Being helpful as being selfish

Last semester I was part of the inaugural cohort of the MIT Graduate School Leadership Initiative, a terrific program which brings graduates across campus together to discuss the personal and social qualities that underpin leadership and change-making.

The program borrows on work by Bobby Sager, the renowned philanthropist, who through the Young Presidents’ Organization brings together young leaders for reflection about leadership in small group settings. Last night we were fortunate enough to be invited to hear about Bobby and his family’s philanthropic work.

Their story is unique. After deciding to retire from his day-job sixteen years ago, Bobby pulled his children out of school and embarked on an epic global journey which continues to this day. For 10 or so months of the year, Bobby and his family are abroad, providing support to people in some of the world’s most challenging places to live, like Afghanistan and Nepal.

Bobby’s ethos is noticeable different that of from other generous donors. First, by living amongst the people he’s trying to help for such extended periods, he “walks the talk” of understanding the situations in which people around the world struggle to survive in. Second, he emphasizes dignity in his dealings with the people he supports – while pure charity is of course sometimes the only way to help people, more often the best approach is to help people help themselves, giving them a stake in their own survival.

The final factor that makes Bobby’s approach distinctive is the frank acknowledgement that his generosity works for him and his family. This isn’t some angelic act of sacrifice, Bobby claims, but rather a lifestyle which serves to “nourish” him and his family. On a broader level, he has sought to spread the idea that generosity and empathy are, in the context of business and government, not merely morally important qualities but also useful as a way of making deals and passing policy.