Isolation, Generosity, Giving, and Receiving

By Kim Samuel

For some time, I have been concerned with the problem of “isolation” and the distress and damage it can cause to those who suffer from it. For me, isolation is the feeling of sitting alone at the bottom of the well. However, this feeling is not limited to those who are physically alone. Indeed, I have found it is often most acute when it is felt in the presence of others.

What’s more, I’ve noticed that isolation, or at least a feeling of bleak separation, can occur in the very act of philanthropy; that sometimes the manner in which the gift is made diminishes and isolates both the person who is seen as giving and the person who is seen as receiving. I worry about this and I know from talking with other members of the Global Philanthropists Circle that they worry about this, too.

I have been thinking about this quite a lot lately, about how my personal passion to tackle isolation – by identifying it, by measuring it, and especially by finding ways to address and eliminate it – plays a role in my philanthropic activities. I know this is what causes certain projects to resonate with me more than others. I suspect this is true because I’ve come to understand what a powerful factor isolation can be in snuffing out the prospects for individuals, groups, and communities to benefit from support efforts designed to improve their health and well-being.

This understanding is the thread that runs through the work that most engages me as a philanthropist.

One example is the development of a Family Support Network for individuals with intellectual disabilities along with Special Olympics International. A second project is using community-based, holistic interventions to overcome the isolation and exclusion of orphans and vulnerable children. This effort is underway in Southern Africa with the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund (South Africa), the Foundation for Community Development (Mozambique), and Synergos as partners.

A third initiative in which I am engaged is the Quincy Jones Musiq Consortium, created to inspire and bring together high-need public school students through music education projects and to create an innovative curriculum that explores, celebrates, and preserves the history of American popular music. Finally, I have been equally excited about a chance to work with the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts in the United Kingdom that uses traditional arts to provide living skills and to connect people with their inner selves, their history, and their culture.

The process of engaging in each one of these initiatives represents an opportunity to be part of a particular venture in which a sense of isolation or separation is nowhere to be seen. Yet, in each case, I think what makes these interventions so promising is that they are not only meeting needs that are visible and important, but also doing this in a way that weaves participants together and makes them part of the cloth of a larger community.

There’s something else worth mentioning about these four seemingly disparate philanthropic engagements: it’s a spirit of acceptance and inclusion, for all the partners and participants, including me.

In these experiences, there is a spirit of mutual generosity. In each case, there seems to be a strong sense of unity, so much so that those involved in the wider community of these efforts have clearly been both giving and receiving.

For me, the decision to get involved began with a passion that resonated from deep inside to find a cure to what I consider to be the preventable disease of isolation, to make sure at the very least, that there can be someone sitting beside whoever is at the bottom of the well, so that person or group of people no longer has to feel like they are sitting all alone.

In my journey as a philanthropist, I’ve also come to recognize the limits of what I can do – isolated or alone – in trying to bring about change in policy and practice. I’ve also been able to see what’s possible when I find ways to engage with fantastic organizations with the capacity, desire, integrity, established relationships, and reputations of their own.

What I’ve seen is that my partners, with their networks of collaborators in local communities, provide the vitality, work, and effort which dramatically increase the chances of achieving something worthwhile.

These groups have the ability to develop and implement specific initiatives and partnerships, build local capacity, and ensure local ownership in ways I could never do on my own.

So, far from feeling separated out as “the person with the money,” or the outsider in some other way, I feel the boundaries between the “me” and the “they” disappear. I feel welcome as part of, if you like, the family. This means a lot to me.

And yet – and this is important – there has to be a clarity and an honesty about what it is that each of us can bring. In my case, I try to bring a lot of passion and very high standards, two qualities I consider essential for philanthropy, because we all need to engage both the heart and the mind. I’ve also brought monetary resources, which are generally not unimportant.

In the case of others, though, they have brought resources of comparable or greater value, including knowledge of the community, management or other skills, creativity, hard-won knowledge, or a commitment to see the project through. In a way, mine may have been the easiest contribution to secure!

But the way in which I am brought into these circles to play my part was, from the outset, undertaken with discernment and sensibility. When the moment came for the transfer of funds, instead of feeling that sense of emptiness, which I know others have also sometimes felt, I felt more of a sense of fulfillment – not that something has ended but that something is beginning.

I finally understand that if the giving and receiving is done with the right spirit, from all corners, bearing in mind that we are all giving and receiving simultaneously, then money is a facilitator, not my “gift” per se but instead an expression of my commitment, and an important one at that.

So, it occurs to me I might ask myself the question as I look to future philanthropic endeavors: Whose need is being met by the act of philanthropy? And what does this mean?

Of course there is the need of the one who receives the funding – and this may be urgent. But then there is also the need of the one who gives and who does not want to be seen simply as providing the money but as someone who can play a part, together with others, in what we might call “Good Work” and who, therefore, is obliged to others for the opportunity to do so.

In doing this work, it is not unusual for the benefactor to be honored; but those who receive the funds, who contribute other forms of wealth and who have the responsibility of using them well, should be honored, too. If anything, the greater recognition should always be given to those who work so hard to make a project good. In the best of circumstances, this involves an engaged philanthropist as well as other stakeholders.

In my experience, the projects with the greatest impact and sustainability have as participants all the possible constituents, in terms of the make-up of its governance and operational processes, to ensure that all voices are represented and being heard.

I believe there is something else going on here as well, in terms of giving and receiving and the presence or lack of balance.

We can see all around us – in our contemporary financial, social, and environmental crises – where celebrity, wealth, and power are valued more than contributions that elevate the human spirit and promote the common good.

In such a world, it is hardly surprising to find “isolation.” It is endemic and potentially very damaging. If we are to find our way through what will, without question, be some very difficult times, we need new and more integrated ways of being and doing – not least in the realm of philanthropy.

In a fractured world, which endangers both our own human communities and Nature as a whole, we therefore have an important responsibility not only to think about what we give but about how we give.

Can we, then, in our giving, help not only to support particular projects but also to play our part in restoring and honoring those qualities of generosity, wholeness, and a reverence for others and for Nature without which so much is in danger?

At the conclusion of his recently published book, The Idea of Justice, Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen speaks to the role of overcoming isolation in terms of the pursuit of justice:

When Hobbes referred to the dire state of human beings in having “nasty, brutish and short” lives, he also pointed, in the same sentence, to the disturbing adversity of being “solitary.” Escape from isolation may not only be important for the quality of human life, it can also contribute powerfully to understanding and responding to the other deprivations from which human beings suffer. There is surely a basis strength here which is complementary to the engagement in which theories of justice are involved.

I think the same can be said of the importance of overcoming isolation through acts of generosity. For when we truly give, wherever we come from, nobody feels alone or isolated.

If the giving and receiving is shared and if everyone is able to come to the table, roll up his or her sleeves, and work together with an understanding of the interests, experience, passion, and goals that brought us together, then each of our needs will have already been factored into the initiative.

What is left then is simply a group of people creating something new together, in harmony, where no one at the table and from there outwards to the various partners or constituents feels like they are ever alone. I interpret this kind of collaboration as stemming from a wholesome and generous spirit of giving and receiving, a place of being included.

I also think that we as philanthropists have the capacity to increase the vision and scope of what we do by first making sure to the greatest extent possible that we come to this act from a place of generosity within ourselves, and from there help to facilitate and create something remarkable in partnership with others.

When this happens, the space at the bottom of the well is empty and the life available to all of us is full.