The Most Important “Impact” of Giving Is Not What You Think

With the dawn of another U.S. Thanksgiving holiday just days away, we will soon welcome the commencement of the official “season of giving.”  The month of December will experience millions of donors acting with great generosity and each year at this time I am reminded of the concept of philanthropic impacts.

Specifically, and, it seems, almost universally, is the notion that the role of charitable giving in all its forms and expressions is to serve some broader, greater good.  Not a week goes by in which we are saved from stories about “effective giving,” or “giving with impact.”  Our entire nonprofit sector, it seems, is incapable of assessing the value of charitable giving in any other way but by the degree of impact giving has on some larger problem, ill, or concern.

Proof that our sector values giving almost exclusively through the lens of  broad societal problems, outcomes or impacts can be found without much effort.  For instance, while we’ve had nonprofit rating services for years, The New York Times recently called a new impact rating system the “holy grail of philanthropy.” Major donors attend conferences each year to learn how they can ensure their gifts make the most substantive impact on the issues they care about most.  Heck, we even have other nonprofits established for the sole purpose of making giving “more effective.”

Don’t get me wrong, though.  I’m not at all against studying, researching, and applying what we understand about the “impacts of giving.”  I’m just extremely concerned that we are not focused on the most helpful level of analysis.

While our collective focus on the benefits of giving stubbornly sticks to the impacts and outcomes related to great social and global challenges, I fear we are speeding further and further away from acknowledging the first, most transforming, and indispensable benefit of giving — that which occurs within the donor.

Science has now confirmed for us that giving makes us healthier physically, emotionally, and psychologically.  Generous people live longer and have more friends.  Giving promotes a more positive outlook.   In short, we know that acting in a spirit of generosity impacts the donor in incredibly important and positive ways.  But, here’s another benefit worth mentioning:  Giving connects us as humans and makes us happy.  Donors feel more positive, connected to, and empathetic toward others and the world around them.  This is no small impact.

In a world that seems intent on careening out-of-control toward being more self-centered, fractured, disconnected, prickly, coarse, and uncaring, we know that one activity – charitable giving – serves as the antidote.  When people choose to give, the benefits they receive help to reverse the negative characteristics of a broken world.

So, yes, giving should be impactful.  Yes, giving should be effective.  And yes, giving should make a positive difference in the world.  But, the fact is, we know that each single act of generosity does all of that, regardless of who the recipient is or how “effectively” they might use the gift.

Perhaps, it’s time for the nonprofit sector to recognize that giving for giving’s sake is what will really make the biggest and most positive impact.

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