The Missing Gene

Why some people are generous and others are not is a question of considerable speculation, ministration and fascination.

Some people, just as naturally as they breathe, reach out a hand, give back, contribute time and money, volunteer, go on boards, and just do it in myriad ways. Others with the same or more talent and resources stay on the sidelines, hide in the woodwork, are not charitable or philanthropic, do not participate in community life, in civic life, in public life, in any kind of life except their own.

Is it a matter of GNA? Is there a generosity ‘gene’ that you either have or don't have?

Or can someone’s receptivity, interest, commitment, and passion for community, social action, for philanthropy, for a generous way of life grow in the right circumstances and with the right motivation? Gene research is fast becoming the next great frontier of medical advancement. What is the analog for developing the 'generosity gene’?

I know two men who are in their mid-70s; both have immense wealth, well up the Forbes 400 list of the wealthiest people in the world. About one it is said, ‘he has always been charitably inclined, he is there when you need him, he has been a community leader and is a highly regarded philanthropist.' About the other man it is said, 'he still has the first nickel he ever made, if anyone can figure out how to take it with him after he dies, it will be him, what he doesn’t do is embarrassing.’

Two men of the same generation, both born in comfortable circumstances, both with fortunes earned over a lifetime of stunning entrepreneurial success, yet one has established a legacy of generosity and the other has not, at least not yet. I have known the two for some time and would say they are more alike than unalike. Both are highly intelligent, both understand the difference between right and wrong, justice and injustice and in their business dealings both have been essentially fair, although one – you can imagine which – has a reputation for being aggressive and tough. Both are well educated with liberal arts backgrounds; one has a law degree and the other has an MBA. Both think conceptually and are not dogmatic or doctrinaire in their dealings with others. Both command intense loyalty from their business associates. One went to church and one went to synagogue from the time they were young, both continue to be active religionists. Both are well-known prominent figures and thus subject to the kinds of social pressures that go with position in our society. Yet one has given away several hundred million dollars and one has not, nor has he any intention, at this point, of doing so.

The ‘not-generous’ one says several things: First, that he is not ready, "Not yet!" as he wrote on a note to me a few months back. He simply doesn't choose to make the time. His business, a very complex and demanding business, consumes him and remains the most fascinating thing in his life. He claims it’s the business that keeps him vital and young. He goes on to say he has trouble finding charitable schemes or organizations that meet his investment standards for being well run, having strong leadership and measurable results. He also intensely dislikes traditional fundraising cultivation and the pandering kind of ‘ask.’ It offends him when someone tries to stroke his ego and offers him the ‘opportunity’ to be honored at a dinner. The idea of naming a building, a program or anything else is the last thing he wants. He has more than a little scorn for people who are motivated to give for recognition or for social reasons. In other words, many of the standard approaches to encouraging a generous response from this man have the opposite result.

I do think there are people who literally do not give a damn for anyone else and are at core totally selfish. A few may be psychopaths and even fewer are like the Orks in the Lord of the Rings, hardly human at all. They are not very interesting because their 'generosity gene' will never be discovered. I also believe there are not many out there. Even if I am wrong, and all the philosopher kings from Aristotle to John Mills to John Rawls are wrong, and legions of these characters are wandering the earth, they are a lost cause. In any event, my friend is not one of them.

There are others who could be a lot more generous. In other words they do not give anywhere near their capacity. If you ask a marketing expert where the most likely prospects are to increase your business, the response will be, 'from existing customers.' Most development efforts are based on progressively larger gifts from existing stakeholders. This group is the target of many mechanisms to motivate them to give according to their 'capacity,' a euphemism for net worth. They are the ones who are assumed to have the most giving potential. My friend is also not of these.

