Which comes first: giving as a business strategy, or giving as a way of life?

It’s a chicken-and-egg type of conundrum.

Do the people who found businesses that ‘do good’ as a key purpose of that business – rather than simply to comply with a perceived Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) image – start with people who learned about giving through the example of their families and community? Or, does having a business that gives back once it reaches a sustainable level of profit turn someone into a philanthropist?

I reckon it’s the former.

Last night I was privileged to hear from some incredible Perth philanthropists at the Inspiring Rare Birds panel event at Flux. The panel was expertly facilitated by Perth IRB ambassador and committed philanthropist Sue Pember. The event went a long way to answering this question in my mind.

The panel topic was ‘Giving as a Strategy’. The point of the event was to get across that your business doesn’t need to be a multinational or even turning a significant profit to give. Giving – as in charitable donations of time and money – can begin at the founding of the business. And perhaps it should.

One theme came through to me clearly as I listened to my fellow panelists:

Giving is not just a business imperative. It’s a way of life.

Alicia Curtis, founder of the 100 Women giving circle, hit the nail on the head when she said most people give to causes related to a personal experience that has touched them.

Tanya Finnie spoke of her time with tribes in Africa and how that has informed her approach to cultural interaction in business and her United Nations role.

Dr Ros Worthington OAM spoke about how having breast cancer and losing her soul mate to suicide led her to found charities to help those in similar situations.

Tom Kooy spoke of watching his parents give their time to raise his brother (who was born with cerebral palsy) and learning what it means to selflessly give.

Skye Gilligan spoke of seeing waste (e.g. branded material destined for landfill following a name change) in the businesses she consulted to and putting in place a way to get those materials to people who need them.

Jo Burston spoke of founding Inspiring Rare Birds when she learned girls at her primary school and high school thought of ‘entrepreneur’ as an exclusively male occupation.

Panel members Alicia Curtis, me, Tanya Finnie, Skye Gilligan and Tom Kooy (photo courtesy of Gry Stene – thanks Gry!)

Who is most worthy of your charity?

I was surprised to find the choices of who and what the speakers gave to called into question. One audience member queried the priorities of the panelists. She was apparently appalled that anyone would give outside Australia when there is so much work to do at home.

For example, one in six kids in Australia lives below the poverty line (http://www.acoss.org.au/poverty/). So how can any Australian, in good conscience, give to a kid in Africa when there’s a family in the next suburb without food?

It’s an argument I’ve heard a few times. It’s one I’ve wrestled with as an individual, business owner and financial educator.

Here’s my opinion on the matter:

There is so much need in the world that the opportunities to give both time and money will drain your entire reservoir of wealth and energy if you let it.

Fill your own cup first.

If you are always giving and you don’t make sure that what you’re doing is also providing for yourself – financially, emotionally, physically, spiritually, mentally – you will crash and burn one day.

Part of filling your cup is feeling good about who you give to.

For example, the cost of providing a seeing eye dog to one blind Australian is around ~$40,000. That same $40,000 could give 1,600 people in India sight via the Fred Hollows Foundation. Effective altruism – the concept of doing the greatest good – is clear on this matter. If you asked the one blind Australian they may agree. Giving 1,600 people sight is the better use of that $40,000.

Those numbers don’t matter to my mum. She’ll keep giving to Guide Dogs Australia (GDA) for as long as she has the money to do so. GDA pulls her heart strings. She can feel good about where her money is going, so that’s where she chooses to give.

My opinion is that she should keep doing that. Here’s why:

If you don’t feel an emotional connection to the cause you’re giving to, you’ll stop giving.

Perhaps it’s better that Mum gives to GDA ongoing than doesn’t give at all.

As to the judgemental people who have the audacity to suggest your cause shouldn’t be supported: flip them the bird.

It’s your life. It’s your time. It’s your money. It’s your choice.

But what about administrative costs?

Our MC asked another popular question re: choosing effective charities. In other words, how do you make sure the money gets to those who need it?

I subscribe to the Dan Pallotta way of thinking on this one. If you consider admin costs in your choice of charity, I commend you to watch his TED talk. A worked example helps here:

If I have a choice between two charities delivering help to people I think need it and their service is comparable, but their admin costs of Not-For-Profit A are 7% of all donations and the admin costs of Not-For-Profit B are 40%, which should I choose?

Most people immediately answer ‘Not-For-Profit A’.

But what if Not-For-Profit A gets in $10 million in donations, whereas Not-For-Profit B gets in $100 million?

If I pick A, the people who I think need help will get $9.3 million.

If I pick B, the people who I think need help will get $60 million.

It’s a no-brainer then – you go for B.

Spending money is unfairly viewed as bad in Not-For-Profits. Which is why I don’t want to make Money School a Not-For-Profit.

Our biases do not result in the most good. It’s hampering our ability to help.

As for me…

As you can see, it’s possible to overthink giving. You could become paralysed by the options available and end up doing nothing.

So I’m keeping it simple.

My greatest potential to help people is to help them become financially independent through education. If I can help today’s primary school students be ready to start buying assets when they turn 18 years old instead of getting credit cards, we’ll need fewer charities. Money School and Maker Kids Club operate as social enterprises for this very reason: we like profit, because more profit means we can reach more people. We like giving, because our knowledge is valuable and the more families we can reach, the better for everyone. Everything I do is therefore directed to the single cause of financially capable Australian youth.

That includes:

  • Speaking to women in prison preparing to re-enter the workforce via Women in Leadership Driving Change – because they can raise their kids to save even if they didn’t,
  • Volunteering on the committee of Women in Technology WA – so I can encourage more girls in the lucrative industries that have helped me become financially independent, and
  • Giving scholarships to needy women who want to learn how to manage their money – so they can break the debt and poverty cycles in their families.

Thank you Inspiring Rare Birds, Aussie Orientation Services, Beyond Bank and Flux for making last night’s panel possible. I’ll be looking forward to the next event.

This article was first published by the author on LinkedIn.

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