In the winter of 2007, after a six-month post-MBA job hunt that made me feel depressed and insecure about my career prospects, I landed a dream job in a field that I did not even know existed: philanthropy advisory. It was in a Swiss bank that manages the accounts of half the world’s billionaires that I began my unusual career of advising extraordinarily wealthy people on their charitable activities. At that time it felt like the most exciting thing to ever happen in my life, and to this day, I so often get random requests from people wanting to hear how I landed a position that they perceive to be about “telling rich people how to give away their money.” (The job definitely had aspects of that, but as with any corporate job, it was not nearly as glamorous as people would imagine.)
At work, my days were filled with meetings with wealthy benefactors, social entrepreneurs, nonprofit leaders, activists, and volunteers of all ages. Not everyone had a lot of money to give away; but they taught me that giving is not just for the rich, and that oftentimes those who do not have much give even more of their time, their talents, and their lives in service of others. Their idealism and kindness gave me a constant stream of inspiration, so much so that I decided to write a book, which eventually became The Giving Way to Happiness.
As I was doing research for the book, I came across this beautiful Chinese saying:
“If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap.
If you want happiness for a day, go fishing.
If you want happiness for a month, get married.
If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune.
If you want happiness for a lifetime, help somebody.”
And I think we can all agree that it feels good to give. It’s great to know you’ve made someone’s life a little easier. And it’s wonderful to hear them thank you for having been there to help. But isn’t the opposite just as true?
Have you ever seen a picture of a starving child and felt totally desensitized to it, without the slightest inclination to help? Have you ever written a cheque simply to make someone go away? Or have you ever felt like you’ve given so much, and felt totally taken advantage of? Indeed I’ve also learned - through the experiences of others as well as my own - that giving doesn’t always feel great. Donors get disenchanted, charity work can be wearisome, activists get burnt out, and getting solicited all the time gets annoying.
There is a quiet monastic community called Plum Village, deep in France’s Dordogne region where people enter and join the Buddhist practice to retreat from the pressures of the outside world. When When I met a monk from the village, I asked him, “Who are these people who go there?” I imagined stressed-out bankers, heartbroken men and women… but the monk’s answer surprised me. “Every year,” he said, “among the thousands of people who go to Plum Village, the majority are people who work in the social sector. They go to Plum Village because they are burned out.”
All this begs the question: How can we give of ourselves in a way that not only makes the world a better place, but makes also makes us feel good? Here just a few things that I learned along the way:
- Find your passion. Our passion should be the foundation for our giving. More commonly, we become part of something because someone asked us to do it, regardless of how interested we are in the cause. Or we give year after year as though we are paying taxes, never paying much attention to whether we are giving to something that deeply matters to us. But it should not be simply a matter of choosing the right thing, but also a matter of choosing what is right for us. If we are not fully into it, we are likely to get bored and apathetic, and give up when things get difficult. (If we don’t feel like shaving our hair off to support a cancer charity, we shouldn’t!). There are other ways to contribute.
- Give your time. The gift of time is often more valuable to the receiver, and more satisfying for the giver than simply giving money or things. Besides, we don’t all have the same amount of money, but we all do have time on our hands, and can give some of this time to help others, whether that means we devote our lifetimes to service, or just give a few hours each day or a few days a year.
- Be proactive. We shouldn’t wait for a charity to approach us. Our efforts will go furthest if we set time aside, think about all our options, and then find the best charity aligned with what we care most about. If we wait for charities to come to us, we’re just rewarding the ones that are most aggressive—not the ones that do the most good.
- Learn how to say no. A mentor once taught me to learn to say no to the things that don’t matter, so that I can say yes to the things that do. I have also observed among nonprofit leaders that saying no helps them do better with the things that are already on their plate. Saying yes too often not only affects the quality of their current projects but also adds a level of stress not worth taking on. Do-gooders often feel the pressure to do more and more—there are invitations to get involved in this project or that movement, etc. Knowing how much need there is in the world, and how much opportunity there is to make things better, it can be hard to say no. The ones who keep their sanity and stay happy and fulfilled, choose to stay in their niche and do what is within their power, so that they can actually follow through and know what happens as a result.
- Find strength in a group. It is incredibly helpful to surround ourselves with a community of support: colleagues, mentors, and friends who care for us and can help them stay positive. And it’s helpful to have a few role models who inspire us to stay passionate and committed over the long haul.
The key is to find the approach that fits us. When we do, then the more we give, the more we gain fulfilment, purpose, happiness and healing. All the things that all of us look for, but that are so hard to find.
About Jenny Santi
Jenny Santi is a philanthropy advisor to some of the world's most generous philanthropists and celebrity activists. In 2013 she founded Saint Partners, a consulting practice founded upon the vision that great wealth should lead to great philanthropy. Her firm's clients have included Giving Pledgers, A-listers in entertainment, and some of the largest wealth managers, helping them channel their wealth, power and desire for meaning towards social good. For five years beginning at only 28 she served as Head of UBS’s award-winning Philanthropy Services department based in Southeast Asia. She holds an MBA from INSEAD, attended the Wharton School and New York University’s Center for Philanthropy & Fundraising, and is a Chartered Advisor in Philanthropy. She sits on the board of the Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation (USA). She is an animal lover, a student pilot and a global citizen who has called Manila, London, France, Singapore, and New York City home. An accomplished artist, she has trained at the Florence Academy of Art and the Art Students League of New York.
She is the author of the acclaimed book “The Giving Way to Happiness: Stories & Science Behind the Life-Changing Power of Giving” Tarcher Penguin Random House, 2016), and is passionate about helping people discover how to give their time, talents and treasures in ways that not only change the world, but also bring happiness and fulfilment to their own lives.