Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I had the chance to catch up with friends and family who were curious about Challenge Detroit. When I explained my fellowship and my position with the Civic and Community Relations team at FCA, many said something like “it’s so nice that you’re spending your time ‘giving back'”.
I think a lot about what it means to pursue a social impact career, and something I always struggle with is the perception of “giving” in our society.
Then, on the way back from work last night I listened to the Thanksgiving special of TED radio hour, titled “Giving it away”. I kid you not; I was so captivated that I completely missed my exit on I-75.
In it, Dan Pallotta explains how philanthropy in America is traditionally set up so that organizations and people can either give or make, but not both. My studies and this fellowship have shown me that social problems facing our cities are massive and complex, but Pallotta argues that our belief system keeps philanthropy small (consistently 2% of GDP for the past 30 years).
There is this persistent and damaging idea that a company or an individual can’t make money helping other people. What I find ridiculous is that people can very easily make money not helping people. Pollata explains that you can make 50 million dollars selling violent video games, but if you make ½ million trying to cure kids of malaria you are considered a parasite yourself.
Companies are encouraged to spend millions on advertising their products, but even the most prominent charities are discouraged from spending money on advertising the good that they do. Low overhead limits scale and impact, and it’s obvious where the consumer dollars flow.
For individuals, it seems that you can either do well for yourself, or do well for the world. So young talent is going directly into the private sector because people can’t make that kind of lifelong economic sacrifice.
And it’s not about greed or selfishness. It is actually cheaper and more effective for talented professionals to choose the larger paycheck, donate to charity every year, save money on taxes, get heralded as a philanthropist, sit on the board of the charity they care about, and exert higher power and influence. So what bright minds are left to run the organizations on the ground?
The nonprofit sector is often characterized by big ideas and big problems, yet we force nonprofits to lower their horizons to fit the notion of the lean charity with low overhead. It is clear that my generation wants to be innovative, creative, and contribute to ideas that benefit people and places. In order to do that, we need to start thinking critically about how to strengthen the social sector and combine the ability to both give and make.