Why organizations should get serious about giving

This article is the first in a two-part series on corporate giving. Learn about practical strategies you can use in the second article, 5 tips for tapping the power of corporate giving.

Recent social science has confirmed what the wise have known for millennia: it is more blessed to give than to receive. And this simple truth applies just as much to organizations as to individuals. Corporate giving is more than a tactic for patronizing employees, convincing customers, posing for the press, or quieting critics. Applied skillfully, it is an organizational discipline with uncanny power to address hard-to-explain dysfunctions and boost performance.

In the archaic language of that timeless proverb, blessed means happy. The idea is a simple one: giving is a greater source of happiness than receiving. It’s an appealing thought, if a bit counterintuitive. What’s more, science bears it out.

The formal study of happiness only began in earnest in the early 1970s, and many of its findings have proved unsurprising. Research has shown, for example, that poor people become happier when they get money—and wealthy people express higher satisfaction with their lives. But on closer inspection, the picture is more nuanced. Beyond a certain point—about $75,000 in household income here in the United States—money has been found to have little impact on how often and how strongly people actually feel happy day to day. Receiving, it seems, has its limits.

Charitable giving, on the other hand, is a tried-and-true source of joy that knows know such constraints—and the reason may be wired into our brains. According to researchers at the National Institutes of Health, acts of charitable giving light up the same neural circuits associated with food and sex. In other words, giving feels really great. And generosity need not be financial. While people of means may enjoy more monetary giving opportunities, people of all income levels report greater happiness when they give meaningfully of their time.

"The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” — Mahatma Gandhi

Giving yields the greatest benefits when it is practiced as an intentional discipline guided by a spirit of service—a desire to influence the wellbeing of others. This is because when we take care of others, we transfer the emphasis of wellbeing away from ourselves. An excessive self-preservation mindset leaves us overburdened with factors outside our control (that is, what happens to us). By contrast, taking care of others emphasizes what is in our control by definition—namely, the actions we take. The result is a kind of freedom.

"Stop thinking about yourself every second of every day, which only produces boredom, dissatisfaction, fear, dread, anxiety, and hopelessness. Put yourself away and begin to find freedom … which we might also call happiness.” — David Guterson

A self-preserving mindset has great value when individual survival is at stake. But in much of today's developed world, survival is not a pressing day-to-day concern. What's more, basic needs are met not independently by individuals—but indirectly, through vast, complex human systems. As societies have globalized, the value of the self-preservation instinct has diminished.

And yet, however little value it may hold in today’s world, the instinct to take care of one's self (even at the expense of others) remains a fundamental human trait, more primal and reflexive than the instinct to give. An outsized and misapplied sense of self-preservation manifests as self-centeredness—a mindset that yields little satisfaction, not least because it seldom works in modern socialized society. In small quantities, self-centeredness leads to frustration and dysfunctional relationships. In large quantities, it leads to prison time.

In the context of corporate giving, the word “corporate” refers not to an organizational structure but to an act or pattern of giving that is owned and shared by all the members of a group.

While an other-centered mindset may not be as primal and automatic as a self-centered one, it can be learned and even woven into the fabric of cultures. Witness millennials (the generation born after the early 1980s), who see philanthropy as more of a public, community responsibility, compared with the more private, personal flavor of giving practiced by their parents and grandparents. This trend has particular implications for organizations, because as millennials move into the workplace, they bring with them a view that philanthropy is a corporate (shared) responsibility.

Business leaders ignore this reality at their peril. According to a recent study of 1,500 millennial job seekers, fully a third of respondents reported that volunteer policies affected their decision to apply for a position. And corporate giving isn’t only for millennials. In our practice, we have observed that employees of all backgrounds participate at similar rates and with similar benefits to those who do.

Organizations that practice giving cultivate the same benefits as individuals: more energy, stronger motivation, heightened situational awareness, pride of identity, increased courage, healthier relationships, greater affinity for goal setting and achievement, rational optimism, and improved focus.

Now is great time for leaders to think about making disciplined giving a strategic priority in 2015. Could your organization do with a little more happiness?

This article is the first in a two-part series on corporate giving. Learn about practical strategies you can use in the second article, 5 tips for tapping the power of corporate giving.

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