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Have I Done Any Good

July 15, 2009


One of the recurring themes of this blog has been philanthropy. That might seem odd for a corporate blog, but I’m a big believer that the world will be a better place if each of us spent a little time each day considering the needs of others. Sometimes that concern is demonstrated by donating to good causes. Sometimes it is demonstrated by closing the checkbook and opening the heart. Sometimes we show our concern by doing both. A songwriter by the name of Will Lamartine Thompson (1847-1909) penned these words:

Have I done any good in the world today?
Have I helped anyone in need?
Have I cheered up the sad and made someone feel glad?
If not, I have failed indeed.
Has anyone’s burden been lighter today
Because I was willing to share?
Have the sick and the weary been helped on their way?
When they needed my help was I there?

Then wake up and do something more
Than dream of your mansion above.
Doing good is a pleasure, a joy beyond measure,
A blessing of duty and love.

There are chances for work all around just now,
Opportunities right in our way.
Do not let them pass by, saying, “Sometime I’ll try,”
But go and do something today.
’Tis noble of man to work and to give;
Love’s labor has merit alone.
Only he who does something helps others to live.
To God each good work will be known.

Thompson was an entrepreneur in his own right. His early attempts to sell his songs to commercial publishers were unsuccessful so he started his own publishing company. He later expanded his business empire by opening a store to sell pianos, organs and sheet music. Thompson’s line that “love’s labor has merit alone” is verified almost every time we do something for someone else (read the article “If It Feels Good to Be Good, It Might Be Only Natural,” by Shankar Vedantam, Washington Post, 28 May 2007]. We generally come away from helping others uplifted and feeling good about ourselves. Normal human beings appear to possess a moral compass that stimulates our philanthropy. When that moral foundation is challenged, we fight back [“On Good Behavior,” by Rachel Saslow, Washington Post Science Digest, 6 July 2009]. Saslow reports on a research study conducted at Northwestern University by Rumen Iliev, Douglas Medin and Sonya Sachdeva. Under the guise of a having students take a handwriting test, they asked one-third of their subjects to copy positive-trait words such as “caring, generous and fair”; another third to copy negative-trait words such as “selfish, disloyal and greedy”; and the final third to copy neutral-trait words such as “book, keys and house.” All participants were then asked to write short stories about themselves that included the words they had just copied.

“When they were finished, researchers asked the participants if they would like to make a donation of up to $10 to charity. The control group donated an average of $2.71. The average increased to $5.30 for the negative-traits group — ‘those whose moral identity was threatened,’ the authors wrote — and fell to $1.07 in the positive-traits group.”

The point of the study was not to prove that people only do good to “cleanse” themselves from some evil they’ve committed; rather, the study demonstrated that people inherently understand that having a moral sense of who they are is important. New York Times‘ columnist David Brooks notes that institutions can help us direct our moral compasses and, therefore, play an important role in the world [“What Life Asks of Us,” 26 January 2009]. Brooks begins his column by noting that not everyone shares his sense of the importance of institutions.

“A few years ago, a faculty committee at Harvard produced a report on the purpose of education. ‘The aim of a liberal education’ the report declared, ‘is to unsettle presumptions, to defamiliarize the familiar, to reveal what is going on beneath and behind appearances, to disorient young people and to help them to find ways to reorient themselves.’ The report implied an entire way of living. Individuals should learn to think for themselves. They should be skeptical of pre-existing arrangements. They should break free from the way they were raised, examine life from the outside and discover their own values. This approach is deeply consistent with the individualism of modern culture, with its emphasis on personal inquiry, personal self-discovery and personal happiness.”

Two things struck me as I read those words. First, they contain the reasons that so many parents tremble when they send their children off to college. Most parents devote years trying to instill their children with a sense of right and wrong only to find those values specifically targeted by college professors. It explains the popularity (at least among parents) of religiously-oriented universities. Second, it helps explain why higher education is perceived with skepticism in much of the third world. I’ve always felt those fears were exaggerated. Even the most amoral professor will have a difficult time knocking the supports out from under sound moral values. In addition, good parents spend as much time helping their children think for themselves as they do trying to instill in them good values. That means that many students have already experienced personal inquiry, personal self-discovery, and personal happiness before the professors get a crack at them. Of course, universities are institutions themselves — they are even referred to as institutions of higher learning. Brooks goes on to explain why he believes that institutions that instill values are as important as institutions that test values.

“There is another, older way of living, and it was discussed in a neglected book that came out last summer called ‘On Thinking Institutionally’ by the political scientist Hugh Heclo. In this way of living, to borrow an old phrase, we are not defined by what we ask of life. We are defined by what life asks of us. As we go through life, we travel through institutions — first family and school, then the institutions of a profession or a craft. Each of these institutions comes with certain rules and obligations that tell us how to do what we’re supposed to do. Journalism imposes habits that help reporters keep a mental distance from those they cover. Scientists have obligations to the community of researchers. In the process of absorbing the rules of the institutions we inhabit, we become who we are. New generations don’t invent institutional practices. These practices are passed down and evolve. So the institutionalist has a deep reverence for those who came before and built up the rules that he has temporarily taken delivery of. ‘In taking delivery,’ Heclo writes, ‘institutionalists see themselves as debtors who owe something, not creditors to whom something is owed.’ The rules of a profession or an institution are not like traffic regulations. They are deeply woven into the identity of the people who practice them. A teacher’s relationship to the craft of teaching, an athlete’s relationship to her sport, a farmer’s relation to her land is not an individual choice that can be easily reversed when psychic losses exceed psychic profits. Her social function defines who she is. The connection is more like a covenant. There will be many long periods when you put more into your institutions than you get out.”

