A few years ago, I visited Washington, D.C., for work and two beautiful memories lingered with me. First, how magical the city looked covered completely in snow. Second, visiting the iconic Smithsonian Castle; which to my surprise, turned out to be founded in 1846 with the generous donation of a British scientist for the sole purpose of “the increase and diffusion of knowledge”. This gentleman had bequeathed a sum of $508,318 (Dh1.86 million, or the equivalent of 1.51 per cent of the United States’ entire federal budget at the time). With the donation managed by a charitable trust founded more than 170 years ago, the Smithsonian has grown to become the world’s largest museum, education, and research complex; with 19 museums, the National Zoo, and nine research facilities under its management.
Upon reading this fascinating story at the entrance of the museum, I was marvelled. A whirlwind of thoughts began circulating in my mind: What is giving and how can it be maximised? What are the benefits of giving so much? What are the different ways of giving back to society? As a researcher, I could not let these intriguing thoughts escape me without delving further into this subject.
Before chancing upon James Smithson’s contributions, the concept of giving had a very narrow, overfamiliar meaning to me: Random donation vouchers for short-term causes, irregular volunteering experiences, or offering foods and used clothes. However, giving is more than just a short-term, sporadic event. On the contrary, it is a unique opportunity to influence your society, to spread kindness and compassion, to feel responsible for certain causes, to be a patron of something benevolent and life-transforming. We can actually play an active role in improving social and economic well-being by just being conscientious about how we want to contribute to the world we live in. Next, we offer up our skills, time, or money to attain that goal.
By engaging in the acts of giving, not only are we promised to make the world better and happier, we, ourselves reap the benefits of giving to others. Numerous scientific studies attest that giving makes us happier and healthier. According to the National Institutes of Health, regions of the brain linked with pleasure, social connection, and trust are activated when people give to charities; thus creating a “warm glow” effect. Furthermore, in a study conducted by Doug Oman of the University of California, Berkeley, researchers found that seniors who “volunteered for two or more organisations were 44 per cent less likely to die over a five-year period than non-volunteers, even after controlling for their age, exercise habits, general health and negative health habits like smoking”.
Is it any surprise then that when I started reading about the myriad ways in which individuals or organisations cooperate and support communities, I was pleased to find a familiar pattern: Volunteering skills or donating money for the advancement of various noble causes; such as education, research and development, health care, housing, parks, and community centres. The ways to give back to society are limitless and should not be assigned to just official authorities.
A quick look at the donation pages of some prestigious universities reveal the massive contributions of individuals to the promotion of higher education. For example, alumnus John A. Paulson donated $400 million to the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard University in 2015; making him the highest donor in the university’s history. Waitrose in the UK asks shoppers to insert a token in a box selecting one of the causes they would most like to support. The causes include: Cancer research, services for people with dementia, supporting farming families, and many more. Since its launch in 2008, the company has donated £14 million (Dh69.13 million) to local charities and 38,000 causes chosen by shoppers.
But the beauty of the matter is that everyone can give every day in every way. Now, in the policy-making landscape, some governments have adopted the dazzling concept of a ‘big society’. This policy explains how governments could engage civic society and the private sector in solving its country’s major challenges; thus maximising social well-being and economic returns, but also reducing the burden on government agencies to solely deliver propositions. People can contribute their money, skills, and time to do good within their own communities. Think elderly care services, offering free community classes, mentoring services to youth, or fund-raising for a charity that addresses certain illnesses. This approach generates more targeted, faster, and efficient services that are led by citizens themselves.
As an Emarati citizen, I’ve seen my country’s generosity and compassion time and time again. In fact, since its formation in 1971, the UAE has played a leading role in extending philanthropic contributions to humanitarian projects, with the total aid amounting to Dh173 billion by 2014. It is no surprise then that the UAE celebrated 2017 as the ‘Year of Giving’ — launching a bundle of initiatives that focus on three main themes: Promoting corporate social responsibility in the private sector, instilling the value of volunteerism through match-made programmes, and inspiring the concept of serving the nation among the younger generation.
In this regard, President His Highness Shaikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan has explained that, “true citizenship does not mean to take always, but also means sacrificing precious things for the sake of the homeland”, adding, “Serving the homeland and the society is a joint responsibility between the government, individuals and private sector, and the UAE will always be one team.”
So, whether you donate your time, money, or skills, do consider making this a habit that lasts beyond the ‘Year of Giving’. It is a wonderful way to contribute to your society and make the world a better place. And don’t be surprised if you find yourself spreading happiness to yourself and others along the way. As Mark Twain once said, “Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.”
Sara Al Mulla is an Emirati civil servant focusing on human development policy and children’s literature.