The Science of Compassion

Last week I went to Plymouth Housing’s Luncheon for Hope, which raises money to house Seattle’s homeless. It was a packed house of 1600 compassionate people who collectively raised $1.3M in a mere 90 minutes for their mission. After client testimonials and The Ask, we were introduced to the keynote speaker, Shankar Vedantam,the host of NPR’s Hidden Brain. Apropos of why we were there, he spoke to us about compassion and how it is accessed and processed (or not) in our brains.

 As someone who for over 20 years has relied upon and tapped into the compassion of many in order to do my part in making our society more livable and equitable, I was captivated by his words. I know that when we help others, we experience a greater happiness than if we had done something for ourselves. Now science has weighed in and has offered proof that it’s true. 

 One well-cited study shows this clearly. Two groups were given varying sums of money. One group was told it must give the money away, whereas the other group was instructed to spend it on themselves. Consistently and across variables, persons in the first group had greater neural activity in key areas of the brain and were seen as happier than their self-indulgent counterparts. And this neural activity was present even in the mere anticipation of giving money away to help others. In other words, we are hard wired to do good. So why don’t we do it all the time?

 Vedantam explained that just as there are predictable triggers in our brain for generosity and happiness, there are barriers to them as well. He shared three with us, and I noticed that the first two address an issue that we talk about all the time in philanthropy: the quest for impact. 

The first barrier is distance. It’s much easier to help someone right in front of us than someone who is miles away. Responding to the immediacy of someone’s needs is a knee-jerk response for most of us. However, when someone far away is in crisis, the time it takes to learn of the problem and then to get your relief delivered, causes many of us to lose interest or become more apathetic than we’d like to be. The reason, Vedantam says, is because we don’t get that immediate rush of happiness that comes from having done well by someone. Helping close by is evolutionary.  

The second barrier is scale. For many of us, when confronted with massive problems that we can’t readily solve, we tend to shut down or simply just ignore it--think about homelessness, climate change, etc. You are not alone if the sheer scope and magnitude of the world’s most intractable problems leave you feeling exhausted. It turns out that we are genetically and neurologically predisposed to being overwhelmed in these situations. When we don’t feel we are having, or can have, an positive impact on a negative situation, we are less inclined to help.

 The final barrier is what’s called “the bootstrap narrative.” We have all heard it said that if a person is in trouble, they should “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” and fix their own problems. It’s a widely held notion, but research debunks the idea that the first person who should help someone in crisis is that very same person. Vedantam cited a famous study called the Minnesota Starvation Experiment, which showed that a person’s mind becomes entirely captured by the thing they lack (especially if that thing is essential, like food, housing, or even a drug). In fact, they can think of little else. Scientists have learned that scarcity captures the mind and the afflicted are in fact the least ableto solve their own problems. They lose the ability to think rationally and instead do the things that may manage the scarcity today, but do nothing to address the root cause of their problems. Watching people make what we can clearly see to be “poor choices” makes our compassion for their plight go out the window. But our expectations are unreasonable. Boot strapping while in distress simply doesn’t work.

 So what can we do to override or outwit our brain’s wiring so that we can be compassionate all the time? Well, apparently it takes very little—and you don’t have to be a martyr either. We just need to remember that: 

  1. Compassion is contagious. When we are working at something with others or if we even see another person toiling away at something good, we tend to be more eager to join in and to help. 

  2. Break it down. Instead of thinking you must rescue all stray animals in world, find one. When we can more readily see our impact by breaking off a small piece of the problem and we “solve it,” we’re more apt to do it again, and so will others. (See point #1.)

  3. Compassion lives everywhere. There are many ways to exhibit compassion, so don’t be fooled into thinking that it’s all about money. Making a call to check in on a grandparent or mentoring a teen, goes a long way toward making a difference in the world. And when we do it, we give something more valuable than money—time.

 Being compassionate is a part of what makes us human. As we get strategic with our philanthropy, let us not complicate what it’s all about in the end.

Faith and Charity

Photo by  Billy Pasco

Photo by Billy Pasco

Depending on the part of the country in which you live, it may not be obvious how central religious giving is to the philanthropic sector in the United States. Donors in parts of the country that are more religious, tend to give more, give more widely, and volunteer more. For example, Southern donors give roughly 5.2 percent of their discretionary income to charity—religious and secular—compared with donors in the Northeast, who give 4.0 percent. Churches, temples, mosques, and their non-profit supporting agencies deploy billions annually to aid people all around the world. 

