Thursday, October 14, 2010

Sex, Drugs, and Philanthropy: or, A Little Shameless Self Promotion

A couple of weeks ago I gave a talk at Ignite Baltimore about the importance of everyday altruism. I was privileged to share the stage with some amazing people - including Gin Ferrara, Ellen Cherry, and Douglass Austin - who spoke compellingly and etertainingly about everything from why affirmative action still matters, to why you should go media free for a week each month, to why you should take magic mushrooms. You should check out what they had to say.

A couple of things you should know about the video below. First, there's an erratum: in the talk I quoted a figure of $40,000, when I meant to say $4,000. Whoops. Secondly, despite my best attempts to pare down my speech to meet the five-minute requirement, I found myself having to skip parts of my prepared remarks in order to not get gonged off the stage. So my full notes are reprinted below.

Ignite was a great experience, one which I would encourage anyone with an idea to consider.

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SEX, DRUGS, AND PHILANTHROPY / THIS IS YOUR BRAIN / THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON PHILANTHROPY / DOPAMINE IS DOPE!

In 2006, a team of researchers at the National Center for Neurological Disorders gave a group of people $128 each, a list of charitable causes, and several options: they could either donate some or all of it to support the causes, they could oppose the causes at no cost to themselves, or they could pocket the cash.

So they were all ‘troded up and their brain activity monitored. What researchers found was that: not only did all the participants choose to give at least some of the money away, but that the act of giving lit up an area of the brain called the mesolimbic system, which controls the pleasure that people receive from sexual activity and opiates.

In other words, when you act philanthropically, the brain sends out a little squirt of dopamine that tells you, ‘hey, that felt good!’ (::squirt:: “hey!”)

PHILANTHROPY V.1.0
Now you may be saying to yourself, ‘fine, that’s interesting, but what does it have to do with me?’ After all, when most of us hear the word ‘philanthropist,’ we tend to think of sepia-toned robber barons who established foundations to atone for the awful things they did to get rich the first place…

PHILANTHROPY RELOADED
…or else contemporary rich folks who are in the headlines because of their recent kajillion-dollar gifts. But while people like George Soros and the Gateses give more than anyone else in terms of dollars, when you look at charitable giving as a percentage of household income, the face of American philanthropy begins to look very different…

THE FACES OF AMERICAN PHILANTHROPY / FACES CONT’D / MANY WAYS TO GIVE
…in fact, it begins to look a lot like us. In 2009, despite a terrible economy, ordinary, middle- and lower-income Americans gave over $227 billion to support worthy causes. And that’s just money; it doesn’t factor in the value of the time that American volunteers gave. Last year in Maryland alone, an average of 1.3 million of us contributed over $4 billion in volunteer hours.

These figures are important because we live in an era of flat or decreasing government funding for everything from mental health services to the arts, even as the demand for these vital services continues to rise. What this means is that our philanthropic dollars and hours count for much more than they did before the start of the recession.

And we give in a diversity of ways! Here are a couple of examples.

SLIDE 10: EXPERIENCE CORPS: GENERATIONS COMING TOGETHER
This is Julian. He’s a member of Experience Corps-Baltimore, which places trained, stipended older volunteers in struggling elementary schools. Not only has Experience Corps-Baltimore been proven to improve students’ academic performance, but it also helps to keep older volunteers healthy.

SLIDE 11: SOCIAL MEDIA, SOCIAL GOOD
And while online giving is still an emerging trend, it’s an option that more and more of us are turning to. In 2008, the Homeless Persons Representation Project raised over $4,000 to combat homelessness in Baltimore through a Facebook campaign to support a group of us taking part in the national Walk to End Homelessness.

INVEST IN BALTIMORE / ONE-CLICK PHILANTHROPY / START YOUR OWN PHILANTHROPIC FUND
These are just a couple of examples of the countless ways we can become everyday philanthropists. If you are looking for ways to achieve the most impact from your altruism, I have a couple of suggestions.

The Baltimore Community Foundation – which, in the interest of full disclosure, happens to pay my salary – has a handy function on its website, www.bcf.org, that gives you the ability to support good things in Baltimore…without even having to change out of your PJ’s.

By clicking the “Give Now” button, you can contribute immediately to funds that help make our air and water cleaner, improve our schools, keep our arts and culture scene vibrant, and make our neighborhoods safer, better places to live.

You also have the option of opening your very own donor advised fund at BCF, which gives you control over your charitable investments as well as tax benefits and the support of professional staff. If you’re interested in any of these options, you should visit www.bcf.org or see me after the talks.

DO SOMETHING: VOLUNTEER FOR BALTIMORE
If you’d like to find fun ways to donate your time, Business Volunteers Unlimited is your one-stop shop. In addition to their online volunteer portal, www.volunteercentral.net, BVU hosts a forum series called “Do Something” where you can learn about volunteer opportunities, and an 8-month volunteer training curriculum. If you’re interested in these or any other BVU offerings, Dana Schwartz from BVU is here tonight somewhere, or you can go to bvumaryland.org.

PHILANTHROPY IS ABOUT ALL OF US / GET YOUR PHILANTHROPY ON / LEARN MORE
Going back to that brain research for a moment, think about how much we spend on sex and drugs – no, I mean legally. Think of all the money we spend on lattes at Starbucks, or on Resurrection at Brewers, or on cigarettes, or on nightclub cover charges. Think of how much we spend on that sweet outfit to impress a date, that romantic dinner at Cinghiale, that bed and breakfast in Allegany County.

The problem with sex and drugs is that they’re not tax-deductible! If we spent one-tenth as much on philanthropy as we do getting that “::squirt:: hey!” of dopamine all those other ways, the world would be a better place, we’d feel good, we’d get tax breaks, and we wouldn’t have to worry so much about that hangover, that caffeine crash, or that morning walk of shame. So go out and give. Thank you.

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