Many cultures around the world celebrate a yearly thanksgiving festival, a time when we express our gratitude for a successful harvest. While observances and timing vary considerably based on different crops, climates, religions, and histories, the common thread is that we should set aside time to thank a higher power -- or nature -- for providing us with another year of sustenance.
Although it's common knowledge that effective food production is critical to our survival and worthy of a yearly "thank you" (especially in light of recent food recalls), most of us in the modern, developed world take the annual harvest for granted. Although we are aware of droughts, floods, and fires that may affect food production in various parts of the globe, producing food for most of us is no longer a miracle -- it's an established industry. As a result, the Thanksgiving holiday, particularly in the United States, has become more about football and parade floats than the availability of food.
The reality is that malnutrition and starvation have not been eradicated, even in the developed world, and may only worsen as the population expands. The food agency of the United Nations, the FAO, estimates that there are 925 million undernourished people in the world, largely because the calories produced worldwide (which should be sufficient) are not effectively utilized and distributed. So while there is abundance in some places, there are shortages in others. The FAO also reports that food production needs to rise by 70% in the next 40 years to meet population growth, while there will be less available land due to urbanization and climate change. According to their study, hitting this target will require a 50% annual increase in agricultural investment starting now.
Clearly these macro-economic and developmental problems cannot be solved by any one person or organization alone. However, the Thanksgiving holiday (which comes this week in the United States) is a good time to think about what each one of us can do, both as individuals and as members of organizations. Here are a few ways to promote giving throughout the year:
1. Make giving easy. Talk to your leadership team about making it convenient for you and your colleagues to make charitable contributions beyond just the yearly United Way campaign. Due to the recession, donations to the 400 largest charities in the U.S. (including the United Way) dropped by 11% in 2009. At the same time, contributions by people making over $200,000 per year fell by 35%. So, in these tough times when many aid organizations have fewer resources, it is all the more important to mobilize larger numbers of people to contribute. Obviously organizations cannot (and should not) force employees to give -- but they can make giving easy by setting up payroll reduction plans, putting links to vetted charities on company websites, and providing forums for educating employees about social and community issues.
2. Cut back to give back. Consider ways of redirecting some of the lower-value items in your budget to community or social activities. For example, one company realized that it was supplying three biscuits (as well as coffee, tea, and soft drinks) for every person attending meetings in the headquarters building. By reducing the biscuit allocation it was able to save hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, some of which could be shifted to corporate giving. Another opportunity is to either reduce the luxury level of corporate offsites, and/or spend a portion of each offsite with your team doing community service. This not only benefits the community, but also develops the team.
3. Work together to give your time. Use the Thanksgiving holiday to talk with your team about doing or sponsoring a social service project together (again on an optional basis). Find out what kind of project they would feel good about, and tap into their interests and passions. Set a goal for what you want to accomplish, and then keep it going throughout the year.
Although it may not be apparent, individuals and organizations can make a difference -- especially if we all increase the giving that goes along with our thanks.
How can your company give more?
Cross-posted from Harvard Business Online.