I attended the New World Symphony the other night, which features talented young people in their 20s and 30s on fellowships who were seemingly born to play their instruments. After a beautiful tribute to Tchaikovsky, they ended the night by returning to the stage for an encore to play a Ukrainian folk song.
Watching the Miami audience feel so moved and rally around a distant war, it hit me. Philanthropy is a key piece of our culture, but while we only feed into it at certain times, we can be doing so much more.
From Andrew Carnegie to Warren Buffett, the people who built this country’s economy have a long history of philanthropy. Making money and giving something back to those we see as “less fortunate” has become an ingrained part of our identity as Americans, and yet we don’t always fully embrace it. Subjective conditions regulate when we decide to give and to whom, and charitable acts are even less prioritized in day-to-day business.
With the desire to give at a feverish pitch and uncertainties complicating that commitment, creating everyday opportunities for philanthropy as part of a company culture can help people find a valuable sense of purpose in doing their job.
Conditions That Inspire Giving
While Americans identify with causes and consider themselves philanthropic, we only activate that drive under certain conditions and with specific beliefs about who deserves our generosity.
Watching the symphony’s moving tribute, I had to wonder how many people present had ever thought about donating to Ukraine before this conflict. It honestly hadn’t even come to my mind before recent events. Now, grocery stores and other retailers are asking their customers to round up their change for Ukraine. People are reserving Airbnbs there without intending to stay just to support the Ukrainian cause.
Since the 1950s, charitable activity has been on the rise. The U.S. is two to 15 times more charitable than other developed nations. During COVID-19, 56 percent of Americans made a charitable donation, and people view giving as more important than ever. Combined with other unprecedented developments, like heightened demands for racial justice, an economic crisis and more widespread need, U.S. charitable giving in 2020 ascended to over $471 billion, but while donations are hitting record highs, research suggests that fewer donors account for these gifts.
People want to help and see it as important, but with so many other needs taking precedence, philanthropy only gets attention when we feel financially comfortable enough for it.
A Workplace Culture Fills the Need
Given the extent to which American identity is bound up in taking care of others, people in leadership positions can help create opportunities for charity in the workplace and satisfy their desires to live up to those values. Leaders promoting a culture of giving can offer an attractive benefit to being a part of their team.
In one survey, 71 percent of employees described a workplace culture of giving or volunteering as “imperative” or “very important” to where they work, and 49 percent saw it as a growth strategy for their organization. When it comes to supporting charities, workplace giving is a cost-effective way to drive participation in giving while boosting employee and brand loyalty.
From the inception of my company, I committed to a philanthropic workplace beyond just giving money. After traveling the country and asking advice from other leaders, we decided to partner with Best Buddies, a nonprofit dedicated to creating opportunities for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. We participated in several fundraising events, walks and bike rides, and even on a Saturday, 78 percent of the company would show up to participate.
When my son was younger, he attended the fundraisers with me because he enjoyed seeing the tangible impact a company can make through philanthropy. When you offer philanthropy to people through their work, that work becomes more meaningful, and they care more about doing well for the company.
Real philanthropy can happen every day by giving people a hand up so they can develop the self-esteem and drive needed to continue on their own. After a few years of successful fundraising events with Best Buddies, I decided to bring our efforts into the office and make our impact more immediate — I hired someone from the program.
Not only was everyone supportive and totally willing to commit to helping him succeed, but they saw him improve with training and become an important member of our team. By living our philanthropy as an organization, it became a deep-seated part of our culture and one of the most meaningful things we did.
Leaders should offer broad options to align with popular charitable interests, but be flexible enough to support an individual’s specific cause. In one 2021 survey, over 50 percent of workers wanted the opportunity to identify and donate to causes that were personal to them, either through some connection to the organization or a mission that advances their community.
Rather than something we do only when tragedy moves us, we all want to make giving a greater part of our lives, though it can be overwhelming to take on the full responsibility of paying attention all the time.
When leaders make giving a part of their company culture, employees have more opportunities to make those philanthropic decisions and feel good about themselves through their job in everyday ways.
( JAN RISI )