The 4-Point Case for Selfish Giving

"Giving money away ... I find that boring. I do it because we owe it," said Dr. Richard Rockefeller, who chaired the advisory board of the medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders for twenty-one years. In 2000, after a trip to Uganda to visit a malaria program, Richard was diagnosed with a very rare and lethal type of leukemia. He credited his survival to a miraculous drug that was released months after his diagnosis, and became deeply engaged in giving people access to drugs for rare diseases ever since. "In medical practice you discover the feeling of tremendous joy when you see somebody sick, and know that you are deeply involved in making them better."

Richard survived terminal leukemia, but died two years ago in a plane crash, a few months after I interviewed him about what giving does to the giver. Our three-hour conversation was an honest examination into the self-interest involved in giving, and I am happy to be able to share some of the highlights of that conversation that deeply moved me - at times to tears.

There are things we will and should do out of obligation, sympathy, a sense of responsibility, and in the spirit of public service. In Richard's case - writing checks was an obligation he dutifully fulfilled but that left him bored. But then again, there are ways to give our time, talents and treasures in ways that not only make a difference in the lives of others but also fill our needs. Here are some things we gain from giving:

It makes us feel good.
As Richard talked about how his charitable work had brought him joy, I reminded him that some people argue that giving is meant to be a sacrifice. "You can go on with that argument forever and it's just not a useful argument. I remember having that discussion when I was a thirteen-year-old with my roommates in school. We concluded that there was no such thing as altruism because you could always say that it was self-serving because it would make you feel good."

It fills some people's need for prestige.
"I don't care about power and prestige, but if they're also highly effective with the way they're giving, then let them be." Giving just to make yourself feel good and to relieve your own anxiety and suffering is to him "an unskillful way of going about your life." The giver must also be extremely concerned about the effect they are having, and see whether their gift has also had a good effect on the recipient.

It gives us a sense of peace.
This sense of peace is found in living a life filled with compassion for other people. "If you approach every day that way and have a philanthropic goal that's about increasing the happiness of other people, then it's a source of pure joy. There's an expression: 'What goes around comes around.' You move it that way and then eventually it comes back to you, because you are connected with a person or group or cause that you are giving to. There's a circle of reciprocity rather than charity."

It excites us and switches us on.
What are your gifts and how are they different from others? "Over time, through clarifying practice you find out what it is that switches you on," Richard says. "Everybody has something that can switch them on. Some people get excited about something and some people don't. The greatest experience of giving is when all parts are in harmony. The work I am doing doesn't feel like giving - that's the odd thing. It's using the skills that I have, and knowing that I'm increasing them, and the goal is something that I care deeply about and that my heart is in it. It's using my intellect, my spirit, and my heart, and my body, and there's a flow."

As a philanthropy advisor, I absolutely do not discourage people from giving to good causes simply because they are not aligned with their interests. If we gave only to get something back each and every time, what a dreadful, opportunistic world this would be. But how wonderful would it be to reach that sweet spot where generosity feels organic and gives us the fuzzies. How wonderful it would be to feel what Richard felt when he said:

"When you give, it doesn't feel like you're giving anything away. It feels as though you are a vessel for something else moving through you to create something. What's moving through you might be money, if that's what you have, but ideally, what's moving through you is everything that you have. Money, skills, intelligence, love. What makes for really satisfying giving is where everything that you have is being used. When it doesn't feel like work, there's no difference between work and play; it's just what you want to do."