Most Charitable Giving Doesn't Make Headlines, and It Doesn't Have To
Between Robert F. Smith and MacKenzie Bezos, there has been an extraordinary buzz lately surrounding philanthropy and charitable giving. My career has straddled both sides of the donor-recipient relationship, and one of the biggest lessons that I take away is that the dollars themselves don’t have to be extraordinary to be impactful. I spent the first four years of my post-graduate school career working for one of the world's largest philanthropic social justice organizations. I observed and worked on the ins and outs of giving on a massive scale. I saw when things went right, and I also saw what it looked like when they didn't. So when I ventured out on my own to found an artisan-based social enterprise, I had a few models in mind for what form the "social" component could take. But it wasn’t this established organization, nor its billion-dollar budget, that I drew inspiration from as I set out to charter my own course in giving. It was instead the inconspicuous largesse within my own Ugandan-American-Nigerian-Liberian-German family (no exaggeration) and in the immigrant communities that I was born and raised in just outside of Washington, D.C.
"Giving" as we interpret it in the West often comes in the form of money. This is a limited definition. Growing up, aunties, uncles, and cousins from Africa and Europe stayed with my family for periods of time—often several months at a time—as they settled into a new life in America. If money exchanged hands at all, the sum was negligible and not the point. This giving was in kind and through the sharing of space. (Time is also an underappreciated yet a very real form of currency in the West.) Secondly, and an increasingly significant portion of some countries' GDP is monetary giving, often done in the form of remittances. Remittances alone made up 37% of South Sudan's GDP in 2017 for example, the highest percentage in the world. Direct translations for "charity" and "philanthropy" as words or concepts barely exist in many non-Western languages and cultures. At best these remittances are "gifts". Neither aforementioned scenario is an obligation as much as it is what you do when you are of relative means and a migrant (rural-to-urban, continental, or otherwise).
Last but not least, small businesses can incorporate giving into their development models. This was how I entered the realm of giving: as a business owner. As a first step, I had to decide on a partner organization and I knew I wanted it to be in Uganda. As an aside and before any of this began, I had to reconcile the unsung nature of the giving I had grown up around, with the very public presence I would have to adopt in order to have a successful program. This formal approach and its requisite self-promotion contradicted giving as I knew it. I felt uncomfortable. And because I was working with an organization in my village in Uganda, it did feel like family. The executive director even referred to me as "Maama Kalungi", the quasi-formal colloquial way of addressing a woman who is also a mother. The need to raise the funds ultimately outweighed my modesty, so I pushed forward to advance the program's objectives. In 2015 I visited and shortlisted several non-profit organizations in and around the capital, Kampala. Ultimately, I selected Suubi Orphanage School, whose needs best aligned with an area I felt could have the biggest impact on Uganda's future: youth education. With the partnership formalized, I set up the business's charitable arm. The mechanism was straight forward: A portion of all sales of products made in Uganda would go to Suubi School. I put together a digital marketing campaign that drove traffic to these products on the website, scheduled a series of market events, and hoped for the best. Within five months, we hit our targets and were able to deliver the funds to Suubi for their facilities and school fees for several orphaned students. The dollar amount was modest, and the impact was anything but.
So while the Roberts and MacKenzies of the world are making historical strides to the tune of millions and billions of dollars, there is still a lot being done with far less that doesn't make headlines. There are several ways you can give, too. With wedding season upon us, one way is to make a donation in the couple's name to a charity or local organization of their choice. Another opportunity is to donate to a public school's PTA in an under-resourced area. If you're reading this in the United States, it is the only country in the world that funds public schools through property taxes. (That's a huge problem and probably a future article.) If you don't have money to give, volunteering is always an option, too. So here's the bottom line: You might make not headlines, but you don't have to be billionaire, not even a millionaire, to make an impact.