Paul Serini is the Chairman of the Board of Directors of The Helen J. Serini Foundation. Below, he talks about why we give and what it means—to him as an individual, to the Serini family, and to society as a whole. This piece is modified from a speech Mr. Serini originally gave at Catholic University of America’s Law School.
In the United States, we are raised to understand that giving back is “the right thing to do.” But what we often overlook in the conversation is the benefit of giving not only to the recipient of a gift, but to the for both the recipient AND the giver.
Americans give a lot. Individual American citizens give about $250 billion away to charity each year. Foundations and corporations come in a distant second and third, at $42 billion and $14 billion, for a total of about $300 billion in giving, most of it from families. $300 billion is a lot of money. Seventy-five percent of America’s families give every year. Fifty percent volunteer their time, and many Americans give in a host of other ways that are not captured in data.
When you hear the amount of money that US citizens give as compared to other countries, you may think it's simply because we are a richer nation, but it’s not that: this is an authentic difference in culture.
The questions, then, are this: why does it matter, and which is pushing and which is pulling? Is the fact that we are, generally speaking, a richer country the reason that we give so much? Or is it what John D. Rockefeller would have said: that the fact that we give so much is one of the secrets to our success?
About 15 years ago, researchers at Harvard University collected data on more than 30,000 families from various backgrounds across the United States. It was one of the most comprehensive studies ever conducted to evaluate people’s service behavior and their charitable giving. They determined that when people give more money away, they tended to prosper.
They also looked at volunteering and found the same thing: People who volunteer do better financially than those who don't.
They also looked at how charitable giving had changed over a 50-year period, and compared it to how income had changed, to see which was statistically pushing and which was pulling.
The average family during that 50-year period had a 150% increase in real purchasing power. Charitable giving increased even more over the same period per family—by an average of 19%. Twenty-six percent more than the purchasing power! As we’re getting more prosperous in this country, we’re getting even more generous. Could we be more generous? Of course we could. But we’re not getting stingier.
So this begs the question: Which is pushing and which is pulling? Is income driving up donations or are donations driving up income? The answer, once again, is both. You’ll find that when our country gets richer, people give more away. And as we give more away, that translates into better economic growth for this country. There's a multiplier effect.
It’s hardest to grasp the "pulling part" (where the giving translates into wealth) if we only think in terms of money and economics. We all worry about money all the time, but money doesn't describe behaviors. If we instead focus on something that people care about—the currency by which we really spend our days—it makes more sense. And that currency is happiness.
The mental health profession and industrial psychologists that are advising businesses have known for at least 45 years that when people give, they're happier. And people who give to charity are 43% more likely than people who don’t to say they’re very happy people. People who give blood are twice as likely to say they’re very happy people as people who don’t give blood. People who volunteer are, quite simply, happier.
Charity brings happiness, happiness brings success.
There’s a very interesting set of studies that tell us why it is that giving will make you into a happy person:
In the late 1980s there was a famous study of charitable giving that looked at how people reacted with respect to their body’s release of endorphins. These showed that when people volunteer to help other people, they get what is called “the giver's high.” Volunteering actually gives people a mild sense of euphoria.
Later studies of the brain showed that when people give, it actually lowers their levels of long-term stress. We know that people who do their jobs with less long-term stress tend to be more productive and more successful than those who perform with more stress.
Another consideration is what happens not within your own brain, but in other people’s brains, when you give. A study from the University of Kent in southern England was dedicated to figuring out how people see others who are givers.
There is an experiment used in many business training models called a cooperation game, in which people are gathered in a large room, given a little bit of money, and asked to contribute to a common fund. Researchers look in the common fund, double it, and pass it out equally among the participants. The best thing for everybody to do is to put in all of their money and have it doubled—but there are always those who hold back, thereby keeping their own money and a chunk of everyone else’s.
What made the University of Kent study interesting was the second phase of the cooperation game, in which people in the game who had witnessed each other cooperating in giving to each other were asked to break up into teams and elect leaders. What they found was that in more than 80% of the cases, the leaders who were elected were the biggest givers from the first phase.
Their conclusion, a conclusion that has been verified in subsequent experiments in the military and that I used to teach my management teams, is that when people see strangers giving charitably (and this can be money, mentoring, time, anything) they recognize a leadership quality in those strangers.
There are many other studies that show that givers are healthier and tend to be better citizens. The list of benefits goes on and on, but the bottom line is this: Givers are healthier, happier, and richer in this country—and probably around the world.
I appreciate that I'm presenting an unusual understanding of charitable giving. We are taught that giving is important to help others, but I’m telling you that giving is also important to help you. The main beneficiary of a charitable gift is the giver him or herself. One of my conclusions at this point in my life is that I am the biggest beneficiary of my own giving.
This is important, I think, because we hear sometimes that if our government were doing what it should be doing for people, then we wouldn’t need so much private giving, that the government would be taking care of people who need it, and that we wouldn't need to help. I believe that the day the government takes over for us in our private charity is the day we get poorer, unhappier, and unhealthier. The government can help—and it should help--but we must continue to demand our place as private givers.
As a child I was taught to give because my mother, in whose memory we named The Helen J. Serini Foundation, knew that it would make me a better person. She knew this without any data and without a high school diploma, but call it a mother’s instinct—she knew it, and she was right.
I know that my giving has made me a happier, healthier and more successful person. And because my wife and I have long believed that our kids, and our grandchildren after them, will enjoy richer, happier, healthier and more successful lives as they learn to give, we created this foundation to support children’s issues, health and education. My kids all add their own money to it, serve as its directors, conduct hands-on volunteer work, manage the grants, and determine where the organization will go in the future. It's my training ground for raising generations of givers.
So remember: you're the largest long-term beneficiary of your own giving, 'cause it's all push and pull -- think about that as you're at dinner this week with your kids or others you love and care about most. And think about it the next time someone asks you to give. Or better yet, think about it long before they ask.