Douglas & McIntyre
A Year of Living Generously

Book details:

May 2010
ISBN 978-1-55365-416-2
6" x 9"
384 pages
25 b&w photographs
Social Science / Philanthropy & Charity SOC033000
$32.95 CAD

Douglas & McIntyre

A Year of Living Generously

Dispatches from the Front Lines of Philanthropy

Excerpt / Additional Content


My interest in philanthropy as a phenomenon was fuelled by the death of my mother six years ago and our family’s debates about ways to honour her memory. The five sons and three daughters of Clare Scanlan decided, in the end, to fund a nursing scholarship in her name at the University of Toronto (my mother had worked all her life as a pediatric and geriatric nurse). The experience triggered thoughts about my own mortality, of course, and about legacy—the mark we make in this world.

Toronto financier Lawrence S. Bloomberg later upped our ante. He gave $10 million to the same school of nursing, now named after him. His largesse was typical of an unmistakable trend: individual generosity on a fantastic scale. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, has emerged as the most powerful charitable foundation ever seen. With a $29-billion war chest (and that was before Warren Buffett tossed in another $37 billion), it has set breathtaking goals, among them the defeat of malaria throughout the developing world. The annual budget of the World Health Organization, at under $5 billion, looks puny by comparison.

A charity Olympics has been underway for many years, and the numbers are dizzying. Seldom, as was often the case in the past, is it a matter of one person writing a fat cheque and being done with it. Instead, there is a high personal stake in these philanthropic exercises. Bill Gates is typical of the new breed of “social entrepreneur”: a rich benefactor who wholeheartedly embraces a chosen cause and works on its behalf.

The role demands hands-on involvement, knowledge of the issue and a focus on solutions, including travel to far-flung places to observe first-hand how the money is making a difference. Such zealousness is without precedent, and it isn’t just the wealthy who are enlisting. Helping others has become fashionable. The Nobel Peace Prize of 2006 went to philanthropist Muhammad Yunus, a Bangladeshi economist who, three decades ago, launched the revolutionary idea of the Grameen Bank and micro-credit loans to destitute people.

Steve Nash, Canada’s own and the National Basketball Association’s Most Valuable Player in 2005 and 2006, created his own foundation and built in his wife’s native Paraguay a pediatric cardiology ward. On retirement, he intends to become a full-time philanthropist working on similar projects.

Jeff Skoll, the Montreal-born billionaire and first president of eBay, formed the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at Oxford University in 2003 to teach and celebrate his philosophy “that strategic investments in the right people can lead to lasting social change.” Movie stars and rock stars have their pet charities, and former U.S. president Bill Clinton seems to have put a sordid incident from his past behind him, largely through his clout as an energized aids campaigner.

Today the word philanthropist frequently pops up in obituary headlines. Many of the deceased, no matter their means, age or gender, were apparently notable for their benevolent acts. Philanthropy has come to be widely and almost exclusively understood as a word to describe the notion of prosperous people giving away their wealth, typically near the end of their lives. But I was interested in its original meaning—from the Greek word philanthropia, meaning love for humankind. With that definition in mind, I began to catalogue varieties of kindness, large and small, and gifts of time or money, even of spare body organs. It struck me that as much as greed seems to characterize our age, there is also a powerful impulse at work the other way, towards giving.

I could have used any number of words to describe these acts: benevolence, generosity, humanitarianism, public-spiritedness, altruism, social conscience, charity, brotherly love, magnanimity, munificence, largesse, bountifulness, beneficence, unselfishness, humanity, kind-heartedness or compassion. The grander goal of social justice belonged somewhere on that list, as did the humble notion of sharing.

Benevolence is as old as humankind: think of the Good Samaritan in the Bible, the rule of obligatory giving, or Zakah, that is one of the five pillars of Islam, and the tzedakah, or call to charity, from Judaism. The ancient Romans had their panem et circenses (bread and circus programs for the poor). And the Latin phrase pro bono (short for pro bono publico, “for the public good”) has widely come to mean any sort of freely offered public service, especially by professionals.

Billionaires seeking to eradicate the scourge of malaria, twenty-somethings looking for adventure, or the newly retired choosing to volunteer overseas rather than settling into their rockers—these individuals should be applauded, and why not? We live in a world of individual celebrity and individual achievement in sport and culture, and it’s only natural that solo assaults on human misery would mark our time.

But where does this leave collective action against poverty and suffering? Are governments right to trust that wealthy benefactors and armies of volunteers will pick up the slack if they step aside?

I have been involved in community work all my life, running charity campaigns as a university student, coaching baseball and hockey teams as a young father, and in past decades helping to raise funds for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working in the developing world, but I had never really got my hands dirty, never worked on the front lines where the answers to these and similar questions might be found. For the year 2008, I decided I would volunteer with twelve charitable organizations and dedicate a month of hands-on involvement to each one.

Organizing and logistics presented the first challenge. Some outfits didn’t want help for only one month, and some didn’t need or want a writer poking around for that long. In the end, I secured twelve placements that reflect long-standing interests of mine, from serving at the soup kitchen a ten-minute walk from my house in southeastern Ontario to teaching journalism at a community radio station in West Africa; from helping out at a riding camp down the highway to joining a crew building houses in the hurricane-ravaged parishes of New Orleans.

I hoped to plumb issues that seemed to me central. In the face of human suffering, here and elsewhere, what, if anything, is my obligation or that of my community and my country? Is it good to be good? The euphoria that Ebenezer Scrooge felt when he stopped his penny-pinching ways: does it endure and can it be measured in some scientific way? What are the rewards and hazards of deep volunteering? How does it change you, or does it? Does helping actually help, or does it only serve to prop up the status quo?

Early in my research, I came across a quote from the Swedish playwright August Strindberg (1849–1912). “All charity,” he wrote, “is humiliating.” I was haunted by those words from his play The Ghost Sonata. His view was stark and harsh, and yet it seemed there was truth in it too.

I would do some good, then, or try to, and take some notes along the way.