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Not everything is lost

The powerful, societal force of charitable giving

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Federica Bordoni for the Deseret News

The poet Naomi Shihab Nye once described an experience she had in the Albuquerque airport. Over the loudspeaker, a gate agent asked for help from anyone who could speak Arabic. Naomi responded and was directed to an older woman in Palestinian dress who had crumpled to the floor and was wailing in fear and despair. It turned out the woman’s flight was not canceled as she had understood, but only delayed. Once this was clear and she grew calm, Naomi helped her phone her family to explain the situation. Naomi describes what happened next:

“She was laughing a lot by then. Telling about her life. Answering questions.

“Soon after, she pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies — little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts — out of her bag and was offering them to all the women at the gate.

“To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the traveler from California, the lovely woman from Laredo — we were all covered with the same powdered sugar. And smiling. There are no better cookies.

“… And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and thought, ‘This is the world I want to live in. The shared world.’ 

“Not a single person at that gate — once the crying of confusion stopped — seemed apprehensive about any other person. They took the cookies. 

“I wanted to hug all of those other women too. This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.”

This story illustrates in lovely, powdered-sugar dustings how a shared experience can remove social apprehension and connect us enough to feel like embracing each other. My 24 years in the humanitarian arena bear out the powerful truth that personal happiness is built on a foundation of charitably giving to others. 

“When we are our best selves, when we are in equilibrium, when we are where we are supposed to be cognitively, neurochemically, spiritually — we are giving people.”

Of course, this is not an original observation. Jesus taught his disciples in the book of Matthew in the New Testament, “Freely have ye received, freely give,” but in a world that is growing increasingly polarized, and in a landscape where identity politics seem to force us into smaller and smaller boxes until we feel isolated, misunderstood, depressed and miserable, this is exactly the tonic needed for our times. 

When I refer to charitable giving, I don’t mean exclusively donations of money to worthy causes, although they are certainly included. I mean giving in the broad sense of sharing one’s time, interest, humor, knowledge, resources, compassion, energy, connections and humanity without the expectation of personal benefit.  

Translating a few airline instructions into Arabic for a distraught passenger isn’t ever going to register on Charity Navigator, but it transformed in a lasting way those who participated in the small experience. How do we get more of that powdered-sugar feeling into our lives? How do we unravel our isolation boxes and weave our social fabric together again?  

There is a surprising amount of data showing how much Americans contribute to charity and some of the reasons it can be a powerful accelerator in our individual lives. Study after study shows that positive giving in any measure with any currency lifts us personally and lifts our society as a whole. 

In its annual report, Giving USA notes that Americans gave $484.85 billion to charity in 2021 — a 4% increase from 2020. The same report reveals that individuals rather than corporations made up 67% of the total givers and contributed $326.87 billion to the total. It is interesting that 30% of annual giving occurs in December and 10% during the last three days of the year.

AmeriCorps’ Office of Research and Evaluation estimates that 30% of U.S. adults — 77.9 million Americans — volunteered in 2019. They contributed an estimated 5.8 billion hours that was valued at approximately $147 billion. This is rather astonishing. It is more than the gross domestic product of Arkansas and 17 other U.S. states.

I had read that Americans are among the most philanthropically generous in the world, but I went looking to see whether that was true. The World Giving Index surveyed 1.3 million people in 125 countries and recently published 10 years of giving trends. It documents that America was the world’s most generous country over the past decade — 72% of Americans say they help strangers and 42% say they volunteer. These findings cut across age, region of the country and faith group. What is it about giving to charity that creates this significant impact in modern American society? And why, in times of stress like a pandemic or natural disasters, does giving increase?  

Study after study shows that positive giving in any measure with any currency lifts us personally and lifts our society as a whole.

Here are five reasons charitable giving remains a powerful, societal force both individually and collectively.

1. Giving makes you feel good

 The knowledge that you are helping others is enormously empowering. For many years, I passed a woman standing on a street corner outside my office asking for money. After years of avoiding eye contact, I finally introduced myself and asked her name. She told me her name was Carol. I told her my name was Sharon. After that, we greeted each other by name. Sometimes I handed her a sandwich or a few dollars, once she offered me her lip gloss, but I was amazed by how her bearing changed when I called her by name and she replied with mine. I suppose we were dabbling in impact. None of this changed her situation or mine. But we both felt something I can only call dignity. Giving to others simply makes us feel good.

2. Giving expresses your personal values

Perhaps your worldview is that the human family are all brothers and sisters, obligated by love and familial ties to help one another. When you act on these powerful feelings of accountability and compassion, it reinforces your personal values and generates feelings of living true to your own ethical beliefs. 

In my faith tradition, we fast one day each month and then donate what we would have spent on food so that others may eat. In my view, it is an elegant solution perfectly adapted to the personal circumstances of each individual who participates. All can give, even if it is small, and all may receive. The aggregated donations fund a system where individuals can receive groceries, employment counseling, home goods, mental health support, addiction recovery and other services. By fasting, I express my personal values that all have something to contribute, all are worthy; God is a merciful judge, and the world is full of second chances. I am trying to make alive the charge from Jesus Christ: “By this shall men know ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.”

