My intro to philanthropy came via a short lesson on economics from my late grand father when I was in high school. He was a retired professor of history – and interestingly had similar depth of knowledge in economics and political science. And for the record – he is the biggest hero in my life !
One day, when I was back home from school and finished several cookies from a new packet that was on the table , he asked me “why didn’t you eat the four that are remaining?”. I told him I was full and don’t need any more . He asked me if I am too full to finish my glass of chocolate milk , and I told him that I was indeed planning to finish the glass of milk . That was a planned teaching moment and I learned the idea of diminishing marginal utility.
That discussion eventually led to a discussion on whether money/wealth also followed diminishing marginal utility . Logically, if it did – then all the rich people should be able to help all the poor people and world will be such a happy place, right ?
My instinct though was that it didn’t apply to money – who would really say no to more money ? . We were solid middle class – Dad was an engineer , Grand Dad lived on his small pension , and my mom and grand mom were home makers at the time . We were living comfortably but very far from even dreaming of money having diminishing marginal utility.
This is where I got my first lesson on philanthropy – money is not the only thing you can distribute that has value to someone . Your time and your wisdom are perhaps even more valuable ! Later in life, I heard first hand from several very successful people how my grandfather helped them get over their struggles with his time, his advice and his willingness to get them connected to influential people from his network. And my dad – his only son – takes after him.
Grandfather was a learned man and had a terrific network. What if someone doesn’t have money , a lot of education or a big network ? My mom proved that it doesn’t matter either . From her I learned – If you have a mindset to help, then no obstacle is big enough to stop you!
My mom finished high school and married my dad – never attended college. She doesn’t speak much English. But to help raise me and my sister, she ran several small businesses over time and made it work . And throughout the time – she helped the less fortunate people in her life get a leg up .
I have lost count of how many orphans she helped find jobs , get married , get loans etc . She could absolutely convince total strangers to help someone she knew and they didn’t know – and some of them were friends of my dad from other countries who would come home for dinner when they were in India. She never felt any embarrassment asking people to help others and in general no one she asked felt awkward and most of them did what they could . How I wish I had that kind of confidence and conviction ! She never bothered about credit – most of the time the people who got the leg up didn’t even know my mom was behind it .
So when is the right time to start giving ? For the longest time I have believed one should start at the earliest – like from the first pay check itself if possible , and proportionately increase it as we progress in life . And a dear friend of mine gave me an alternate perspective this past weekend – there is no one-size fits all method to do the right thing!
He and I come from similar modest backgrounds . He started his own business and I chose the safer route of getting employed by someone. While I don’t deny I did reasonably well – he totally outdid himself and is very wealthy now and I am very proud of him . I knew that giving back was very important to him from childhood . So I was shocked when he told me that he has stopped making big donations.
It’s not because he stopped believing in it – he just realized that he can compound his wealth better than many others and thus solve harder problems in the world later in life with a lot more money he can put to use. I asked him how he came to this conclusion – and he said “From an interview of Warren Buffet that I watched on TV few years ago, which made me open a spreadsheet and come to the same conclusion”.
To be clear – He is nowhere as rich as Buffet . But he is good at math and is ruthlessly logical in decision making . He still makes small donations – which is still considerable in size in my opinion – but he spends a lot of time studying the problems and choosing where he can make the most impact and how . I have a strong feeling it won’t take that long for him to start solving big ticket problems.
I asked him if that’s how I should think about it too – and he said something like “Man , there are so many problems all around us that we can all help in some way . So you can do it whatever way you choose and the world will still benefit “.