There is a third kind of non-generous person who is potentially more interesting and very little understood. I think my friend falls in this category. Common characteristics: private, shy, often nervous, awkward in social settings and even anti-social. They are the loners, the non-joiners, people who would rather be hermits, or at least say so. I’m visualizing a cynic, a hyper-analytical critic, a no bull, tough-minded individual who can get angry and likes to rant, but is very street-smart and intuitive. This person is probably obsessed by work and (I imagine) may have been burned or even wounded in the past and is thus 'twice careful’ when it comes to stepping out of a comfortable nest, office or lab. If my friend, who I have labeled as 'non-generous' without his permission, were reading this essay along with you, he would at this point say, "Damn right!"

I accused him one day of simply not having a generosity gene. "Bullshit," he said. "There’s nothing wrong with my values and I feel the hurt of the world as much as anybody!"

What really holds this character back?

Freud said people do what they want to do. It is a view of human nature that implies we are in control of our actions, that they are primarily of our own making. Another view of human nature is that ‘people don't change.’ Yet people do change, do learn, do keep growing all the time, and do keep searching. Even those who are not ready for generosity are still looking for something, something that might be called ‘meaning.’

My non-generous friend has not found the alignment between what he knows and has mastered so well within the business world, and the notion of giving money away. He has not found the way into this game, has not figured out how to be a player, and doesn't even know where it is being played. Giving money away is antithetical to his sense of right behavior learned in a world where the value proposition is always based on the numbers. The philanthropic value proposition as he perceives it is foreign and off-putting. He dislikes what he calls 'do-gooders' and suspects many of those seeking funds are involved in some sort of con, although that is his view of all seekers of capital. To tell the truth, he also rather likes the role of contrarian, of being odd man out. It amuses him.

More importantly, he is deeply skeptical that anything meaningful can be done. Despite his sophistication as an entrepreneur and investor, his head is filled with the negative stereotypes associated with non-profit organizations. He may be intrigued about philanthropy that is strategic, venturesome, based on focus and impact and measurement, but he is not convinced. He has not yet met a 'social entrepreneur’ -- a term he thinks may be an oxymoron -- that he is drawn to, believes can execute, or trusts.

He has also not experienced what could be called a 'Ah Ha' moment of revelation. A moment when something deeply moves him and he says, 'I want to do something about that.'

To him, wealth has never been about having money – it is simply a way of keeping score. Unlike some, he doesn't have the gestalt of anxiety, fear, and insecurity that often haunts wealthy people. He is a supremely confident individual. His joke is that he has a doctor who has 'guaranteed' to keep him alive until he is a 100 so by his watch he still has plenty of time.

Whenever I have tried to bring up more existential issues like the point of having all this money and its meaning in a broader sense, he either accuses me of talking nonsense or rebuts with how his wealth has helped create 30,000 jobs. He makes the case that no investment in philanthropy would be a greater contribution to society than the jobs he has created and that is what he will continue to do.

Last month we argued for more than an hour about Andrew Carnegie's Gospel of Wealth. He did not disagree with Carnegie's underlying concept that those with wealth are stewards to that wealth but was adamant that philanthropy was not the only way to fulfill stewardship. He actually spent most of the time ranting about the quixotic robber barons like Carnegie. "Think of the guilt after brutally crushing the Homestead Mine workers strike," he said. It is a guilt my friend proudly states, "'I do not share."

"Show me pure generosity, pure philanthropy, without ambiguity, self-interest and paradox and maybe I'll become interested," he said.

As you can see, this guy actually loves these discussions but they do not go anywhere. He will often end our talks by accusing me, and all the other do-gooders out there, of being lousy "salesmen," and I agree.

My friend called today and in five minutes changed the rules of the game. This is what he said: "I want to come up with a philanthropic game plan for one third of my estate. I do not want a conventional foundation but intend to invest most of it during my lifetime. The big thing is results and impact. I want to move decisively but carefully. You know the numbers, and you know me. I want you to draft a mission statement, goals, and investment criteria, note I am using your term the 'investor/donor'. Now don't screw this up, it may be the only chance philanthropy has with me."

After a moment of stunned silence, I said: "What made you change your mind?"

His answer was: "My generosity gene woke me up this morning and I decided I was ready. But I still think you are a lousy salesman!"

I agreed.