Sheryl WuDunn explains the complex worlds of charitable giving, volunteering, and altruism. WuDunn is the co-author of A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunities.
The world of philanthropy and charities is in its infancy, it’s sort of like an infant industry. Certainly it’s been around for a while and there are some very prominent philanthropists who have been known for a century or more, but I think what’s important to understand is as the industry develops there’s going to be good players and bad players. And so in terms of charities, what we are trying to explain to people is that yes, giving is great; it’s good for your health; there are many reasons why you should be participating in trying to change the world around you. At the same time you also have to be careful. There are some charities that are much better at it. There are some charities that are scams and you have to be careful. And sometimes there are some real rotten apples but you can’t let the rotten apples spoil the entire industry.
The world of charities is extremely broad and I think that what’s really important is to sort of know what your goals are, what you want to do. For us we were saying okay, I think that a lot of charities should target the needy, people who need it. Certainly some of the nonprofits put a lot of effort into, like a church for instance has to keep up the church and make it look very nice for the public and that’s very all well and good and they need to renovate the outside of the building. That’s all well and good, especially when it comes to museums, when it comes to things like the Sistine Chapel of course. But when it really comes to trying to help the poor, I mean that is what the essence is of charities to help people who are underprivileged.
A surprising amount of philanthropic dollars don’t to go to the needy. Even in higher ed there was a study done by the Indiana Center for Philanthropy that found that only a small portion, less than 50 percent, far less than 50 percent actually ended up helping poor students who couldn’t afford to go to college. Now, it’s not by intent, it’s just that we need to become more efficient. This industry needs to become a lot more efficient and needs to target much more clearly the needy.
Altruism actually is a very interesting phenomenon. So we think that when we give we’re losing something; we’re giving some of our money, our time, our resources to someone else. It turns out when that neuroscientists who have studied altruism, they found some interesting results. In a survey that looked at many different people they discovered that when you give you stimulate a part of the brain, it lights up this part of the brain and that part is very so much the same part of the brain that is stimulated when you engage in pleasures like eating candy or eating ice cream, falling in love, it’s the same area. And in half of research subjects it turns out that their feeling of pleasure was more intense when they gave than when they received. So being altruistic makes you feel better, makes you feel happier.
It turns out that volunteering is very good for your health. And we all want to live longer but we all face a risk of mortality. If you go to church regularly and it’s a very social environment, you’re really trying to be compassionate; you learn compassion, that actually reduces your risk of mortality by 29 percent research shows. If you exercise four times a week, maybe more, that reduces your risk of mortality by 30 percent. If you volunteer for two or more organizations, that decreases your risk of mortality by a whopping 44 percent. So volunteering, being compassionate, helping other people, it’s good for your health.
So if you want to volunteer, what we’ve done in A Path Appears is we have a list of dozens of organizations, but what’s most important is for you to find something that you’re interested in. It doesn’t work to sort of say everybody’s volunteering for the Red Cross, let me help too, you really want to think about what it is that you care about. Because you have a different background from your friends or from other people, you want to find out what moves you. And you might be able to match your skill set as well if you think that you’re a computer scientist, you certainly could donate some of your computer science skills.
But I do think that if you could find a group of friends who have similar interests you can do it together. You can talk about it; it becomes a social thing. We really could learn a lot from the way mega churches operate. They make giving a social event, a joyous event on a regular basis. And so we really do think that if you can make it something part of your life with some friends you’ll enjoy it even much more.
We think that in A Path Appears it’s really important for people to understand two basic things. One is that there are many ways to address inequality. It’s a disturbing trend. Even Obama said it was going to be, “the challenge of our time.” And it’s important to really try and see how we can address that and we can. We can address that by spreading opportunity throughout the country. And the most efficient way of doing that is by intervening early through early childhood education. We’re talking about age one, two, three, even before the official public school system kicks in. Because your brain, the brain is forming much more rapidly during those early years in the first one thousand days. So if you can capture that window and milk it for what it is, you’ll be far more effective in altering a life path, particularly if it’s a child born to parents on welfare or impoverished parents. You really want to change that life path. And you can intervene later of course, but it is much harder and much more expensive. And the second thing is that it really is important for everybody to get involved. As I’ve talked about the health benefits, it really not only helps move and change the world around you but it also helps you as well and the family and friends around you.