Reconciling “giving smart” and “giving from the heart”

Global Philanthropy
Thursday, April 3, 2014

Housed at TPI’s Center for Global Philanthropy, New England International Donors (NEID)is a community of generous individuals, grantmakers, social investors, and advisors, who are changing the world from New England. On March 12, twenty-five members of NEID spent the evening together at the American Repertory Theater to see Witness Uganda and participate in their Act III conversation about the complexities of international philanthropy. It was a powerful evening that stimulated many thoughtful conversations over the last few weeks. Emily Nielsen Jones, a member of NEID’s Steering Committee, shares her reflections below.

A few weeks ago, I was honored to be part of the NEID contingency that went to seeWitness Uganda, a musical about a young man’s idealistic, yet flawed, journey to do good on the other side of the world.

The story line was simple and many NEID members felt it mirrored their own early forays into humanitarian travel.  Based on a true story, a young man named Griffin living in New York City finds himself struggling for meaning and belonging in his good but unsatisfying life.  In a moment of youthful goodwill and adventure, he decides to leave it all to become an aid worker in Uganda.  The musical drama brings to life his inner struggles and contradictions of wanting deeply to connect meaningfully with those he seeks to help while also getting caught in a web of corruption, cynicism, and ineffectiveness that is all too typical in our world.

As I reflect back on the performance and on the dialogue with NEID members that surrounded it, there was a common thread that tied the experience together from beginning to end: a deeply human yet flawed impulse to create a better world.

Overall, I left that night with a greater sense of awe for the human spirit of generosity.  That impulsive kindness, which itself is often born out of knowing great need and which manifests in so many different forms – some more systemic and smart, others more raw, human and from the heart.  We talk about “giving smart” – not just for charity or the act of doing good, but for deep, sustainable impact; and about “giving from the heart” – fostering that natural intuition to help others.  And ideally, they’re not an either/or but a both/and.

However, is it not all too easy to fall off the horse in one direction or the other?  The more we do philanthropy and get better at it, the more we affiliate with really smart givers and advisors.  And the more we read all these articles about “impact” and “scaling up”, the easier it seems to lose touch with, and to want to hide, the “Griffin-like” follow-the-heartidealism that somewhere along the way was the initial “spark” motivating our philanthropy.

Even the smartest philanthropist among us has some dreamy, larger-than-life tendencies, right?  Otherwise, we wouldn’t be doing what we are doing. We’d be living more conventional, self-absorbed lives, sitting on our “assets”, maybe going to charity events here and there, but not meaningfully engaged in faraway places like Uganda.

How, then, do we get smarter and better at what we are doing while maintaining the original Griffin-like spark (love) without which we can easily become soulless technocrats?  

If there’s an answer to this question, I’m not sure I know it.  But Witness Uganda reminded me that our good intentioned “mistakes” are part of the journey of getting smarter yet somehow remaining human as we seek to invest both our resources and our very selves in this challenging work of creating a better world.  Griffin’s beautiful yet flawed human struggle to do good in the world was the perfect artistic mirror to peer together within our collective philanthropic endeavors. As the play illuminated, cynicism can so easily creep in at so many places in the whole “doing good” process.  What would the world be though without this unguarded yet naive impulse that we can actually dare to make a difference and try to change the world in some faraway place like Uganda?

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