Sunday 7 July 2013

Time to Reap the Fruits of Philanthropy

This opinion piece was published in the Sunday Independent on 7 July 2013

With the school holidays in full swing, there has been a lot in the media this week about family life. Enjoying time away with my family, it was ironic to read online about research which reveals we tend to enjoy time with friends more than time with family. On the other hand, I also came across reports which said growing up with siblings could give children greater opportunity to develop inter-personal skills, conflict handling, appreciation of fairness and even the ability to defer gratification (through being taught to “wait your turn”).

And is it not true that our “nearest and dearest” can be both our closest, most reliable allies in times of need, and also those with whom we fight the most fiercely when we disagree.

The difference between the two often arises from the way we see the issue at stake.

We all know from our own childhoods or those of our children, the sort of rivalries and competition which can arise when it is time to share. We know there is only one cake, and if someone else gets one percent more, then I will get one percent less. So we fight for our fair share – and sometimes we fight for that little bit more!

But sometimes life is less about cake and more about candles. If I have a lit candle, and I share my flame with you, we double, rather than halve the light. That is the win-win approach. Some sharing can multiply, rather than divide. More than this, by choosing our attitudes and actions, we can often turn division into multiplication. For example, love shared is love multiplied.

And whatever builds up relationships, whether at the level of families, communities, workplaces, or even nations, puts us into the win-win dynamic, where everyone stands to benefit. The same is true of the attitude at the heart of the film Pay it forward. This encourages people to do good turns without expectation of anything in return, other than that recipients in turn act with similar generosity towards others.

It is also the case that when we risk partnering our experiences and skills with those who are most different from us, often we generate ideas and solutions far greater than could have been achieved through working separately The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Sadly, however, we can also turn positive momentum into negative. One individual, withdrawing co-operation, can sometimes harm everyone concerned.

This is true in the economic field too. For example, public investment aimed at bringing job creation and the improved delivery of services should be a generator of benefits for all. But corruption can reverse the whole cycle. It is not just stealing the icing off the cake – the whole cake gets smaller, with less for everyone, whether it be through worsening services or jobs lost.

All this has set me pondering how we can promote win-win over zero-sum dynamics more broadly within South Africa. Every way we look at it, all of us stand to benefit.

Another piece of online trivia this week revealed that living with gratitude and treating others with kindness are symptomatic of the habits which make us happier. In fact, science proves this! Performing selfless acts generates serotonin in our brains – the chemical hormone associated with feelings of well-being. It also boosts our immune system, with likely positive health spin-offs. And this is on top of the way treating others well, with warmth and care, with dignity and respect, also builds stronger relationships, which also bring a wealth of benefits. Narrowly drawn calculations may suggest that zero-sum competition can serve us in the short term, but when we take a broader perspective, it is clear a win-win co-operative attitude will reap far greater and more lasting benefits.

The Bible gets it right when it tells us: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

It may seem counter-intuitive, but giving away to others some of what we enjoy actually makes us feel better than hanging on to it ourselves. This is certainly the experience of great philanthropists, from Warren Buffet and Bill and Melinda Gates, to our own Patrick Motsepe who has joined their “Giving Pledge” challenge. Being generous makes us feel good. By being selfless, we benefit ourselves. In fact some studies suggest that the more we give away, the happier it makes us. This is true of all societies around the world, and is not dependent upon our income levels.

So we do not have to be as rich as Patrice Motsepe to benefit ourselves and others. We can be generous with our money, our time, or our skills. Many donors prefer to remain anonymous, having found a more solid satisfaction comes from knowing what they are doing is truly helping those in need, than is derived from others’ praise.

Our satisfaction at giving can be further enhanced when: we have genuine choice over what to give away (instead of feeling coerced, or acting out of an imposed sense of guilt), or when we have some connection with those we help, and when we see what we do makes a tangible difference.

Reading this has got me thinking afresh about how we can best encourage this sort of giving across our nation to tackle some of the economic inequalities and burdens of the past – including the burdens of guilt and shame – and help us find “win-win” ways to move forward.

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu stirred up considerable controversy (as he is unafraid to do) a couple of years ago when he raised the question of a reparations tax or fund. Well, nothing much has happened since then. Yet I continue to come across people who really do want to do something or give something to help redress the wrongs of the past. But they are still looking for a suitable vehicle, seeking assurances their assistance will get to those who most need it and not be syphoned off along the way, or get lost in government coffers, wanting guarantees that it will truly make a difference.

Why can we not create such a fund? Perhaps we need a structure with religious leaders providing oversight and others donating time and skills to set up the right mechanisms so it does not become one of those bodies where nearly all the money is spent on salaries and administration, and very little on the situation on the ground.

Being a churchman, money is not my area of expertise. But matters of the heart and soul are – I know that doing the right thing, out of generosity of spirit, is the best way to make us all happier and better off. Let us say goodbye to the zero-sum mentality which upholds division. Let us instead embrace the win-win way ahead for our rainbow family, and multiply our well-being.

Who will help me to make it happen?