For Some, Faith not Always a Factor in Charitable Giving

Richard Harwood of the Harwood Institute explains why people should do good, and how religious convictions don't always have to be the primary motivator to make a difference.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Just ahead, we are celebrating the fourth night of Hanukkah with music - all kinds of music. A little Klezmer, a little beat box, some rap, some indie pop. We are making Hanukkah hip.

But first, all this week we've been talking about ways to do good. Now we're going to back up a little and talk about why we should do good and even more basically, what doing good actually means. Normally at this time we have Faith Meadows conversation, and certainly a lot of what we consider doing good is animated by faith, but it doesn't have to be.

To talk about all this we're joined by Richard Harwood. He is the founder and president of the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, and he joins me here in our Washington studios.

Welcome. Thanks for speaking with us.

Mr. RICHARD HARWOOD (President, Harwood Institute for Public Innovation): Good to be here.

MARTIN: First of all, what is the Harwood Institute, and what makes it different from all the other organizations that are trying to make the world a better place?

Mr. HARWOOD: Well, we're interested in how we can create a new pathway for people to reengage and reconnect with one another. We're trying to help cultivate a new set of public innovators, a new set of boundaries-spanning organizations in our society that can bring people together, that can create ways to solve problems in our communities, that can create a different set of norms that are more productive for our public discourse, for the ways people get work done.

And what I'm interested in is how is it that we can build the kinds of civic infrastructure and the civic sensibilities that will enable us to give rise for true public debate in our communities and where we can create hope for people - authentic hope, not false hope - about creating change in our communities. That's going to require not us getting together to sing "Kumbaya." It's going to require us to be much more ruthlessly strategic about what we see in our society, what we hear, what we know exist, and the ways in which we need to act on it.

MARTIN: Some of what we think about as doing good is animated by faith. We're not all of the same faith.

Mr. HARWOOD: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Some of what we think of as doing good is animated by politics or ideology. And we don't all have the same politics or ideology. So are there some things that you think people can agree on generally and universally to do good?

Mr. HARWOOD: We all want good public schools. We all want safe neighborhoods. We all want good economies. There are issues that divide us: abortion, gun rights, gay and lesbian rights, all sorts of issue. But there are so many more things that we come together on. We can agree on some basic human principles, civic principles that we can watch out for our neighbors, that we can hope for a better society, that honesty and forthrightness count for something. Those are universal values. I think some of us, myself included, look to our religious values to be informed about those things. But I think for most of us, we can go beyond our religious beliefs to our civic beliefs and our civic faith to find guidance as well.

MARTIN: We talk about the fact that this is a season of giving. You recently wrote on your blog that charity is necessary but not sufficient. What do you mean by that?

Mr. HARWOOD: We need to recognize that while charity is important and allows us to give of ourselves and give to other people that we also need concerted efforts in our communities to solve the kinds of challenges that we face. We need to come together. We need to bring our resources together. And it's not simply about writing a check. It's not simply about going online and clicking a box that says I'll give to this group or that group. It means that we have to pay attention. We have to engage on the issues. We have to work together. We have to come together to solve some of these issues.

MARTIN: In the piece that we're talking about, you took the Salvation Army tagline, do the most good, and you broke it down into its component parts. I'd like you to take me through that exercise as a way to think about ways we can do good in this holiday season. First of all, do.

Mr. HARWOOD: Do.

MARTIN: What does that mean?

Mr. HARWOOD: Well, first, let me say that I just absolutely love this tagline: do the most good. Do, to me, is one of the, you know, it's a short word. It's the shortest almost that you can have - two letters. And it says to us, be active, be engaged, make of yourself something. It's a very active word.

The most, which is the second part of this, says to me that we should distinguish between the things that we think about doing, that we should make choices and our choices matter that they count.

And lastly, the word good. I wrote in the blog: I love the word good because it's almost like smiling at you. It's anchored by true strong letters G and D. It's got this two little Os in the middle, they're almost like wheels that make the word propel forward. And good suggest that it's more than just about me and what I want as a giver or as it - someone who's donating a fund to something or giving of charity. It's that - it's for something larger. There's a kind of moral imperative in the word good. There's kind of a civic compass there that we want to face in a certain kind of direction, and that direction is to bring about goodness for society not just benefit for ourselves.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. And we're talking with Richard Harwood, founder and president of the Harwood Institute, about doing good.

