Why are some people seemingly hard-wired for compassion, while others hardly notice suffering? Is generosity the by-product of a virtuous upbringing; a quality we learn primarily through early observation? Or is altruism something we can develop later in life through practice? What do we really know about generosity?
Very little, as it turns out, but that’s changing. In 2009, Christian Smith launched the Science of Generosity Initiative at Notre Dame to lead "an international effort to uncover the causes, manifestations, and consequences of generosity." In a September 2012 paper in Nature, Harvard University researchers David Rand, Joshua Greene, and Martin Nowak conclude that when given the choice, our innate first responder—intuition—is pretty generous. But in a span of just 10 seconds, a stingier impulse arises, and the cooperative impulse decreases dramatically.
We can see that happening around us right now. Just after Hurricane Sandy, New Yorkers exhibited the kind of intuitive outpouring of generosity the Harvard paper suggests. Rebecca Solnit, author of A Paradise Built in Hell coined the term "disaster utopia" to explain how people band together and help one another when crisis hits. But now, as with all crises, we see this immediate and spontaneous generosity receding: New Yorkers back to jostling each other on the subway and pretending not to see the homeless as we scurry by.
The importance of generosity is strongly rooted in all cultures: Buddhists believe that dāna (generosity) has positive transformative powers on the mind of the giver. In Judaism, the idea of tzedakah holds an interchangeable meaning—righteousness and charity—you can’t have one without the other. In the book of Mark, Jesus pointedly observes a poor widow parting with her last two coins and tells his disciples that the sacrifices of the poor mean more to God than the proportionately larger donations of the rich. Muslims believe no charity decreases wealth, it will be returned to the giver by Allah, all in good time.
But congregants’ adherence to philosophies that encourage generosity are on the decline, and there’s even some fibbing involved. A national survey of churchgoers by Christian Smith and Heather Price at the Association for the Sociology of Religion Meeting this year, found that while a quarter of respondents claimed that they contributed 10% of their income to charity, in reality, only 3% of the group gave more than 5%.
But perhaps our interest in generosity isn’t declining, it’s changing and in need of new models for expression. A 2010 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by James H. Fowler and Nicholas A. Christakis, revealed that social networks inspire greater generosity. In lab experiments, subjects played a series of games with strangers (choosing how much money to give away and to keep). Subjects were "influenced by fellow group members’ behavior in [their] future interactions with others who were not a party to the initial interaction." This influence kept up for multiple rounds. In other words, generosity is learned, it’s contagious and most effective when it’s a shared experience.
At my organization, Catchafire, we’re creating new opportunities for talent-based generosity. We work with professionals who, not content with just doing excellent work at their day jobs, join Catchafire looking for ways to put those same skills to good use for nonprofits and social enterprises they admire. You simply register on Catchafire and the site delivers you highly accurate matches to specific nonprofit projects based on your skills and cause interests. The projects you get to work on are high impact and high value, spanning a few hours to a few months, and they are designed to be executed in parallel with regular life. Jim Craig, an executive from Virginia, helped empower low income urban kids by leading a Mission and Vision Analysis for Quest Adventures. Faigy Gilder, a New York non-profit manager, helped alleviate poverty in Kenya by designing a Social Media Strategy for The BOMA Project.
In celebration of generosity, and in the spirit of inquiry on how to understand it and to create new mechanisms to express it, we’re announcing a series running on Co.Exist examining some of the most generous people in a variety of fields. You can find it on Twitter at #GenerositySeries.
We’ll be showcasing monthly lists of honorees based on professional excellence and demonstrated acts of service (rather than just deep pockets). Then we’ll be talking to each of them about their personal philosophies on generosity and who in their lives have inspired them the most. Together, we’ll attempt to get to the bottom of how to embed, encode, burnish, and lock-in ongoing, meaningful, day-to-day service into our collective DNA.
Today we unveil our Top Ten Social Media Mavens, who have innovated the use of social media for the greater good. In the coming months we’ll keep going with profiles of Designers, Tech Founders, Wall Streeters, Marketing Gurus, and Filmmakers.
Top Ten Social Media Mavens
In a political age when the national conversation woefully lacks the forward momentum that results from constructive conflict, we especially appreciate Huffington’s emphasis on using social media to ask and demand answers for the harder questions: When do we move past left and right? Can capitalism survive without a moral foundation?
We all know our moms are powerful, but James figured out how to band them together (well, the ones who blog anyway) to form a powerful, 1,000-mother strong, worldwide network, Mom Bloggers for Social Good. The site, led by James, amplifies news, "from maternal health and child survival to hunger and education" and the message is loud and getting louder.
Kristof’s investigations of human rights abuses are dedicated to shining light on "forgotten people in the developing world" and his reporting on Darfur and Tiananmen Square have earned him two Pulitzer Prizes for commentary. But we’re especially fascinated by his real-time engagement with his more than 1.5 million followers on Twitter and Facebook, where he consistently elevates the conversation through the candor, compassion, and intelligence of his questions.
Horvath used to be homeless. Now that he’s not anymore, he doesn’t pretend the whole thing never happened. Instead he has dedicated his life to an unorthodox brand of grassroots advocacy. With a simple camera setup, he seeks out homeless men and women all over the world, for raw, uncomfortable interviews which he uploads to YouTube unedited and unfiltered. If you think that sounds like a recipe for Internet obscurity, well, then you haven’t seen Invisible People TV.
Brigida was first noticed by her bosses at the NWF for quietly creating a deafening buzz in their previously non-existent online community. They figured they had a social media maestro on their hands and let her have full rein. She took them to a social media following of 400,000 active advocates, and now everybody in the nonprofit world wants to know how she did it.
Shaun King is a preacher and Twitter is his pulpit. We knew we loved him for his relief work in Haiti, and his crowdfunding site HopeMob.org, but then we saw him spring into action during Sandy. Whether arranging for a stranded woman with lupus to be taken for her meds or an emergency generator to be delivered to the Bowery Rescue Mission, he is a human need aggregator and clearinghouse of crisis support.
Norton used to scare us but now he cracks us up. Whether playing a reformed neo-Nazi or a blood-gurgling street fighter, his immense acting talent often showcases human darkness. But then he came up with Crowdrise, an online fundraising community that combines irreverence, wit, and philanthropy—something you don’t see every day.
Christy Turlington Burns, Founder, Every Mother Counts; Director/Producer, No Woman, No Cry; Supermodel
Did you know that every day, approximately 800 women die from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth, 99% in developing countries? Neither did Turlington Burns, until she experienced complications during labor and set out to find out more and then do something about it through No Woman No Cry, her documentary and Every Mother Counts, her nonprofit.
It sounds like a movie plot: a morally bankrupt nightclub promoter runs away to Africa and pledges to provide clean drinking water for every person on the planet. But it’s all true. Harrison’s Charity:Water, which lets interested people form their own campaigns to raise money for clean water, is working, donating more than $40 million to clean water causes.
When the rest of us were first face-stalking high school friends, Diaz-Ortiz was figuring out how to use Twitter to shine a light on AIDS orphans from an orphanage in Kenya. The author of Twitter for Good: Change the World One Tweet at a Time, she is a powerful voice for do-goodership in the social media space and for using the power of social networks to effect real change.
And stay tuned for another mystery guess. Who doesn’t like a surprise?
Come back Monday, for a full story on Arianna Huffington.