I’ve been thinking a lot about the state of the world lately, as no doubt you have, too. I celebrated a milestone birthday in Paris this year, making the City of Light dear to me in memory, as it is for so many others. I’ve also thought explicitly about what we members of the nonprofit world do every day—our work to deliver services that help others in need, to find cures for specific ills of all kinds, to provide opportunities that can improve outcomes for individuals and, person by person, a greater mass of society. Collectively, what is the impact of that positive effort?
My attempts at understanding pointed me to two articles in my favorites archive, both of which give me hope and offer a challenge, as well. As we enter the season of thanks and goodwill—and a traditionally strong fundraising period—I believe nonprofits are uniquely placed to spread greater hope in the world. Is your organization doing enough? For a means to measure, read on.
One to Ten Thousand
The first article I refer to is over a decade old. It’s an op-ed titled “A Time of Gifts” that appeared in the New York Times in late September 2001. The author is Stephen Jay Gould, the late paleontologist. It was a response to the 9/11 attacks in which Gould presented his theory of the Great Asymmetry: “Good and kind people outnumber all others by thousands to one,…” he wrote. “Every spectacular incident of evil will be balanced by 10,000 acts of kindness, too often unnoted… as the ‘ordinary’ efforts of a vast majority.”
I don’t know whether Gould coined the term post 9/11, or if it had long been among his deductions about the world, but his calculation is as hopeful to me now as it was then. And it reminded me of the second article, one from Bloomberg Business in May 2014. That piece, “The $13 Billion Mystery Angels,” exposed a trio of billionaires and their largely secret gifts to address all manner of needs.
I’m not commenting on whatever the motivations were to keep their philanthropy under the radar. Nor am I saying that their “efforts” would be considered “ordinary” by any standard. More so, measuring by Gould’s ratio, it’s the sheer thought of how much their quiet donations have done over time to offset right in response to wrong that I find reassuring. And by extension, the certainty that others like them, contributing without fanfare, add more weight to the scale of decency than we know.
Record and Honor
My intention is not to advocate for nameless giving, nor have I any issue with donors who want their generosity recognized and even immortalized on a building or in a university chair. Far from it, for in Gould's description of the Great Asymmetry there is a task for everyone, and I believe nonprofits in particular. “We have a duty,” Gould challenged, “to record and honor the victorious weight of these innumerable little kindnesses.”
Fulfilling that duty offers every nonprofit, large and small, a strategic role in bringing greater balance to a world that feels upended by horrific acts and the continued threat of more. Of course, there’s room for different interpretations of how to record and honor. To me, it includes some very basic tenets of good donor stewardship, such as sending an immediate and sincere thanks for any size gift; sharing inspiring examples of how donors make a difference for those you serve; keeping a public roll of donors, with the option to be named “Anonymous,” so that every gift is literally counted. It might also be spotlighting contributions by volunteers, board members and staff that raise the tally of “innumerable kindnesses.”
Acts of kindness are essentially acts of service. That’s what nonprofits perform every day. In truth, I don’t know whether Gould’s math holds up, but I do believe strongly in the power of perception. However you reach out to tell your organization’s story, lead with optimism. Champion hope. Together, we all have much to gain.
Susan J. Ragusa is a nonprofit strategist in the Hudson Valley region and metro New York. Email email@example.com or connect with Susan on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram and Google+