Brooks concedes that not all institutions are good. Some institutions can instill hate and intolerance. Nevertheless, he concludes:

“I thought it worth devoting a column to institutional thinking because I try to keep a list of the people in public life I admire most. Invariably, the people who make that list have subjugated themselves to their profession, social function or institution. Second, institutional thinking is eroding. Faith in all institutions, including charities, has declined precipitously over the past generation, not only in the U.S. but around the world. Lack of institutional awareness has bred cynicism and undermined habits of behavior. Bankers, for example, used to have a code that made them a bit stodgy and which held them up for ridicule in movies like ‘Mary Poppins.’ But the banker’s code has eroded, and the result was not liberation but self-destruction. Institutions do all the things that are supposed to be bad. They impede personal exploration. They enforce conformity. But they often save us from our weaknesses and give meaning to life.”

In a post entitled Corporate Social Responsibility in Financially-Troubled Times, I discussed a column by Jack and Suzy Welch. In that column they noted that one of the reasons that charities are important is that when wealth accumulated it “tends to have a greater impact.” That’s one of the reasons that Warren Buffett decided to throw his philanthropic fortune in with that of Bill and Melinda Gates — to increase its impact. In that same post, I wrote that “successful companies ‘create jobs, pay taxes, and strengthen the economy.’ Those are, perhaps, the most socially responsible things that any company can do. That is the point I make when I encourage political leaders to foster a business-friendly climate and support entrepreneurial enterprises.” One of the things that attracted me development work and led to the Enterra Solutions® Development-in-a-Box™ offering is that it permits me and my company to pursue business objectives as well as do something good in the world each day.


There’s a new summer replacement show on American television called “The Philanthropist” that has acquired a significant viewing audience. The lead character is loosely based on the life of Bobby Sager, a wealthy Massachusetts businessman who, with his family, jets around the world trying to do good [“A Do-Gooder With a Potential Image Problem,” by Devin Leonard, New York Times, 19 June 2009].

“Mr. Sager, the former president of Gordon Brothers, a Boston investment group, said he hoped viewers would be inspired by [the leading character Teddy Rist’s] altruism. But he distances himself from his fictional counterpart. ‘I said at a screening the other night in Los Angeles: “This guy isn’t me. He is just some guy who wants to be me.”‘”

Ten years ago, Mr. Sager established The Sager Family Traveling Foundation & Roadshow. According the Foundation’s web site:

“Ten years ago, entrepreneur turned fulltime philanthropist Bobby Sager, along with his wife Elaine, daughter Tess, and son Shane, made the decision to pack up their things and venture out into some of the most dangerous places on the planet to make a difference. It quickly became a journey less about giving, than really living. Looking people in the eye, feeling their humanity, and connecting with them on a level they never thought possible – as Bobby puts it, became the greatest ‘return on investment’ imaginable. While their philanthropic bar is exceptionally high – focused on empowering local leaders and expecting real and measurable results – their hands-on, ‘eyeball to eyeball’ style is one they hope will resonate the loudest. Because it is exactly those moments of deep and unexpected human connection that have kept them returning to places again and again ten years after their journey first began.”

Like most good businessmen, Sager expects to see measurable results from the investments he makes. To achieve its objectives, the Foundation deals with local movers and shakers.

“The Sager Family Traveling Foundation and Roadshow impacts people whom we call leaders. Leaders aren’t only politicians or CEOS; they are individuals who have the ability to impact lots of other people. We empower leaders in areas of conflict and in dire circumstances by walking the talk ourselves, leading by example and by getting our hands dirty. By supporting micro enterprise in Rwanda and Palestine, training Afghan women doctors to teach community healthcare workers so that they can become leaders in their families and communities, training teachers in Pakistan, teaching Western science to high Tibetan monks who are the next generation of leadership in the Tibetan monasteries, developing soccer coaches to be mentors in Iraq, or working with YPOers through Peace Action Network, we have found that the purest and most powerful kind of charity is helping people who are directly opposite of whom you are. None of our initiatives will immediately change the course of the entire world. Instead, we focus on the tiny granular changes that collectively may be the best solution we have to solve the world’s biggest problems. These concrete baby steps are tangible actions taken by individuals or groups to in some way impact others.”

The Sagers’ basic philosophical approach is the correct one — you change the world by changing people. And you change people one individual at a time. Will Thompson asked the musical question, “Have I done any good in the world today?” Make a difference in one person’s life and you can answer that question affirmatively. Most of us will never have enough money to establish a foundation, but we can do something. As Thompson concludes, “Only he who does something helps others to live.” Do something — you’ll be happier and the world will be better for it.

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