Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Age of Philanthropy: The Wheels of Wealth

By Wayne Visser
The Rockefeller story is a
good one to introduce the Age of Philanthropy, not only because of John D. Rockefeller’s iconic status as a tycoon and philanthropist, but also because his life and views on charity embody much of the philanthropic attitudes that still prevail today in business. At the heart
of the Age – and its chief agent, Charitable CSR – is the notion of giving back to society. Rather interestingly, this presupposes that you have taken something away in the first place. Charitable CSR embodies the principle of sharing the fruits of success, irrespective of the path taken to achieve that success. It is the idea of post-wealth generosity, of making lots of money first and then dedicating oneself to the task of how best to distribute those riches, by way of leaving a legacy.

Of course, the ideals of charity and philanthropy pre-date Rockefeller. Like greed, charity is probably as old as humanity itself. And right from the beginning, there is an element of enlightened self-interest. For example, in the Hindu religious text, the Rig Veda (1,500–900 BC), we are told: ‘If it is expected of every rich man to satisfy the poor implorer, let the rich person have a distant vision (for a rich man of today may not remain rich tomorrow). Remember that riches revolve from one man to another, as revolve the wheels of a chariot.’ Similarly, in the Upanishads, another of the Hindu scriptures, it states: ‘Like in a well, the more you fetch, the more water oozes. The more you give the more you get. This generosity is mandatory to every individual. Hurry to promise or pledge to help.’

Turning to the Far East, Confucius (551–479 BC) said: ‘When wealth is centralized, the people are dispersed. When wealth is distributed, the people are brought together.’ Hence, ‘a man of humanity is one who, in seeking to establish himself, finds a foothold for others and who, desiring attainment for himself, helps others to attain’. When asked, ‘Is there one word which may serve as a rule of practice for all one’s life?’ he replied, ‘Is not reciprocity such a word? What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.’

This so-called Golden Rule, which we find in all the world’s major religions, has come to represent the very essence of charity. In fact, the word charity derives from the Latin caritas, which means preciousness, dearness, or high price. In Christian theology, caritas became the standard Latin translation for the Greek word agape, meaning an unlimited loving kindness to all others. Hence, in St Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians, we read, in the King James Version of the Bible, of ‘faith, hope and charity’. Of course, it is not only giving that is important, but also the nature of giving. There is a Jewish proverb that says: ‘What you give for the cause of charity in health is gold; what you give in sickness is silver; what you give after death is lead.’

Islam also has a strong tradition of charity. Zakat, or alms-giving for the purposes of alleviating poverty and helping those less fortunate, is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. The practice is generally in the form of an annual tithe or tax of 2.5% of an individual’s wealth (although the percentage can vary by country and tradition), including money made through business, savings and income. The zak_at must also be above an agreed minimum (called nisab), which is said to be around $2,640 or the equivalent in any other currency. As important as the collection of zakat is in a community, its fair distribution among the needy is even more important. Another form of charitable action by Muslims is sadaqah, which literally means ‘righteousness’ and refers to the voluntary giving of alms or charity. These ancient traditions are considered to be a personal responsibility for all Muslims, practised out of love for humanity, to ease the economic hardship of others and eliminate inequality.

There are numerous other religious and cultural variations on the theme. Philanthropy in Latin America typically revolves around asistencialismo, which is charitable giving for poverty alleviation. In Eastern Europe, Bulgarian communities have, over the years, raised donations to build churches, schools and cultural centres called chitalishta. In India, Gandhi’s trusteeship concept has been adapted and applied to welfare acts. In Mexico, the Raramori, who still live in the mountains of the state of Chihuahua, use the expression korima, which means ‘to share’ resources in times of stress. In Southern Africa, ubuntu is the practice of humanism based on the collectivist notion that ‘I am a person through other people’. And so on, all around the world.

This is an extract from Chapter 3 of The Age of Responsibility: CSR 2.0 and the New DNA of Business. For more information and ongoing updates, follow the The Age of Responsibility Blog

Copyright 2010 Wayne Visser