The value of generosity is a concept that has deep roots in many faiths. However, given that next month hosts the high holidays of the three Abrahamic faiths (Ramadan in Islam, Passover in Judaism, and Easter in Christianity), this blog post explores the role of giving in each of them.

For Muslims, giving is one of theFive Pillars of Islam. “Zakat” (meaning to grow in purity and is focused on charity or alms-giving) is an annual payment of 2.5 percent of one’s assets, considered by many as the minimum obligation of their religious giving. A majority of Muslims worldwide make their annual zakat payments as a central faith practice.

Above and beyond the required zakat, many Muslims make additional gifts (referred to broadly as “sadaqa”). Interestingly, the word shares the same root as the Jewish “tzedakah,” meaning justice. Muslim giving also focuses primarily on the poor. Of course, charitable giving is not just for the rich. For those with no money to give, the Prophet Muhammad considered even the simple act of smiling to be charity, a gift to another.

In Judaism, the Hebrew Scriptures refer to “tzedakah,” literally meaning justice. Tzedakah is considered a commandment and a moral obligation that all Jews should follow. The commitment to justice places a priority on their giving to help the poor. Beyond giving just time and money, rabbis even spoke of “gemilut chasadim,” literally meaning loving-kindness, or focusing on right relationship with one another as the prerogative of religious giving. 

Even more broadly, an ancient Jewish phrase, “tikkun olam,” meaning to repair or heal the world, has been adopted by many religious and secular causes. Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, and George W. Bush all spoke to a vision of “tikkun olam” in their speeches. 

Similarly, Christianity has considered giving a key religious practice. Many Christians still look to the Hebrew Bible and the tithe, which involves giving one-tenth of an individual’s income, as God’s commandment. In the New Testament, Jesus not only spoke of giving a tithe but challenged followers to give far beyond it. 

For instance, in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus challenged the rich, young ruler to sell all his possessions. Pursuing those values, a long monastic tradition has seen men and women taking vows of poverty to give themselves to the work of their faith. Today, while the tithe might not be practiced by a majority of Christians, most understand the practice of giving as a central part of their faith, especially in December as a mark to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

When I think of my own background, I reflexively thought that our Catholic family didn’t have much connection to philanthropy. But upon reflection, I realize that we embodied the consistency, generosity, and intentionality that I counsel in my clients. I remember so clearly that moment every Sunday at Mass when the ushers would walk up and down the aisles with a basket at the end of a long pole that reached in front of every sitting congregant, quietly imploring them to make a deposit. Every week, my father’s jacket pocket contained an envelope, pre-filled out by the Parish, with a contribution inside that he dutifully added to the collection. My sister and I, anticipating this moment in the Mass, pestered our parents for loose change, or even sometimes a bill, to drop in when the basket passed in front of us. In that moment just after making my contribution, I felt grown-up, a part of something, and proud to be joining others in giving. 

Those childhood feelings still inform how I give today, and I am not alone. Among Americans who give to any cause, 55 percent claim religious values as an important motivator for giving. The Discovery Process at Phila probes deeply into your values and how they inform your giving. And in this work, religion is not ignored. Regardless of the basis of your faith, most who grew up in a religious environment can speak to how the rituals, rules, and expectations have left their mark—for good or for ill. This exploration helps our clients reflect with intention and authenticity on what exactly informs the “why” of their giving. 

Instead of simply giving as part of a routine, it is worthwhile to explore the role of faith and values in your philanthropy. Doing so can provide insight into, among other things, the type of organizations you might support, your expectations around impact, and how or if you decide to become more involved with their work. And it is worth remembering too that including your children in your giving ritual, no matter how simple, lays good seeds for a robust philanthropic future.

Having a greater understanding for and appreciation of the charitable mandate in so many faiths, we might see that we have more in common with each other than we might realize. 


This post references statistics from The Chronicle of Philanthropy and uses descriptions of religions giving practices from The Conversation under the Creative Commons license.


