The Robin Hood Effect

08/02/2011 03:20 pm ET | Updated Oct 02, 2011

I spend a lot of time persuading people that selflessness can be selfish. Arguing self-interest in philanthropy may seem like an oxymoron, but in fact it is often the difference between success and failure in fundraising for those of us building non-profit organizations. From my two decades of experience, not only does the strategy clearly work, but in addition I suggest its ethics and morality can oftentimes be admirable and appropriate.

Most of us feel the urge to do good deeds and support those less fortunate than ourselves based on our shared belief that we are "all in this thing together" and that the strong should support the weak. Quite often we learn this motivation as a core tenet of our religion or when we are taught a philosophy of life. Certainly, I have taught four children that civilization is fragile and that it is the responsibility of each and every member to improve it and to further build resilient and ambitious social structures to pass on to our children and through them to theirs.

But research shows us that there is also self-interest in helping those less fortunate. Ichiro Kawachi, in collaboration with the Social Environment Working Group of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Research Network on Socioeconomic Status and Health, has demonstrated that the degree of income inequality in a society is related to the health status of that population. Greater income inequality is linked to lower life expectancy, higher mortality rates and worse self-rated health, for the wealthy as well as for the poor, at the U.S. state level. Higher mortality at the U.S. metropolitan level, as well as higher rates of obesity at the U.S. state level, is also linked to income inequality. This association may seem astonishing but it is statistically robust when corrected for differentials of age, race, sex and individual socio-economic characteristics. The bottom line is that affluent people live shorter and less healthy lives the more the people around them are poor.

Why exactly this demonstrable correlation exists is still subject to debate. One can imagine however that one's own health is jeopardized if the man making the salad in a restaurant has inadequate health care and thus a higher incidence of communicable disease. Having worked in several Third World countries where the gulf between rich and poor is gigantic, I can attest to the incremental stress among the affluent caused by protecting themselves... through high walls, armored cars and armed bodyguards, from the potential for theft, violence and dislike by those impoverished souls around them. And stress, as we know, shortens life.

One of most important areas where self-interest is an entirely appropriate motivation for philanthropy is in the brilliant sponsorships I have been able to encourage by Fortune 500 companies. There was a time many years ago when I would fly into the headquarters city of a major corporation. I would visit with the corporation's foundation staff and I would basically beg for their help in supporting one of my children's charities -- "You know that we do good work, you know that we're efficient and that seriously ill children need your help. You are yourself a parent... could you please see a way to making a donation to support these special kids in need?" When things went well I would receive a twenty-five thousand dollar donation for Starlight and be politely asked not to return for another year.

At a certain point, I realized that a worthy cause is capable of presenting a net gain to a major corporation. Put bluntly, a worthy cause can help sell their product or service. So I started visiting with the Executive Vice President for Marketing, rather than with the foundation division of each company. My pitch would be quite different, "In our recent national promotion with Colgate-Palmolive, Starlight demonstrated a twenty-five percent uplift in the brand's Nielsen Scantrack market share. We think we can similarly create a dramatic benefit for your own corporation which will also be very good for Starlight-Starbright's special children". The results were astonishing: instead of receiving twenty-five thousand dollars from the corporation's foundation we were suddenly receiving two hundred and fifty thousand dollars from a cause related marketing campaign. Some of these Starlight promotions have generated in excess of a million dollars each year. I am sure they also sold a great deal of product... and I say 'God bless America' in this regard... a perfect example of the corporation acting responsibly not only to society but also to its stockholders: a true win-win.

And what a wonderful thing to understand from research out of the University of Florida that a fifty cent donation to charity triggered by a consumer's purchase of a product or service generates more of an uplift in sales than a fifty cent discount coupon to the same consumer! This means that, generally speaking, consumers are more ready to help needy children than they are their own pocketbooks. It gives one hope for the future...

I still teach my kids that altruism is an ennobling part of character that enriches the giver as well as our whole civilization. I still teach them that any act, however small, by which we build society makes us part of the virtuous forces which heal the world and build a better life for our descendants. I still teach them that it is better to give a man a job than just to give him money, better to build a bridge then to swim the river, and a terrific thing to apply entrepreneurial skills in a non-profit, philanthropic direction.

But I also tell them that my Starlight, First Star and EDAR are the best possible opportunities to meet like-minded souls, brilliant people who have self-selected themselves as worthy citizen whose enthusiasm for life, children and the future will make great friendships blossom. I accurately tell them of the many marriages that have happened between thousands of brilliant volunteers who found a common bond in helping seriously ill kids. I tell them that this is how their Mom and Dad fell in love.

When I lecture in business schools I always tell the students that their career track or volunteer track in philanthropy will be about ten times faster than in an ordinary business for profit... the charities of America are so needy, so eager and so ready to embrace new ways of achieving their goals that generally speaking the rise of a smart and dedicated young person can be meteoric. People know in the meetings of my philanthropies that it is a dangerous thing to suggest a good idea... one immediately finds oneself the head of a taskforce charged with driving its study and implementation.

And for me personally, I laugh when someone talks to me as though I was some noble soul dedicating time and resources to non-profit causes. I know secretly in my heart that the greatest gift I've ever received was the realization that through good works I would make myself very, very happy. I constantly receive much more than I give.