Crammed in my drawer next to my bed are years of arts and crafts, given to me with almost ecstatic anticipation by my four daughters over the years. A Beauty and the Beast coloring page; a blue, yellow, and green woven bracelet; a pink and yellow glazed pot, just perfect for a few coins. In each instance, my daughters worked, wrapped, and then gave gifts to their daddy out of a freedom, delight, and self-forgetfulness.
Like my daughters, Americans are generous. Yet Americans aren’t exactly joyful. Today 3 of 5 Americans report being lonely and 1 in 6 struggle with mental illness. During the pandemic, as we see philanthropic needs mount, some are skeptical that generosity will really help the painful world we live in. Many are asking a basic question about their money: can my giving really make an impact on problems this big and far-reaching?
Motives for giving have shifted even in the past couple of decades. Fred Smith, president of the Gathering, a group of Christian philanthropists, has pointed out that a sophisticated industry has emerged in the last generation that stresses the cleverness of avoiding taxes through giving. Instruments for facilitating tax-advantaged transactions, often sending money to special accounts to be given at a future date, are seen as smart philanthropy. The underlying motive is just as much about redirecting funds away from the government as is about supporting your favorite cause. Why give? Evade Uncle Sam.
The rise of socially conscious business has also called into question the habit of generous giving. Many organizations see business, not the nonprofit sector, as a better medium for social change. As such, impact investing — sometimes even with dollars already given to foundations or donor advised funds — is seen as a “smarter” investment. After all, this way we can earn a return and invest again later, rather than “lose our principal for good” by giving money away. Why give? Hold off and focus on investing instead.
For everyday givers like my wife and me, our ability to give is so small that we sometimes wonder whether we can make an impact. As we recently walked through Hudson Gardens, a public garden on the south side of Denver, I mentioned that we should consider making a gift to support the water lily garden. “But what good will our $100 really do?” my wife asked. “They must get support from much larger foundations.” We questioned whether our giving can make a sufficient impact. Why give? Don’t bother. It won’t make an impact anyway.
Of course, the much larger reason many couples don’t give is more basic: we have lots of expenses. Shouldn’t we pay off debt, save for my kid’s next soccer season, or just “give” the money to the furniture company that’s going to deliver a new ottoman for my living room in three days? And minimally, shouldn’t I save the money in case of a rainy day? Why give? Just wait until you’re rich. And then give when you can be sure the nonprofit will make a big splash one day in the future.
I recently read a book from one of the 20th century’s most prominent artists that challenged my perspective on philanthropy. Kahlil Gibran was a Lebanese-American writer and poet living at the turn of the 20th century. His little book The Prophet has been translated into more than 100 languages. He asked many of the same questions we’re asking about giving, yet had an attitude about giving that restores the freedom and joy to an activity that many of us often can make a utilitarian exercise. Here are four insights from Kahlil Gibran on giving.
First, free yourself from the fear of tomorrow.
“For what are your possessions but things you keep and guard for fear you may need them tomorrow? And what is fear of need but need itself? Is not dread of thirst when your well is full the thirst that is unquenchable?”
How much, exactly, is enough? Andrew Carnegie said that the art of capitalism is turning luxuries into necessities. At what point, then, do we finally reach contentment and say, “I have enough for myself and those I love. Now I can give”? Gibran’s point is that even if our wells are overflowing, we still may be gripped with a fear of tomorrow. Internal peace that there is enough for me must precede our ability to freely give and freely receive.
In the Christian tradition, we point to Jesus’ teaching about the lilies in the field. If they are adorned with splendor greater than that of the uber-wealthy King Solomon, yet are here today and wilt tomorrow, will God not all the more take care of the children he loves (Matthew 6)?
“These are the believers in life and the bounty of life,” says Gibran, “and their coffer is never empty.”
Why give? There’s enough for all of us.
Second, because our money and possessions are temporary, the best time to give is now.
“And is there aught you would withhold? All you have shall some day be given; therefore give now, that the season of giving may be yours and not your inheritors.”
My house. My car. My business. My bank account. My kitchen countertop, my backyard, my clothes, and my book collection. This is a particularly poignant view at the outset of an economic recession, when the fear of tomorrow tends to cloud our view of the future.
They all will soon be in the possession of another. This insight of Gibran is simple but profound: you can hang onto nothing. Because this is true, drink in the peace and satisfaction of giving now, and let its blessings flow into your life and the life of your family, company, or community.
Why give? We can’t keep our possessions anyway.
Third, give generously because ultimately we’ve first been given to.
“You often say, ‘I would give, but only to the deserving.’ The trees in your orchard say not so, nor the flocks in your pasture. They give that they may live, for to withhold is to perish.”
Will the organization use the money well? What are your metrics of success? Can you share with me how this money will impact others and create permanent change?
Embedded in these questions is a good instinct: to be responsible with the wealth and resources we have and to use them well. Yet the human heart twists this good instinct and we like to think that we came across the money through our own hard work and intelligence, and we only want to then pass on our hard-earned wealth to “the deserving.”
Yet Gibran questions this attitude. Nature gives its fruit because it was made to produce and to give; to do anything less would make it less than it was created to be. Have we “worked hard” for our wealth? Yes, many of us have. But do we then “deserve” what we have?
Gibran reverses the question: do you, who have received so much free of charge, “deserve” to give to the receiver? Who really is being charitable? The giver, the recipient of the joy of generosity, or the receiver, who humbly and “charitably” opens himself to receiving?
Gibran says it bluntly, “See first that you yourself deserve to be a giver, and an instrument of giving.”
Why give? We’ve first been given to.
Finally, the deepest satisfaction is reserved for those who give neither out of joy nor pain, but simply because it is their nature.
“There are those who give with joy, and that joy is their reward. And there are those who give with pain, and that pain is their baptism. And there are those who give and know not pain in giving, nor do they seek joy, nor give with mindfulness of virtue; They give as in yonder valley the myrtle breathes its fragrance into space.”
The final stage in generosity is neither to sacrifice for a cause, to experience pleasure, nor even to develop virtue. It is simply an act that flows from their nature, like a flowered tree gives its fragrance for free to any who pass by.
In stark contrast to the giving that is looking for an ROI, whether social, economic, cultural, or spiritual, this kind of giving is truly done freely. It is unconditional and it flows naturally from the character of the one who has been released from the bonds of accumulation and pride.
Why give? It flows from the nature of the whole, complete person.
As I look next to my bed stand, I see a small pillow, stuffed and sewed by my oldest daughter, given to me for my 35th birthday. I imagine her sewing, intently, not for thought of reward, but simply to give. When I see the stitches, I simply smile. “Through the hands of such of these God speaks, and from behind their eyes he smiles on the earth.”
This post first appeared on the Denver Institute website. A big thank you to Chris Horst for reading an early version of this article.