Tony Achmat for UnitedLife
Over the past few decades I have noticed that the word philanthropy is always related to large donations, and by large I mean millions of dollars or tons of goods. So does that mean this lady in a small village who cooks a little extra and gives it to her neighbour who lives alone to ensure he eats a decent meal at least a couple of times a week, is less philanthropic? I believe this lady is showing more brotherly love in that gesture than the many millions of dollars donated by the big firms.
Have I ever been the recipient of a philanthropic deed? Yes. I grew up in a catholic orphanage in Australia. I guess I have no idea where I would have ended up in life without that option, but as I look back maybe there was as much philanthropy in there as there is in my little toe. Why? When you look closer, the orphanage was an institution designed to allow frustrated people to belittle and abuse children under the guise of doing God’s work. That said, I still say I was a lucky person having received philanthropic help as a child. But the kindness shown to me in my younger years by people outside the orphanage overrode the philanthropic deeds hoisted on us by our caretakers. There was a Lebanese family, uncle Max and aunty Emy. They ran a small shop that was on my way to school. Through their efforts to show me kindness, a synonym of philanthropy, I learnt that not everyone in the world was there to treat me like a third class human. Uncle Max, as I called him, taught me many things about kindness to others. Like when he was helping deliver shopping bags with groceries to mothers who couldn’t get to the shop because of little children at home. He taught me never to expect anything in return, as my reward would come later in life. It has, but more about that later.
Once I sat on a plane going to Rome with a gentleman who was going to visit the Vatican. He assured me that he spent his life being a good catholic, praying every night, going to church every Sunday which included donating to the plate when it came around and so on. I asked if he knew where the money in the donation plate was destined to go? His answer was not surprising – to help the starving people in India. I pushed further and asked, which starving people? He had no idea which in particular; he said he left that up to the church people who looked after the cause. The unspoken question was obvious – what percentage of his money went to help these unknown starving?
I found an NGO that was working in an African country. The aim was to help a family educate their children and help provide clothing and food supplies as well. I subscribed to support two families and dutifully ensured that a certain amount of money needed was provided each month. This proceeded for a number of years until one day, I had the opportunity to visit the country and the families. To my horror I discovered during my visit that each family received only 17 cents from each dollar I donated. The NGO told me that there were expenses involved and this was a regular case with other NGOs as well. I cancelled the subscription and set up an account for them where the two families were able to receive 100% of my donation. I found out that the extra money they received was now sufficient to help also other family members. This was a lesson learned. Not all NGO’s are necessarily bad or purely profit galvanised as the one I had encountered, but one has to wonder.
Let’s come back to us, the lucky and fortunate ones. We do want to help because it is in our genetics, but as a society we are actually lazy and happy to let others do the manual work, thus we get what we get and we can’t really complain. Most of us live a comfortable life, we have what we need and in most cases a lot of what we don’t need. I’m guilty of the latter part of the statement.
I have clothing that I never wear, shoes that I’ve forgotten about, tools that I have triples of and so on. Like most people I work hard and I feel I have the right to spend my money the way I want. I have no argument with you if that is your place, but I do have an argument with myself as I have a hard time convincing myself I need something I already have.
Ok, what do I do then with my surplus money? Save it for a rainy day, invest it for my children and their future or just give it away to needy charities? (They are all needy, just ask them.) Well many of you are in my position where we are comfortable moneywise and we feel we want to help those less fortunate. My solution is not a one size fits all, but it is a solution and I don’t call myself philanthropic.
I was able to find a family in Sri Lanka by myself that needed help in securing an education for their children which would make a vast difference to their lives. I adopted that family and have become a senior member of the entire family clan including over 160 people. None of them looks at me as the fairy godfather bringing good times, they just see me as a member of their family who is helping to educate the kids. The father of the family is a tuk-tuk driver. Life is hard and pay is not enough to allow for days off, so just like every average tuk-tuk driver, he works 7 days a week, 360 days a year. You hear no complaints from these people because they see it simply as the way life is, and it is that way only for them. But you and I are in a position to make things just a little easier for them. Looking around the house they live in which is located five meters from the main railway track between Colombo and Galle, I noticed an old sewing machine which obviously was not working. I asked the mother whether she used to do any sewing for her children. Because the sewing machine didn’t work, it was not possible.
The next day I went and bought a new Singer sewing machine for the price I would pay for a dinner for two at a decent restaurant here in Europe.
Are you wondering if that made a difference to the family? Not only clothes for the children, but a wedding gown was being made for 15% of the cost of a bought gown last time I was there. Not only was it cheaper, but the aunty was making it, thus cementing social relationships in the family. This is just one of the spin offs that can happen when people like you and I are philanthropic. Due to my profession I was able to help Kumara, the father, to develop his tuk-tuk driving into a small but growing tourist business. We have spent hours together designing a tour program that is now starting to be successful among tourists that wish to see real Sri Lanka. And since there are more people who want to help others, I explained the situation of Kumara to my web developer. He designed a website that rivals many on the net and spent time ensuring Kumara knows how to use it, another example of true philanthropy.
As the world gets smaller thanks to internet and we enjoy freedom of movement around the world, you will notice that the poorer the country or community, the higher the level of generosity, care and sharing. It is a part of the culture of those societies and I believe we have developed further away from that. Almost gone are the days when everyone in the family, even aunties and uncles helped the newlyweds to build their house without second thoughts about money or time invested. Today, newlyweds are mortgaging their souls and paying interest to do it. In our modern developed world, it is said that it takes a catastrophe to bring the community together to help each other, yet in the underdeveloped world it takes only the knowledge that help is needed for the community to come together.
Earlier in the article I said my reward for helping people when I was young would come later in life. It has. The look of enjoyment on Nadeesha’s face when she was making the wedding gown was my reward, and we can be rewarded everyday if we are compassionate to people.
After having read this, some of you will go on in life as you have so far and I wish you luck and success. Some of you may be thinking that there could be something you can do for the needy of the world. It is not difficult to find someone needy, the first step is to understand that the only person who can help you start is you. Once you have decided, the rest is exciting, heart-warming and full of love. I feel we need to think things through before we start, better than one of the world’s largest NGO’s in the 1960’s. They wanted to help one of the Indian subcontinent nations, so they donated 100’s of tonnes of rice to starving people. Except the people had no way of cooking the rice, so it was a philanthropic disaster. Don’t go down that road, spend time and think about it first. Consider the outcome, see if something prevents it from happening or continuing.
Lord Buddha says in one of his teachings that generosity begins in the heart. Desire to give in order to make someone’s life better is like sharing water from a well with other thirsty people. It never runs out.