Once upon a time, in the early 1990s, I was editor of a publication called The Indianapolis Register , a monthly “tabloid” that concentrated on the philanthropic and volunteer community of Indianapolis. I was the publication’s first editor under publisher and Indianapolis philanthropist Lorene Burkhart. I would hyperlink you to it, but, alas, it closed its doors long ago … and long before publications had a presence on the internet.
Nonetheless, I learned some valuable lessons during the two years I spent there, but the most important thing I learned about was the giving spirit of Indianapolis, in terms of both time and money. I witnessed volunteer efforts that raised six figures with a single event; I talked to people who had donated huge sums of money to local organizations but preferred to remain anonymous. And I saw those efforts come to life in the faces of those for whom the benefits meant the difference between destitute and self-sustaining. Despite recent economic challenges, this giving spirit continues, though certainly not at the enthusiastic pace we once enjoyed.
I find philanthropy fascinating to study; to my core, I believe that a giving spirit is that which sets humans apart from other species. While philanthropy is most often associated with the “rich and famous,” you don’t have to be monetarily wealthy to have a giving spirit. To the contrary, great things happen a dollar at a time with the right direction.
However, when the “rich and famous” step up and make a commitment, it is always newsworthy. Last week a stop-the-presses story made its way to mainstream media: Forty of the wealthiest families in America had committed to returning a majority of their wealth to charitable causes by taking “The Giving Pledge.” The project was kicked off six weeks ago by Warren Buffett along with Bill and Belinda Gates; the trio has set about contacting their peers to encourage a substantial giving commitment.
According to the press release: “The Giving Pledge is an effort to help address society’s most pressing problems by inviting the wealthiest American families and individuals to commit to giving more than half of their wealth to philanthropy or charitable causes. The pledge is a moral commitment to give, not a legal contract, and it does not involve pooling money or supporting a particular set of causes or organizations. While it is specifically focused on billionaires, the idea takes its inspiration from other efforts that encourage and recognize givers of all financial means and backgrounds.”
The news of the event was widespread – from CNN and Forbes to MSNBC. Perhaps Michael Bloomberg can be credited with the best quote: “It doesn’t make sense to leave everything to my children and have them go through life as members of the ‘lucky sperm club.’” Of course SOMEONE has to act as a “Debbie Downer,” and to that extent the Wall Street Journal was quick to point out that the rich typically give to the rich via large donations to universities, art museums, etc. However, many of the philanthropists on the list, including Gates himself, have a track record of reaching out to those who are far from elitist.
Of course, it’s not a bad public relations ploy – then again, it becomes extremely BAD public relations if they don’t follow through with their pledges. Like ANY cause marketing effort, the original intent must be grounded in altruism. To create an event solely on the hope of garnering some “good PR” is recipe for disaster at worst and disappointing earned media at least.
How do you give back to your community? I’d love to hear as we begin this second week of August – a week full of exciting meetings and potential opportunities.