Posted by: Charlie | February 8, 2010

Philanthropy for All

Every economics 101 course introduces the idea of opportunity cost: the cost of a good is its price plus the entire realm of other opportunities not pursued. In other words, you pay for everything you don’t do – and thats a lot of stuff. Seems grim, right? Barry Schwartz explains in my favorite TED talk that these choices actually makes us unhappy. How can you be happy if there is something else you don’t have? Or what if someone gave you everything?

Strategic Philanthropy can often have this same approach. With a limited pool of resources, it is essential that a project have the highest social return on investment. The segmentation of philanthropic giving structures a hierarchy of social good. The marketing departments for large charities reinforce this hierarchy, bringing televised attention to pressing matters. In essence, what is rationally good is distilled by a few large organizations and their marketing teams. Domestic health issues affecting the affluent may receive more funding than devastating disease in developing countries because they are more easily cured, and easier to market.

Segmenting good in this way is a radical shift for charitable giving, which in the western world is built on Judea-Christian ethics of equality. Economic principes may further dictate who is worthy in a competitive arena. Some aid cannot be justified. But is it just to apply theory to charity?

Today’s New York Times offers a bold and equalizing alternative to such a cold picture of philanthropy: The Secret Society for Creative Philanthropy. The organization instructs givers to share $100 (maximum) in such a creative manner that the act may be bigger than the gift. Paper Airplanes out of $5 bills – I bet they’ve tried it. The movement has grown from a single writer to multiple communities in various cities. A cynic might suggest that the all the money could be better spent strategically. I think that there is an art in reminding people the of pleasure of giving, sharing, and passing it on.

In a similar light, the featured picture shows a book tracked by bookcrossing.com. Registrants enter a book into the database and leave it in a public location for new readers to discover. They are another great example of counter-veiling forces of generosity and gifting. Gifts build relationships, solidarity, and community – the backbone to our economic engines.

I rejoice in this art form, simple reminders that we are all worthy of gifts of love and random kindness.

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