choose to make a positive contribution. Everyone has a desire for a deeper sense of connection with others.
We may also heed the words of Mother Teresa, who told an audience at the United Nations that there are many people throughout the world who are “unwanted, unloved, uncared for, and forgotten by everybody…I think that is a much greater hunger, a much greater poverty than the person who has nothing to eat.” Mother Teresa’s comments apply across all cultures around the world, where many are starved from social isolation and loneliness. There is a great need for nourishment of the soul through connection and community as well as food for the physical body.
Every day, in our homes, communities, and workplaces, there is someone who requires the warmth of care, someone to unconditionally accept or forgive, or another who may require a little more patience from us in that moment. Certainly, there is no shortage of settings in which to deliver a charitable act or to hold a compassionate space for others.
What contribution will you make in being charitable to others in the next 48 hours? How can you make a difference, one person and one kind act at a time? You can begin now!
Olivia McIvor has spent three decades as an Organization Development specialist supporting cultures to promote connection, compassion, and community in business. She is a leadership facilitator, speaker, and author of three best-selling books: "The Business of Kindness," "Four Generations-One Workplace," and "Turning Compassion into Action." Olivia lives in Vancouver, Canada.
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