What about people who say, look, I think that the system stacked. Big money runs everything. I'm just going to focus on what I can focus on my zone of influence, do the best I can there. And that's really what I needed to do.

Mr. HARWOOD: Well, there's a lot…

MARTIN: What do you say to that?

Mr. HARWOOD: Well, first, I'd say there are a lot folks in that camp. I mean I just wrote a book called "Hope Unravels," which talks about people's retreat from public life into close-knit circles of families and friends precisely because of that dynamic that's going on in public life. And what I would say to them and what I'd say to a lot of public leaders in our communities and to folks who head up organization is we have a choice.

We face a fundamental choice. We can continue politics and public life in the way in which we've conducted it in the last 15, 20, 30 years, which is simply the point fingers of blame to make it acrimonious and divisive to strike fear into people's hearts, to tell them that we can't make a difference when we get together. And then the person that you're talking about will stay home. Or, we can decide that we can open the door into a different kind of public life, one that doesn't say we're going to solve problems overnight and doesn't say that everyone's going to like each other at the end of the day.

But what it does say is that if we get together and start to put our resources together in the right way and if we put our minds and souls and hearts to this that we can start to make a difference. I've seen this change all across the country. It is possible to do. And what we need to start saying to one another in this country is that it is possible to come out from your home. It is possible to join with other people. It is possible to do something. We don't have to be just victims. We can be active participants and we can make a difference.

MARTIN: You know a lot of us have worked in the media for a long time have encountered this phenomenon. You do a story about public schools and it's like, ah, so what. You do a story about one kid who's struggling to get through the system and boy, does the, you know, do the floodgates open.

Mr. HARWOOD: Well, it's because we have personalized it so when you talk about that one kid, it's an entry, a doorway into this issue. Our dilemma is that when we talk about the kid we stopped at the kid and we let people sort of give all sorts of charity and all sorts of donations to that one child. But what about all the other kids in that individuals classroom? What about all the other schools in that public school system called Washington, D.C. or Puree, Illinois or Sonoma, California where it may be? And with good intention we give.

But we have used charity in a way to let ourselves off the hook, to believe that we don't have to be concerned with these slugger schools systems or these other kids in the schools. And I think one of the things that we need to do as a society is to, A, understand better the reality of all children in this schools and, B, understand what are some of the ways in which we can begin to act on these challenges.

MARTIN: You have a hard job. You have to be, what, nice and cooperative all the time.

Mr. HARWOOD: Not nice and cooperative. What I would say is that we're here to deliver with one another on a promise that all children deserve a good education in our society regardless of the color of their skin, regardless what side of town they come from, regardless of whether they have two parents, one parent, or no parent at home.

We're here to say and deliver on the promise that every person ought to be able to walk down the street safe at night without looking over their shoulder, and when they wake up in the morning there's a good job waiting for them. And we're here to say that we're becoming a more diverse country, not a less diverse country. Now is not the time to turn away from the fight on hatred, bigotry and prejudice.

And if you want to have a society that delivers on this promises, then each of us and all of us need to step forward and we need to engage in fundamentally different ways, and we need to engage with one another in different ways, and we've got to work to create the kind of change that people seek in the society, and we need to engage those folks in ways that make them part of the process, not simply consumers that we were auctioning off programs in tax credits and all sorts of those things so that people don't have to become self-sufficient and really believe in themselves.

MARTIN: Okay. So somebody is listening. So okay you've convinced me, I'm going to do something good.

Mr. HARWOOD: Thank God, we got that far. That's great.

MARTIN: What should I do? This holiday season, I say I want to do something good right now, where should I start? What should I do?

Mr. HARWOOD: Well, I would say that you should think about doing the most good. And you should think about where you can give where you can be active, where you are making a conscious choice about who you're giving to - it's not just an easy check writing. That you should look to see whether or not the organizations you're giving to are really doing good. But beyond that, what I would I'd say, is make your holiday giving your first step not your last step. Think about it as a doorway into civic life, as an opportunity to engage with other people in your communities. Look for those organizations that literally bring people together to work on things together and become a part of those.

MARTIN: Richard Harwood is founder and president of the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation. If you want to read the blog posting we've been talking about, we'll have a link to it on our Web site. He was kind enough to join us here in out Washington, D.C. studios.

Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. HARWOOD: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: And happy holiday.

Mr. HARWOOD: Same to you.

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