A growing number of individuals, corporations, and non-profits are talking about the whole notion of “giving back.” Mark Zuckerberg, in talking about his donation of $100M to the Newark, NJ public schools said “People wait until late in their career to give back. But why wait when there is so much to be done?” Bill Gates has given away hundreds of millions of the billions he is worth through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Warren Buffet created The Giving Pledge “to invite the wealthiest individuals and families in America to commit to giving the majority of their wealth to the philanthropic causes and charitable organizations of their choice either during their lifetime or after their death.”
Similarly, The Giving Back Fund was established ”to help cultivate a new group of philanthropists within the entertainment and sports industries, with a particular emphasis on groups often underrepresented in traditional philanthropy such as people of color, women, and youth.” Not a sports or entertainment figure? No problem, GiveBack enables you to create your own foundation. Still out of your league? Buy your pencils through Give Something Back Office Supplies.
Giving back is in vogue, especially among those who already have a lot.
A wise colleague and friend once asked the question: “Instead of giving back, how about taking less?” What is she, a Communist?
Hardly. She’s among the most compassionate, just people that I know. And I think she’s on to something very profound.
Two related question several related questions:
- How much is enough?
- How much is too much?
- How much is fair?
Living in Silicon Valley, I am surrounded by wealth. Many people have amassed enormous amounts of money from the technology industry, investment banks, and venture capital funds. Founders and early employees in successful companies particularly profited from initial public offerings of stock and subsequent liquidation of their holdings. Thousands of employees enjoyed the ride as well, making exorbitant salaries and enjoying lavish perks. The stockholders in these companies also profited as well. This is the capitalist dream. Those who risk big should profit big when and if the market endorses their product.
And yet there is another way that the system could work. Instead of personally pocketing millions and then giving it away, individuals could choose to simply take less, take what is “enough” or “fair” but no more. The piles of money “left on the table” could be funneled immediately to NGOs, shared more broadly within the employees, distributed to shareholders, or plowed back into R&D.
What might be the result of such a transformation on business models? On our social fabric? On politics?
Millions of people around the world look for insight into life’s most important questions by consulting the Bible. While I personally inhabit the “skeptic” end of the believer continuum, I do find that certain Biblical stories resonate with me. One such story occurs in each of the canonical gospels of the Christian New Testament, and is commonly referred to as the “miracle of the loaves and fishes,” or the “Feeding of the multitude.”
Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’ Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ They replied, ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.’ And he said, ‘Bring them here to me.’ Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children. Matthew 14:13-14:21, New Revised Standard Version
How could this happen? Certainly a miracle!
There is a rational explanation that does not rely on a doubtful miracle. People took less. Indeed, moved by their compassion for others, they dug into their personal stores, hidden from the disciples before, and gave it to others. The abundance was always there, but people were thinking selfishly, wanting to preserve what they had for their own. The real “miracle” is not the intervention a divine Star Trek-ish food replicator, but a change of heart from self-centeredness to other-centeredness. The masses took less to the point of actually giving back at the same time.