Before he died this past December, hedge fund manager and philanthropist Robert W. Wilson had done many notable things. In the ‘70s, he’d survived what Forbes called “the most catastrophic short play in modern times” to amass an $800 million fortune. He’d given away over $500 million, mostly to environmental and preservation groups such as the Nature Conservancy and the World Monuments Fund. A gay atheist, he’d become the largest donor to the Catholic school system of the Archdiocese of New York, largely because, as his friend Manuela Holterhoff wrote, “he hated unions more than religion.” He also told Bill Gates to get lost.
In 2010, Gates asked Wilson to join the list of wealthy people taking his Giving Pledge. Wilson turned him down, saying that the Pledge was largely an empty gesture, one that allowed people to set up family-run foundations likely to become “bureaucracy-ridden sluggards.” He’s got a point there. The Giving Pledge has no standards for effectiveness or transparency, so just about anything can qualify as a charitable contribution.
But here’s where Wilson lost me.
When I talk to young people who seem destined for great success, I tell them to forget about charities and giving. Concentrate on your family and getting rich… . And don’t forget that those who don’t make money never become philanthropists.
I respect and admire Wilson’s own philanthropic work, and there’s no doubt that very wealthy donors do, and should, play a vital role in all forms of charity. But look around you. We’re living in a global world, with global problems and possibilities. Engaging on that level requires a commitment from each of us. Ashoka founder Bill Drayton’s slogan is “Everyone a changemaker.” In our upcoming book, Charity and Philanthropy for Dummies, economist Karl Muth, my ToiletHackers co-founder Michael Lindenmayer, and I make the case for “Everyone a philanthropist,” giving of our time, talents, treasure, and transactions.
• Time & Talent: Organizations such as the Global Poverty Project enable ordinary citizens to educate themselves and take action on issues related to global poverty. In less than two years, a quarter million Global Citizens have devoted 90,000 hours to their chosen issues. Here in New York, the volunteer clearinghouse New York Cares makes it easy to find a way to support a local nonprofit. Volunteer Match does the same thing nationwide. Many of these groups need your expertise as an accountant, a graphic designer, an attorney, or a tutor.
• Treasure: The web uses the power of large numbers to transform small individual donations into significant collective amounts. Kiva is one of the oldest and best-known funders, distributing something like a million dollars every week, but their microlending model is far from the only game in town. OneToday, Crowdrise, Donors Choose—all provide a way for ordinary people with ordinary incomes to leverage their money to make an extraordinary difference to a cause they believe in.
• Transactions: The way you spend your money makes a difference too. Companies like Warby Parker and the start-up Abahti turn your purchase into a donation. (Full disclosure: ToiletHackers is teaming up with Abahti on an upcoming project.) Love to cook? Local Harvest will hook you up with great, fresh produce from a local farmer. Renovating your place? Save money and keep landfills clearer by using supplies from a nearby Habitat for Humanity ReStore, or a local version such as Build It Green NYC. Direct your investments or purchases toward companies that pay attention to the double-bottom line, or promote democracy in the workplace and in society.
It doesn’t matter what you support, only that you support something. You certainly don’t have to wait until you’re middle-aged to make the world a better place. Forbes’ 30 Under 30 social entrepreneurs prove that.
The youngest on the list is Talia Leman, and at eighteen, she’s already a veteran philanthropist. Talia’s motto is Because I can. “You know, why should I vote, or why should I put the coin in the can? Just, simply because I can. And I think that that’s really the best reason to do anything.” (Without knowing it, Talia is echoing something I heard countless times from my dad: “In the sands of time, individuals make little difference but what difference we can make, we should make.” That mantra was so important to him, he asked that it be the only thing on his gravestone. All we added was his name.)
In 2005, Talia—a self-described “random kid” from Iowa—saw news stories about the aftermath of Katrina, decided to raise money for the victims, and cobbled together a website for the project. The Today Show took notice and things grew from there, with thousands of kids teaming up to raise $10 million for hurricane relief—matching the contributions of the top five U.S. corporate donors. Talia was hooked. That makeshift site became RandomKid, a full-service program that’s enabled millions of kids to make a difference at home and abroad.
When Talia saw the devastation wrought by Katrina, she didn’t turn away. She didn’t wait until she’d made her first million to do something, and she’s not waiting until she’s fifty to do more. What a shame if she had. What a shame if you do.
Find me on Twitter @klugesan and share how you’re making a difference. #BecauseICan