Giving by High-Profile Individuals

Author and philanthropist, JK Rowling

Author and philanthropist, JK Rowling

Ellen DeGeneres, Brad Pitt, LeBron James, Mark Ruffalo, Oprah Winfrey. These entertainment industry superstars not only lend their names to charitable causes around the globe, they are also among the growing number of celebrities collectively giving over $1 billion dollars to causes ranging from the environment, to education, race and gender issues. Whether it’s J.K. Rowling giving away 16% of her net worth in just one year—with $160 million in donations to various charities—or Colin Kaepernick’s million-dollar pledge to organizations working in oppressed communities, celebrities are increasingly using their powerful voices to affect change.

Guiding those on the global stage through the charitable giving process requires a different approach than working with non-celebrity clients. With any client, Phila moves only as fast as the speed of trust. Trust and integrity are the keys to building the rapport necessary to begin our process. We begin by asking why are you interested in philanthropy and why now? Individuals with a public persona need to spend considerably more time than private individuals asking themselves the big questions around their giving because their success stems directly from the authenticity they display. Philanthropic choices lay bare your personal values to the world. You need more than just money and good intentions; you need to have a reason for giving and as well as a plan.

So what can you expect working with Phila?

Focus. Attention to and focus on not just the client, but their family to ascertain what is most important to them and why is central to our interaction. Our advisors acknowledge the full spectrum of individual and family values, needs, fears, joys, and sorrows—the human and spiritual complexities that come with great wealth and fame. Working with Phila assumes your willingness to engage in self-examination, to ask yourself probing and difficult questions, and to commit to answering them honestly. Questions like: “How did I get here? Who had to make sacrifices to make my success possible?”

Alignment. With all of our clients, the foundational work of planning for philanthropy does not involve reading balance sheets or writing a check. The very first indicator that a charity is a contender for your gift is if their mission aligns with your values. Thus, we spend a significant amount of time exploring who you are as a person. Being in alignment with a cause you publicly support makes the mission match all the sweeter and feels good not just to you the donor, but to the organization you are supporting as well. 

Authenticity. If your personal beliefs and experience are in alignment with a cause, the public will see your advocacy as authentic. Our firm is not about publicity. While it’s true that lending a well-known name to an issue can have positive outcomes for both parties, our driving force is forging authentic relationships based on altruism and shared values. Having a true, deep connection to an issue makes it more likely that your experience as a philanthropist will be rewarding.

Diligence. We are diligent in recommending not only which organizations to work with and how best to support them, but also the infrastructure needed to support your giving. Should you have a foundation or donor advised fund? And if it’s a foundation, should it be operating or non-operating? Many do not realize how complex giving vehicles can be; especially when you consider tax, estate planning, governance, evaluation, and the sustainability of your enterprise. Phila will help you make the right decisions based on your unique needs. 

Discretion. For many, giving is not about recognition it’s about the work. Many prefer to work silently in the background, and out of the spotlight. (Prince’s philanthropy comes to mind.) Based on a client’s preferences, we advise on giving anonymously, the best charitable vehicles to use based on how public you want your giving to be, as well as how to use one’s platform for advocacy. Regardless of your choice, Phila does not publicize who any of our individual clients are, as we believe in creating a private, non-judgmental space to learn and develop your charitable profile. 

Competency. We are experienced in working with individuals, families, and institutions to help our clients get the most out of their giving. Beyond the core competencies required in the social sector (such as, due diligence, governance, compliance, best practices), our greatest skills are the “softer” ones—clear communication, the ability to listen and to show empathy, and a responsiveness to the multiple demands on clients who lead busy, complex lives. 

Collaboration. No one person can do it all. Working with Phila means you gain access to a team of individuals who can address the complicated needs of every client. Whether it’s connecting you to wealth managers, attorneys, personal coaches, or PR agencies—or  working with your established team of professional advisors—we at Phila do not work in a vacuum. We are collaborative by nature and recognize that philanthropy is an expression of the whole person with a variety of needs. 

There are many ways the wealthy and famous can get involved in philanthropy. For those individuals who are looking to connect in a profound and meaningful way to issues they care about, who want to be a part of organizations doing the important work on the ground, and who want to use their talents as well as their treasure, a deep engagement with philanthropy can be especially rewarding. But before you begin in earnest, be sure to take the time to establish a clear understanding of who you are as a person so that your giving will reflect the values that shape your life. Doing so will guide you toward the people out there who are on the front lines of changing the world and need your support.