Generosity has always been around. Why has it become a brand unto itself only recently?
I don’t think you can point to any single cause for the answer. Instead, all of the following causes (and more) have combined to create the branding of generosity:
The arrival of a cause-oriented generation
Members of Gen Y or the Millennial Generation (or whatever you choose to call today’s young adults) are highly motivated by causes. According to a recent report, 75 percent of young people donated money to causes last year, and 63 percent volunteered time.
Generosity comes naturally for this crowd. It’s a part of who they are. I use frozen yogurt to describe the phenomenon: People from other generations may be like customers who go into a fro-yo store and casually select toppings to put on their yogurt. They start with a simple base of vanilla bean yogurt and add toppings all the way to the cash register. In other words, for them generosity can be an add-on to who they are and what they’re doing with their lives. They may add on generosity to get a higher price point, or to add value, or to establish a better presence in the marketplace, or to lend a sweeter flavor to their name. But for Millennials, there is no add-on, no essential division between their identity and their good works. They are not interested in the higher price point, the value-added equation, a better appearance or any of the rest of it. Generosity is already totally blended in with who they are.
Too often, employers, pastors, and organizational leaders underappreciate the central place that generosity occupies for this generation. As Tyler Green—the Millennial grandson of the founder of Hobby Lobby and a generosity expert in his own right—reminded me, we fail to connect with these individuals because “we are not telling the right story. The generation before did the American dream: work hard to stack stuff up. The generation behind it wants to help people right now with their lives. They don’t want to do this so they can go do that one day. They ask, ‘Why can’t I do it now?’ ”
I mentioned before that website Trend Watching labeled the current generation as Generation G for generosity. Here’s what they said about all of the rest of us following the Millennials in making generosity totally blended in with our organizations:
Joining GENERATION G as a company or a brand is not really optional, it’s a fundamental requirement if you want to stay relevant in societies that value generosity, sharing and collaboration. Joining obviously entails more than adding a social responsibility or sustainability department; it means adopting a generous mindset that permeates every interaction with your community, with your employees, with your customers, with, wait for it, your “stakeholders.” Nothing more or less than a holistic approach to generosity and business.
The worldwide love affair with sustainability
Organizations everywhere are talking about how to become economically, environmentally, and socially sustainable. From factories cleaning up their wastewater discharge, to multinationals supporting education in the developing countries where they hire, to agricultural corporations investing in organic growing processes, organizations are trying to pursue their mission over the long term while minimizing the damage they might do in the world. This helps to bring generosity’s concerns right into the inner workings of organizations.
In a recent sustainability report, Tyson Foods highlighted the following achievements:
• 18 million pounds of protein donated to hunger relief agencies since 2010
• 11 percent reduction in water consumption at Tyson plants since 2004
• nine new products introduced in the last year that met updated USDA school standards
• reduced greenhouse gas emissions and waste sent to landfills
• investment in ultra-light equipment to increase transportation efficiency
Companies all over are pursuing similar measures because they know they are going to receive scrutiny for sustainability—and it’s not only good for others but also in their own best interests.
The leveling effect of technological advances
No longer is it just the foundations and not-for-profit organizations with large media budgets that can gain attention for their work. Through communications technology, even those engaged in the smallest of efforts to do some social good can now find help and expose their work to whomever might be interested. Do you want to start an organization to help orphans in a village in Africa? Fine; go ahead and create a Facebook page to start building a tribe of followers. Don’t know how accomplish something? Well, Google “ How do I _____?” and in minutes you’ll have enough information to warrant a master’s degree on the topic. Too impatient to apply for foundation funding? Get your seed money through Kickstarter or one of the other crowdfunding platforms. A movement may be only one viral tweet or YouTube video or Instagram post away. It doesn’t take a big bank account to buy an iPhone and get rolling.
… show a need from anywhere on the globe in real time, right now.
…allow me to access just about any information with no delay.
…let me network with others and find the help I need.
…provide immediate feedback from the field.
…unleash new funding opportunities.
…permit even a small organization to create world-class videos to highlight their work.
… connect a team spread around the globe for better synergy and effectiveness.
…offer off-the-shelf solutions to capture and organize data and track giving.
All this and more is in reach of any generous group, thanks to technological advances.
The involvement of celebrities
For a long time now, since well before Michael Jordan raked in obscene sums to hawk Nike shoes, celebrities have been leveraging their visibility to advertise products. Sometimes an upstart has ridden celebrity popularity to almost instant success: think of GoDaddy with the likes of Danica Patrick and Jean-Claude Van Damme.
What’s new is the extent to which the generosity brand recruits people to do the same thing. Instead of promoting hamburgers or luxury cars or smartphones, they’re trying to get you interested in a program to feed the hungry, house the homeless, or heal the sick.
Angelina Jolie becomes the face of the United Nations’ refugee agency. Bono speaks up for Amnesty International. Even Jimmy Buffett wants you to know about the Save the Manatee Club. It may be a symptom of the shallowness of our times, but recognizable figures bring generosity opportunities to the attention of millions.
The entrance of mega philanthropists
Of the thirty largest charitable foundations in the world, one-third didn’t exist in 1980. The main reason for the recent surge is that some of the world’s wealthiest people are getting into the giving game. The partnership of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett in the Gates Foundation is the best-known example of many. The author of the book Philanthrocapitalism may go overboard with his subtitle: How the Rich Can Save the World. But surely the rich can do, and are doing, a lot.
Buffett and the Gateses have organized the Giving Pledge asking billionaires to pledge at least half of their wealth to charity. (Buffett has pledged 99 percent.) This effort not only ensures that vast resources will be directed toward charitable aims but also encourages some of the brightest business minds in the world to collaborate and creatively attack areas of profound need. Perhaps most importantly, though, it reveals a growing sense of both responsibility and empathy. Bill and Melinda Gates capture both these qualities in their personal pledge letter:
Our animating principle is that all lives have equal value. Put another way, it means that we believe every child deserves the change to grow up, to dream and do big things.
We have been blessed with good fortune beyond our wildest expectations, and we are profoundly grateful. But just as these gifts are great, so we feel a great responsibility to use them well.
The mega giving trend doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that the rich give wisely or with the most impact. In his book Reinventing Philanthropy, Eric Friedman points out that the rich tend to give to causes that make them feel good (for example, a new wing to a natural history museum in their city) rather than to causes that are profoundly important to a lot of people (for example, fighting childhood diseases in the developing world). Nevertheless, the potential for good that their wealth embodies is immense.