Too Busy to Give Back?

Image via Laura Stone

As someone born and raised in San Francisco, I love that the Bay Area has become known for finding innovative solutions to complex problems. From cool new products to applications that connect people all across the world through photos and videos to search engines that can instantly find the answer to almost any question, the Bay Area is making things better for people.

But what about the 1.3 million people in our community for whom things are not yet better — people who struggle to afford their basic needs like housing, childcare, adequate education and primary care?

It’s hard to have a conversation about the great philanthropists of our time and not talk about Bill Gates. He and others like Warren Buffett, Paul Tudor Jones and George Soros have done some truly groundbreaking things.

But when I think about extraordinary entrepreneurs like Bill Gates, I worry a little. It was only after he retired from Microsoft that he took on philanthropy in a serious way. With only two jobs for every seven unemployed Americans, four million children in under-performing schools across the country and 23 percent of Californians living in poverty, we simply can’t afford to wait until our great entrepreneurs retire to get to work.

At Tipping Point Community, we’ve had success in sparking the movement to break the cycle of poverty in the Bay Area and getting people to give at younger ages than ever before. In California in 2008, individuals gave $17.2 billion altogether, with nearly 64 percent coming from those under age 45. But there are still far too many people in leadership positions at our best and brightest companies telling me they simply don’t have time to get fully engaged in philanthropy at this point in their careers.

With the massive growth in cause-related marketing, it’s easy to feel like you’re doing your part. You can’t go to the grocery store without seeing products like Newman’s Own, a company that gives the post-tax profits from its pasta sauces to progressive causes; or the Yoplait yogurt containers that ask you to mail in the pink tops to fight breast cancer.

In general, these are great developments. But I also remember what Bono said recently on “The Daily Show.” He called the (RED) products from his ONE Campaign the “gateway drug” to becoming more involved in preventing the devastation and spread of AIDS and extreme global poverty. His point is that although we’ve seen a surge of opportunities and vehicles for giving, there are also new pitfalls to be aware of.

The danger in the type of consumer activism we see today is that people are lulled into the notion that philanthropy is somehow easy. Any thoughtful person who has made money and taken their stab at philanthropic giving will tell you that giving money away effectively is far more difficult than making it. Good philanthropy requires the same commitment, due diligence, evaluation and risk-taking required for good business.

The days of writing a check, hoping it does some good and walking away are gone. Today, donors rightfully expect a return on their philanthropic investments, yet it’s daunting and time-consuming to sift through hundreds of thousands of causes and nonprofits to find the right ones to support. Smart investors would rather wait until they can do the research themselves, or not give at all, than invest their hard-earned money in organizations they aren’t certain are effective.

Poverty here in the Bay Area is a huge problem. Some say the challenges we face — homelessness, unemployment, subpar schools and lack of access to quality health care — are unsolvable. We can point fingers, throw up our hands and hope someone else solves them, or we can recognize that we have the power and influence to do something. We can ask great questions, invest our dollars and time in vetted scalable solutions, and pledge our support for the long-term.

We simply can’t continue to depend on old models of philanthropy or on the old giving mindset. As a great philanthropist reminded me recently, it’s never too early, too often or too late to give. I ask everyone in the Bay Area to think about what we’d like to be known for — innovative solutions to complex problems for some, or for all? The time to give is now.

Daniel Lurie is the CEO and founder of Tipping Point Community.

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