Press 1 to Donate: Technology Meets Philanthropy

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Today’s technology has leveled the giving playing field. Dennis Whittle, founder of GlobalGiving, says technology has the potential to make “all donors equal in the eyes of philanthropy” and turn us all into “ordinary Oprahs”: “If you have $10 or $100 or $1,000,” he says, “you can come [online], find a school in Africa to support, and you can get updates from the field to get responses to your support.” Social media helped make Giving Tuesday, which now follows Black Friday and Cyber Monday, a huge success. In 2013, Giving Tuesday brought together well over ten thousand nonprofit, institutional, and corporate partners from around the world. Social media influencers from the White House to Bill Gates spread the word to their followers, and Giving Tuesday was featured all day on the Google home page. HuffPost joined media organizations, including The Wall Street Journal and CNN, in featuring articles and blogs. There was a 90 percent increase in online giving compared to the inaugural Giving Tuesday in 2012, with an average donation of $142.05. The City of Baltimore raised more than $5 million; the United Methodist Church raised over $6 million. But giving wasn’t just limited to big cities and churches. On the local level, for instance, the Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida reached its $10,000 goal by 9 a.m. and decided to double its goal. The Bethesda Mission in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, which expected to raise $400, raised $2,320 in online donations. And though Giving Tuesday comes five days after the American celebration of Thanksgiving, its partners included international organizations ranging from the Galapagos Conservancy to the Girls Empowerment Project of Kenya to the Goodwill Social Work Centre in Madurai, India, to Ten Fe in Guatemala.

Of course, giving can be as simple as giving joy to others — sharing our talents and skills to help them tap into their own ability to experience wonder. Improv Everywhere, in collaboration with Carnegie Hall, set up an empty podium on the streets of New York in front of an orchestra with the sign “Conduct Us” — allowing bystanders to conduct some of the most talented young musicians in the world. The musicians responded to the amateur conductors and altered their tempo and performance accordingly.

Monica Yunus and Camille Zamora, who met while studying singing at Juilliard, founded Sing for Hope to share their love of music with their community. They have been planting dozens of “pop- up pianos” in the middle of parks and street corners in New York City so passersby can play music or simply listen to it and build connections with strangers they would have otherwise silently passed by on the street.

Robert Egger took the skills he honed from running music clubs to found the D.C. Central Kitchen, which redirects leftover food from local businesses and farms, prepares the food in kitchens that employ the homeless, and then delivers it to feed the needy. He is now working to launch the L.A. Kitchen. “My attitude,” Egger says, “is that food isn’t just gasoline for the body; food is community.”

We tend to identify creativity with artists and inventors, but, in fact, creativity is in each and every one of us, as David Kelley, the founder of the world- famous design fi rm Ideo and the d.school at Stanford University, writes in Creative Confi dence, a book he coauthored with his brother Tom. We simply need to claim it back and share it. We are too quick to censor or judge our natural creative impulses as not being good enough. But we need to give ourselves permission to follow what makes us feel most alive. And when we are most alive we are most compassionate and vice versa. If you love to sing, sing — you don’t have to sing in a choir or become a soloist. If you love to write poems or short stories, write them — you don’t have to become a published author. If you love to paint, paint. Don’t squash your creative instincts because you’re not “good enough” to turn what you love to do into a career.

As David and Tom Kelley write, “When a child loses confidence in his or her creativity, the impact can be profound. People start to separate the world into those who are creative and those who are not. They come to see these categories as fixed, forgetting that they too once loved to draw and tell imaginative stories. Too often they opt out of being creative.”

A friend of mine has a ritual: He writes a poem every day with his morning coffee. “It centers me,” he says, “and then I ride that wave during the day — it helps me stay connected.” My sister graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London with many awards and accolades. But after years of auditions and not getting the parts she hoped to get, she began to feel lost and discouraged. In her book Unbinding the Heart, she describes a moment of epiphany on a New York bus: After auditioning for a six- hour play adaptation of many Greek tragedies combined, and not getting a part — not even in the chorus — disappointed and distraught I got on the bus to go to my singing lesson on the Upper West Side when I started to notice the faces of the other passengers. Each one of them looked burdened, their worries the only thing showing in their expressions. As I looked at everyone around me, I was filled with compassion, and the understanding that their disappointments were probably much bigger than mine. If only I could bring some joy onto this bus, I thought. And then I realized that I could. I could act right here! I could entertain these people for a brief moment. I could do a song and dance right here and now! And with that thought, I broke down the barriers. I reached out to the woman next to me, struck a conversation, and asked her if she liked the theater. We started talking about our favorite plays and characters, and I told her that I had just performed the part of Saint Joan for an audition. She knew the play, and we had an unexpectedly wonderful conversation. In my enthusiasm, I said to her, “Would you like me to do Joan’s monologue for you?” “I would love that,” she replied. The first words of the monologue are: “You promised me my life, but you lied. You think that life is nothing but not being stone dead.” As I said the words, the woman’s face started to change. I could see that she was being touched; I was being touched as well, sharing my talent for a moment, on a New York bus. By the time I finished, the woman on the bus had tears in her eyes. As she got off at her stop, she thanked me. I felt elated. I felt a release, as if a door had opened that I didn’t even know was there. Here I was thinking that I had this wonderful gift that was not being recognized by the world. And then it dawned on me how many conditions I had put on my gift. That moment of sharing without an agenda of getting a part wasn’t about the outcome but about the joy of touching others and giving unconditionally what was mine to give. And that brought with it a tremendous sense of fulfillment.