3. Giving contributes to lasting impact and change

One of the major causes of death in infants around the world is neonatal tetanus. It can be contracted when the umbilical cord is cut with an unsterile instrument or the naturally occurring bacteria gets introduced to the newborn. It is an excruciating death that has an almost 100% fatality rate. In 1999, there were 59 countries where expectant mothers did not have access to routine tetanus immunizations to protect their babies. It is a logistical feat to safely deliver vaccines into difficult to reach areas but, with focused funding, infant deaths have declined by an estimated 92%, and neonatal tetanus has currently been eliminated in all but 12 countries. This stunning result occurred because global organizations and national governments were supported in their vision by passionate donors. Significant change is achievable.

4. Giving introduces your children to their own abilities to contribute

I was once contacted by the PTA president of a local elementary school. A first grader named Zack had enlisted his class of other six-year-olds to sell homemade cookies and soda along a parade route. Now they wanted to make a donation. Zack had read online about people needing wheelchairs, and he calculated that he and his classmates had raised enough money to purchase six wheelchairs. Their accomplishment was remarkable, but I was most moved by the confidence of Zack and his friends. They didn’t drive a car or earn salaries and they couldn’t yet spell philanthropy, but these earnest first graders saw no barrier to changing the world simply because they were children. 

5. Giving encourages your friends and family to do the same

This past September, Hurricane Ian dumped 22 inches of rain on parts of Florida. A woman named Misty, who leads a homeowners association of 2,000 residents, discovered JustServe —  a mobile app that pairs volunteers with local opportunities. After the storm surge flooded her neighborhood with three feet of murky water, Misty used JustServe to organize volunteers. The HOA posted needs on the platform and residents responded. Misty dispatched neighbors in an airboat to rescue a paraplegic from his flooded home. A kayak evacuated a dialysis patient to get needed treatment. Teenagers in canoes delivered barbecue door to door to cheer people up. Giving is contagious and creates long-lasting bonds more powerful than any hurricane.

But even with these compelling reasons, there will be those who feel their circumstances don’t allow for charitable giving. Research by  Arthur C. Brooks turns conventional wisdom on its head. He says we feel constrained by myths that simply are not true. For example, some believe giving makes us poorer. In fact, research bears out repeatedly the unintuitive finding that those who give to charity end up with more resources than those who do not. 

Another myth some believe is that our natures make us too selfish to give. But while it may be true that people are often selfish, naturally we are predisposed to be generous and there is a rush of endorphins when we indulge our generous impulses. In Brooks’ words: “When we are our best selves, when we are in equilibrium, when we are where we are supposed to be cognitively, neurochemically, spiritually — we are giving people.” 

Brooks also dispels the myth that giving is a luxury for the wealthy. It is not. Giving is a psychological necessity for everyone. If we want to improve our own happiness, we can’t afford not to give. And he addresses the idea that our nation can afford to offer government aid, so we don’t need private giving. While there are some things governments do well, choosing to institutionalize assistance somehow breaks down the interpersonal bonds that form from authentic, individual caring and service. We may be able to afford it, but faceless bureaucracy is rarely superior. 

Make a “donation” to someone with whom you disagree. Give them your attention and respect for a few minutes. Look for any common ground. Heed the Dalai Lama and answer hostility with “warm-heartedness.”

Through years of professional involvement in humanitarian initiatives, I have had a front-row seat in observing the impact of charitable giving on both givers and receivers. I note that we are all givers and all receivers at the same time in different ways. I deeply believe charitable giving and receiving, offered with dignity and sincere compassion, are the foundation of both civilized society and personal happiness. 

Last year, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ collective efforts totaled just short of $1 billion in humanitarian giving and contributed 6.8 million volunteer hours, but it is a small drop in a vast ocean of need. The truth is, the world needs you. In whatever ways fit your life, your unique abilities are needed to work side by side with others on the problems of our day. Here is my invitation:

Make a “donation” to someone with whom you disagree. Give them your attention and respect for a few minutes. Look for any common ground. Heed the Dalai Lama and answer hostility with “warm-heartedness.”

Try changing the currency of your charitable giving. If you have been donating money, experiment with giving a little time or expertise. If you feel you don’t have the luxury of giving monetarily, try Brooks’ premise and see if giving does indeed pay off in happiness and financial stability. Each currency has unique compensations.

Spread your contributions out over the year. Organizations often suffer from the boom-and-bust cycle of holiday giving. 

Create a “giving box” with the children in your life. Let them add to it in whatever ways fit their circumstances and investigate and nominate a charity or cause to support. Then make the donation together and get involved. 

Download the JustServe app, type in your ZIP code, choose a local volunteer project and invite a friend. You won’t be able to stop talking about all you learned from your own neighbors.

Whatever you decide to do, be prepared for a change. At a time when so many have crumpled to the floor wailing because no one understands them, you will discover evidence that we truly can overcome the barriers that divide us. The individuals you help will in turn share their homemade cookies. No one will refuse them and you will suddenly believe in the depth of your heart that not everything is lost.   

Sharon Eubank is director of humanitarian initiatives for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a former first counselor in the church’s Relief Society general presidency.

This story appears in the December issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.