At the turn of the twentieth century, a Scottish-born steel tycoon named Andrew Carnegie became the world’s second richest man.
He was 66 years old in 1901 when he retired, and he believed people with means were morally obligated to do good with their money.
Over the next ten years, Carnegie focused on large-scale philanthropy. He funded scientific and medical research. He established pension funds for teachers and professors. He built more than 3,000 public libraries and gave vast sums of money to universities. He loved music and funded music conservatories and donated money to build organs. He gave away money to promote world peace.
By 1911, Carnegie had given away nearly 90 percent of his vast fortune.
Now, that might be fine for the Carnegies of the world. But what about the rest of us? Are we also morally obligated to do good with our money?
Or maybe the question fleshes out like this: we’re taught as men to amass money, to invest money, to save money, and to budget wisely with our money.
But is there any benefit in giving money away? Particularly if we’re young men, and don’t have much of it to begin with?
I mean, sure — sometimes obvious benefits come from giving. The primary one is, of course, the chance to help folks in need. And then there’s stuff like a tax deduction or getting your name on a plaque, park bench, or list of donors on an online funding site. Sometimes positive promotion results from giving money or goods away too, like when an author gives away a Kindle or Nook to promote his latest book.
But are there any reasons apart from the obvious advantages? Is there benefit when we give discreetly, wisely, and even anonymously?
Consider these three surprising benefits:
1. We’re actually happier when we give money away.
Watch any hour of prime-time TV, and you’ll see 18 minutes of commercials that all say the same basic message: if only you buy this particular product, then you will be happier. If only you get that new truck. If only you get that new phone.
But that’s not actually how real life works. You get a new phone and six months later it’s obsolete. So you need a new one, and then another new one, and then another new one. The cycle of acquiring possessions never ends. A new truck is nice, but if we’re looking to it to satisfy us and give us a sense of security and significance, then we’re looking in the wrong place.
Elizabeth Dunn, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia, conducted a variety of studies and concluded that once routine bills are paid, pro-social spending actually makes people happier than personal spending.
In one straightforward experiment, researchers gave five and twenty dollar bills to groups of college students. Half the participants were instructed to spend the money on themselves. The other half were to spend the money on toys for children and other charitable giving.
Afterward, participants who spent the money on others reported enhanced mood, increased sense of meaning and significance, and greater overall feelings of well-being.
Conclusion: It pays to give.
2. When we give, we participate in what we deem is important.
When I was 22 I was out of college and taking a gap year. I’d traveled a bit overseas by then and had seen the economic breach between how people in first and third world countries lived.
One night after my shift working as a waiter at a restaurant, I was up late, hanging out watching TV. A commercial came on for a child sponsorship organization. I recognized the name of the organization and knew it was reputable. But I dismissed the idea of sponsoring a child with the thought that I wasn’t making much money myself. Participation in one of those organizations was only for older, financially established people, right?
Wrong. Over the next few days, I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. I knew kids were living in impoverished conditions throughout the developing world — I’d seen them firsthand. Giving those kids a hand up was something I deemed important. It was within my grasp. I couldn’t help all the kids on the planet, but I could help one.
A week or two later, the same commercial came on. That night I wrote down the 800-number for the organization. The next day I called and sponsored a child.
It turned out to be a pretty cool thing. I sponsored a 10-year-old boy in rural India named Kamal. Over the years we wrote letters back and forth through the translators in the program. He eventually grew up, and thanks to the program was able to go on to higher education, get a good job, and lift himself out of poverty.
I like to think I had a hand in helping him along the way. I didn’t change the world. But I did do something.
The point? Anybody can wear a tee shirt with an altruistic slogan on the front. But ask a man to show you his wallet. Where his money goes is the truer indication of what he deems important. If you care about something, then actually give to it.
3. Giving releases us from the power of money.
A few years back I worked with an author who described how he knew at a young age that he was strongly attracted to making money. There’s nothing wrong with that, but for the profession he was headed into, he wanted to ensure that he would never be locked into that mindset. He wanted to ensure that money never held power over him. Why?
Because if money held power over him, he reasoned, then he would be tempted to make decisions only with economic gain in mind.
To combat the pull of money, he conducted a series of personal experiments. He started to give things away, all the while progressing in his business. The items were small at first. A sweater he valued. A book he enjoyed and wanted to keep. A gift certificate to a fancy restaurant. At first, he described how he felt troubled, even disappointed, at the idea of giving things away. But he began to notice a strange pattern: though we should give strive to give without expecting a reward, rewards — tangible and otherwise — often come in return.
For whatever item this author gave away, he always seemed to gain back more. Sometimes it was simply self-respect. Sometimes it was a boosted mood. Sometimes it was a returned favor. Sometimes it was a happier client, who would then go on to bring increased business traffic back his direction.
Today that man is a wealthy man. Business is booming. His name is recognized throughout his industry. And he continues to be a huge giver. He remains committed to philanthropically supporting a variety of organizations, most of which promote education and international relief to impoverished people. In addition, he’s known to give away much larger items today: cars, vacation packages, and even houses. Yep, houses.
Paradoxically, the less this author made money his goal, the more successful he became; rather than selling out and going for short-term gain, he was free to make his own choices in his craft and to create things with real, lasting value.
The big conclusion of his experiment was that money is amoral yet magnetic. Amoral — meaning it is neither good nor evil. Money is merely a tool that can be used toward helpful or harmful ends. Magnetic — meaning it draws people to itself. The only way to have power over this magnetism is to show money who’s the boss.
You do that by giving it away.
What will you decide to do?
Did you ever read that classic book when you were a kid — Paddle-to-the-Sea? A young boy carves a wooden canoe and tosses it into a stream. The big question is where will it go? What will it do?
Giving away money is like that. No matter how old we are, there’s something cool about that feeling — releasing something small into the great unknown. We will never fully know all the good that can happen when we give money away.
What will your contribution do? Whose life will it touch for good? What will that person do in turn to impact someone else’s life for better?
Note that I’m not advocating giving money away blindly. Indeed, it’s helpful and prudent to research whatever organization you give to.
The website www.charitynavigator.org is extremely useful in this regard. It’s an independent nonprofit corporation that evaluates charities and other philanthropic institutions to determine if money is spent wisely.
Certainly you will want to give to organizations that you trust because of their track record and history of careful stewardship.
And then in the grand scheme of things, you let your contributions go because you trust the big picture of the organization.
That’s what’s cool about giving.
In the case of Paddle-to-the-Sea, the wooden canoe eventually travels through all five Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River and finds its way to the vast Atlantic Ocean. At the end of the story, you’re left with a feeling of wonder and greatness and triumph.
It can happen like this. Friends of mine sponsored a child in Ecuador. They lost touch with him after he graduated from the program, then years later they reconnected. In the meantime, he’d become an attorney and today he’s paying it forward, helping many impoverished people have a voice in legal matters and securing justice.
That’s what I’m talking about. The small monthly donation that my friends gave over years multiplied itself exponentially.
You just never know. Maybe the twenty bucks you give to the American Cancer Society will be the tipping point. It will be the money that breaks open the solution to curing cancer.
Just imagine all the possibilities that can happen when you give.
How have you experienced a benefit from giving money away?
Marcus Brotherton is a contributing writer to Art of Manliness.
Enjoy his debut novel, Feast for Thieves.