How to Do Good Work in Philanthropy


How to Do Good Work in Philanthropy

Philanthropy is an essential part of a successful life in business, giving meaning and moral significance to the profits that you make and enhancing your reputation in the community in which you operate. The multiple reasons that make philanthropy a good idea have led to confusion about what “genuine” philanthropy is. Some people have incorrectly concluded that unless philanthropy is “pure” in its motives, driven by altruism alone, it is somehow contaminated by the donor’s self-interest. If this were the standard, most of the great charitable acts of human history would be disqualified. In fact, as I have written many times in this book, all important moral actions are fueled by mixed motives, because life is complex and we relate to situations in many ways simultaneously. The surest way to do good in the world is to align your moral commitments with your self- interest, because then there will be no temptation to back away from the moral commitment.

The first principle for businesspeople is to begin with the realization that good philanthropy serves many worthwhile purposes— for society, the community, the company, and the self. These multiple ends make the philanthropic act more, not less, valuable. Search for giving opportunities that serve as many purposes as possible: these will be easier to sustain in the long run, which in turn will make the giving more effective.

The problem with philanthropy is not the purity of motives— that is a chimera—but rather the intellectual and emotional resources that you dedicate to the task. Real philanthropy is not a casual pursuit. It is a serious business, and I use that phrase advisedly. Indeed, philanthropy calls for much the same skill and attention as does business proper. This is where many philanthropists fail. Too often they think that their responsibility ends with the decision to part with some of their hard-earned money.

The second step, after determining that philanthropy is the right thing to do, is to realize that philanthropy is an intervention with the power to harm if not carried out properly. This realization is humbling, and it should lead to a cautious stance toward any act of charity. It is not easy to remain humble while giving money away: for one thing, people who want the money will flatter a philanthropist to no end if they think they have a prospect of getting some. But in philanthropy, as in business, humility is an essential virtue. It enables us to listen and to learn, to acknowledge mistakes and to correct them, and to remove our own egos from the choices that we make. The choices therefore will be wiser and safer. It is unlikely that a genuinely humble philanthropist will cause harm for long.

The third step is finding out about the complexities of the philanthropic cause that you wish to support, taking the effort to under- stand it on its own terms. Successful businesspeople often assume that what they have learned during their own careers can be applied everywhere else, and that any social problem can be solved through sound business principles. While this may be true in certain cases, it simply does not work in others. Problems such as encouraging creativity in the arts, fostering learning in schoolchildren, or preserving the quality of life in communities require a host of solutions that arise out of the particular issues related to these causes. Business principles may help, but they will not provide the whole answer. For constructive action, businesspeople must learn about the particular issues from those with experience in these domains.

It takes time to learn about a new domain, reflect on what you have learned, and then make a deliberate choice based on that reflection. Good work in philanthropy is not for the impatient. It is, however, a source of joy and meaning for those who invest not only the money but also the care to do it right. The learning that it requires adds a new dimension to your knowledge of the world, and the humility that it demands enhances your moral character. It is yet another pivotal instance of a moral advantage that yields personal satisfaction and growth for yourself and needed benefits for others in society.