Your gift may simply be making a beautiful meal for someone down the street who is sick or has suffered a loss. The phrase “To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived” crystallizes giving.

The day before she died, Scott Simon’s mother had a message for the hundreds of thousands of people who were following his live blog about her journey toward death.

July 28, 2:01 p.m.: “I think she wants me to pass along a couple of pieces of advice, ASAP. One: reach out to someone who seems lonely today.”

Technology has made it possible for us to live in a self-contained, disconnected bubble twenty- four hours a day, even while walking down the street listening to music on our smartphones. Our devices might seem like they’re connecting us, and they do to a degree, but they’re also disconnecting us from the world around us. And without being connected to the people we encounter, it’s hard to activate our hardwired instinct for empathy.

Millennials — the first generation that’s truly native to the digital world (unlike those of us who are digital immigrants, who come to this moment from the land of the analog) — will most likely be the ones to figure out how to manage the influence of technology and use it to amplify, rather than diminish, their capacity for empathy. John Bridgeland, co- chair of the Franklin Project, a national service movement, believes millennials could “rescue the civic health of our nation after decades of decline.” Recent studies corroborate his sentiments. Millennials lead the way in volunteering, with 43 percent of them engaging in service. The numbers are even higher among college students: 53 percent have volunteered in the past year, and over 40 percent of them volunteer more than once a month.

What if that desire to connect and give back could be scaled up and institutionalized? That’s the goal of the Franklin Project: to establish national service as a “common expectation and common opportunity for all Americans to strengthen our social fabric and solve our most pressing national challenges.” Think of it as the ultimate shovel- ready infrastructure project — one that can literally help to rebuild our country from the inside out.

It taps into the incredible outpouring of community and compassion we experienced after 9/11 — a yearning to rebuild not just what had physically been destroyed, but to rebuild a spirit of community and service that had been eroding for decades. It’s an idea that is at the heart of the founding of this country, connected to the very pursuit of happiness described in the Declaration of Independence.

When Thomas Jefferson expressed our right to the pursuit of happiness, he was not simply referring to the right to pursue personal, momentary pleasure fueled by a culture of material goods. The happiness he was referring to was the right to build our life within a strong and vibrant community.

Throughout our history, the spirit of giving, of service, and of civic engagement helped build a country of disparate parts and races and languages, and has continued to bring us closer to a more perfect union. The fading of that spirit is behind the feeling so many Americans have that the country is breaking apart, hopelessly polarized and no longer indivisible.

Every U.S. president — with the exception of William Henry Harrison, who died a month after taking office, having given the longest inaugural address in history — has recognized the importance of this connective tissue and made an effort to reinforce it in one way or another. FDR created the Civilian Conservation Corps, which led to three million unemployed young people working on public lands across the country; JFK launched the Peace Corps; George H. W. Bush started the Daily Point of Light Award, which inspired the Points of Light Foundation; and Bill Clinton created AmeriCorps.

Ray Chambers, Points of Light’s founding chairman (who invited me to join its board in the early nineties), has been for me a model for redefining success and prioritizing service and giving. After achieving success in business, instead of being content to simply amass wealth and power, he turned his remarkable skills and passion toward finding solutions to problems all over the world — from funding college education for hundreds of students in Newark, New Jersey, to founding Malaria No More and serving as the United Nations Secretary- General’s Special Envoy for Financing the Health Millennium Development Goals. He has even put his mind, skills, and connections to work, solving an overlooked problem that is affecting millions of young people, moved by watching children in the urban programs he supports drop out and become physically and emotionally scarred because of acne — something I’ve experienced in my own family, as Isabella suffered from acne as a teenager. He’s an example of private sector leadership at its best.

Clearly, there’s a hunger in the world to serve. And the millennials are leading the way in large numbers. A robust national service program would help both to bring down the unacceptably high youth unemployment rate and give them a clear sense of purpose. “Our generation wants to push and dream for something big,” Matthew Segal, cofounder of Our Time, a national advocacy group for young people, said. “And few policies make more sense than allowing idealistic young Americans to serve their country via nursing, teaching, disaster relief, park restoration, and infrastructure repair.” And in Appendix C, you’ll find some of my favorite sites connecting you to volunteering opportunities in your community and around the world.

So what is it going to take to transform service from something people do around Thanksgiving or Christmas — from something people talk about at commencement addresses — to an everyday reality?

As Dr. Ervin Staub, who studied men and women who risked their lives during World War II to protect Jews hiding from the Nazis, put it, “Goodness like evil often begins in small steps. Heroes evolve; they aren’t born. Very often the rescuers made only a small commitment at the start, to hide someone for a day or two. But once they had taken that step they began to see themselves differently, as someone who helps. What starts as mere willingness becomes intense involvement.”

Excerpt from Thrive pp. 245–253