09/20/2013 08:33 am ET Updated Nov 20, 2013

A $50 Lesson on How to Give

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

Around 1981, just before Ronald Reagan's "trickle down" economics kicked in, finding a job down South in the U.S. was hard. I lived in North Georgia then, and the home of the big carpet mills and textile plants was already showing signs of decline because of overseas competition. Hard times dictated moving on, hopefully to greener pastures on the coast. It was on moving day 32 years ago, with $50 between me and tarnation, I learned a permanent lesson about intentions, giving, and what we take with us.

The Biggest $50 Bill In the World

Many people reading this will identify with the pain of moving across town, or across the country for that matter. However far the destination, packing up, loading, ferrying, and unloading a house of any size is just a pain. Oh, and what's the one item there is never enough of when you move? Boxes, you guessed it. So it was on Oct. 20 of 1981 I headed down to the local Kroger grocery store in Rome, Ga., to see if the stock boys had put out any cardboard boxes I could use for packing. But, little did I imagine a box hunting expedition would do so much for understanding the world.

Pulling into the back parking lot, I didn't notice at first the elderly black gentleman. Tall and straight he was in spite of his age. Unseen to anyone, he was rummaging around in one of the three dumpsters there. As I rounded the corner to look for good cardboard, I was startled at first by the old man, then at once calmed by his time etched, yet kind and knowing smile. Those warm eyes -- I'll never forget his kind stare.

"Good mawnin suh," he said, in the old southern way I had not heard in years. "Good morning to you sir," I replied, at once disarmed by the unneeded but charming colloquialism between a young white man and his senior from a bygone era. It was then, glancing down somewhat out of shame, that I noticed the cardboard box at his feet.

Following my gaze, the old man jumped down and bent over a little box of treasures, a little defensively too, I might add. With a gleam in his eye he set out to describe the contents of the box I saw neatly organized inside. "You know Suh, dey throws away some real fine froots and vejtables", he said. I must have looked quizzical for a moment as I mentally counted the three tomatoes, one bell pepper, four potatoes, and the strangely green and un-ripened banana he had mined from the dumpster. My mind's calculator was somehow in overdrive, "He must be 70 or 75," I thought. I hesitate here, to include the fact, the poor old fellow had a tumor on his neck the size of a tennis ball. For fear of being accused of hyperbole, I recall as I write this down, how the poor old fellow was further encumbered with still more unfairness. I have to include this.

As I reached out to shake the old man's calloused hand, I transferred it. Then turning sharply to avoid discomfort, and as I went to jump in and drive off, a firm hand grabbed at my sleeve. -- Phil Butler

To continue, scampering a bit (and uncomfortably now) I gathered a dozen or so decent cardboard boxes into the back of my vehicle, the kind old gentleman actually stopping to help me. At last I turned to open my door when a feeling of incompleteness came over me. "I had to say goodbye," something said, for old time's or whoever's sake, or for gentlemanly courtesy -- that's just me. Without even a consciousness about it, I slid my hand into my pocket and clutched that $50 bill my Mom had sent me. As I reached out to shake the old man's calloused hand, I transferred it. Then turning sharply to avoid discomfort, and as I went to jump in and drive off, a firm hand grabbed at my sleeve.

Smiling that smile again my new-old friend said; "God bless ya suh!" Completely overwhelmed, stunned, I replied, "No, God bless you sir." "How completely upside down," I thought.

I wept as I drove off, wept for the utter goodness and kindness of humanity, and believe me, I was totally unscathed by the fact I was then penniless. After all, I was a strong, young man who was a tiny bit resourceful; I could always get some more money. But circumstance denies others all too often. It's at this point my well told story coincides with Dan Pallotta's TEDTalk on how we think about charity.

"No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another." -- Charles Dickens

The nonprofit sector, even despite billions having been donated over the decades, has done very little to alleviate poverty in the U.S. Even despite all our good intentions and gift, some 12 percent of the population is where my elderly friend was, needing. Out of luck, save for a decent passerby, not everyone can maintain their dignity. Furthering the story, here's an interesting parallel, thinking-wise.

Back when my "old man" story took shape, the first buddy I mentioned my $50 gift to -- do you know what that good ole' boy had to say? "Hell, he probably ran to the liquor store to buy some cheap wine." This is the sort of thinking which had passed down to most of my Southern friends. But let me inform you, this thinking was wrong -- wrong because I was the one with the reward, not the old man. But that's philosophy; Pallotta speaks in solid economics terms.

We disdain charities that do not spend every dime delivering a bag of rice to that individual child in Zimbabwe or Mozambique, or wherever we've designated our charity pennies be pinched. Control has become the Catch 22 of giving. And then we wonder why the problems of the world are never fixed, why does everything we do and give, never seem to change the world? We cheer at Google or Amazon when stock prices climb, while the overhead and waste there has to equal charitable giving across any state. What difference does it make what the overhead is, when Google makes money hand over fist? Charity guru Pallotta would apply this thinking to nonprofits. But still our thinking about entrepreneurs like Donald Trump, win or lose on real estate is, "Who cares how much he lost to win fame and riches?" This does not apply for really changing the world, now does it? Nobody even asks how many billions Trump has thrown away; it's where he is now that matters.

Turning to the stock market of LOVE, as Pallotta terms the charity sector, if a CEO spends anything on advertising or "unconventional" ideas to grow giving... Well, the underpaid and overworked "do-gooder" executive gets his or her feet held over the fire. Some overseer might condemn, "Those ad dollars, no child ever saw a crumb from overhead like that." The non-profit might as well have started handing out cheap wine to the homeless, where conventional charity thinking is concerned.