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April 4, 1997

Good for You

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It might seem obvious to say that generosity is supposed to do somebody some good. But surprisingly, in the business of generosity, the results are sometimes overlooked because the emphasis is placed on the process instead of the outcome. We can be more involved in the busyness of generosity than the business of generosity. We can be satisfied with feeling good about our generosity efforts and never evaluate how much we are actually doing good. But in the end, generosity is really supposed to be about doing good.
Every time they go to work in the morning, Mel and Dave Murray can see the transformation that has taken place in the lives of their guitar-making or fabric-weaving employees. Likewise, when a publishing conglomerate has diverted some of its cash to a literacy program as its chosen marketing cause, or when a multinational shipping company has used some of its logistics savvy to help speed relief to natural disaster victims, then they’d better expect that more people are learning how to read or the newly homeless have a tent over their heads.
It’s about getting something done. Foundations should expect that the nonprofits they disburse money to will accomplish their stated goals. Churches should want the employment counseling office or addiction rehab center or domestic abuse halfway home they have set up to result in people who are working gainfully or free of drugs or safe from a beating. Individual donors will want to know that they have made the right choices for the limited resources they are able to give away to help people.
And it’s not even just people who are the beneficiaries of generosity. Puppy mill opponents are trying to make life better for the dog population. The Nature Conservancy is protecting ecologically valuable parcels of land because it’s good for the species living there. Different recipients, but the same goal of achievement.
Books with titles like Strategic Giving, Money Well Spent, and Give Smart reflect a resurgent desire, not just to be generous, but to be generous effectively. All up and down the generosity channel, the players should be looking for results.
Now, I know that some results of generosity are harder to measure than others. If your organization is sponsoring construction of a neonatal unit in Haiti, you know when you’ve reached your goal—the unit is operating and preemies are getting treated. Child sponsorship organizations can enumerate the kids in their programs, and medical research nonprofits can list the reports they’ve published. But if your mission is “to use music to bring people together,” how will you prove you’ve done it? If you’re a group of physicians treating people in a war zone, are you going to ask them to fill out a satisfaction survey? When Charity Navigator announced that it would begin scoring charities on results, they got as many catcalls as cheers.
I also know that generosity’s ROI doesn’t always have to look “big.” Not every generosity business is going to have a goal as ambitious as eradicating malaria worldwide (a goal of the Gates Foundation). A gesture of goodwill that gives hope, the patient turning around of a life that has gone astray, any targeted outcome that is local or limited yet richly achieved—these kinds of “small” outcomes are just as important as the “big” ones if you happen to be in need of them. Every one is worthy of a celebration. Every one should give satisfaction to the generosity workers involved.
And then there’s the timing reality. In some cases a result doesn’t appear until well down the road. It might take a whole generation to measure the full impact of what you’re doing if you’re involved in education or environmental reclamation or any number of other good works that require patience. As Abraham Lincoln saidthe saying goes, “You don’t measure a tree until it has fallen.” Premature measuring of the transformation that generosity is producing won’t show the true picture, but that doesn’t means the transformation isn’t happening.
All these things are true. But big or small, easy to measure or hard to measure, quick to mature or slow to mature, generosity is still supposed to create genuine transformation of some kind.
For people living under the biblical worldview, the concept of stewardship informs our results orientation. The money and other resources in our control are not ultimately ours but God’s, so we are even more motivated to make sure we are deploying them for the social good as strategically as we can. Those with the gift of giving, or those who do philanthropy for a job, if they see themselves as stewards, certainly need to measure the impact of their gift. Those who direct the giving or charity must defend their ROI and treat it as a straightforward investment. We want to be able to give a favorable accounting to the original Giver who has “microfinanced” every one of us from His unlimited stores. We’re all there somewhere in the parable of the talents.
When I talk about the change potential of generosity, I ask people to think about how others have been generous to them through the years. Try it yourself: Family members, teachers, neighbors, and other caring adults helped you learn what you needed to know when you were growing up, didn’t they? Perhaps a coach came through with a word of praise just when your self-confidence had been withering. Perhaps a Big Brother or Big Sister turned you aside from the route to disaster with a well-timed display of tough love. Perhaps an anonymous benefactor supplied money to help you with your education or a business start-up. And all this is continuing to pay dividends in your community, your nation, and beyond as you are a productive and generous member of the human race.
You’ve been the recipient of generosity that made a difference. Your generosity toward others should be funneled in the direction of making a difference too.
Generosity does good for others. But that’s not the surprising part.

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