By Todd Cohen
The human impulse to lend a hand drives the charitable marketplace.
In the U.S., the culture of helping has fostered a social sector that generates over $290 billion in charitable giving a year, employs 10 percent of the workforce, receives over 8 billion volunteer hours a year from nearly 53 million adults, and accounts for five percent of gross domestic product.
But what prompts us to want to look out for one another and work together to find ways to fix the social and global problems we face?
And can understanding that motivation help nonprofits do a better job running their shops, engaging donors and volunteers, and partnering with other organizations?
An article in the March 5 edition of The New Yorker magazine may provide some insight into those issues.
The article, entitled Kin and Kind and written by author Jonah Lehrer, looks at the “genetics of altruism,” and at the debate among biologists about whether cooperation among individuals or groups makes them more fit to survive.
While the article looks at research into behavior among microbes, plants, insects, birds and mammals, it has important implications for charities, and how they operate and compete in what has become a brutally competitive marketplace.
The article, for example, compares cooperation among individuals with cooperation among organizations, and quotes a 2007 paper co-authored by evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson of Harvard, who has spent much of his career studying ants.
“Selfishness beats altruism within groups,” the paper said. “Altruistic groups beat selfish groups.”
In other words, within an organization, individuals who look out for themselves are more likely to succeed than those who are team players, while organizations that partner with other organizations are more likely to succeed in the marketplace than those that pursue a strategy of slash and burn.
In explaining his theory of evolution, Charles Darwin used the concept of “natural selection,” or the “principle by which each slight variation [of a trait], if useful, is preserved.”
Lehrer, in turn, writes that “goodness might actually be an adaptive trait, allowing more cooperative groups to outcompete their conniving cousins.”
In a field “defined by the cruel logic of natural selection,” he writes, “group selection appears to be the rare hint of virtue, the one biological force pushing back against the obvious advantages of greed and deceit.”
But the choice of group collaboration or individual selfishness may not be so simple.
Lehrer quotes from an interview he conducted with Wilson:
“If our behavior was driven entirely by group selection, then we’d be robotic cooperators, like ants,” Wilson says. “But, if individual-level selection was the only thing that mattered, then we’d be entirely selfish. What makes us human is that our history has been shaped by both forces. We’re stuck in between.”
What does this mean for the charitable marketplace, one rooted in the idea of doing good?
Nonprofits that want to survive and thrive need to find ways both to attract, motivate, train and retain smart and caring employees, donors, volunteers and board members, while also finding partner organizations in the social economy that care more about addressing social and global problems than protecting and expanding their own turf.
Unlike businesses, which often thrive by pitting employees against one another, particularly in the area of sales, nonprofits thrive on employees working together to better serve clients.
That does not free nonprofits from the need to give individual employees incentives for working smarter and serving better.
Nonprofits should indeed find ways to motivate and reward individual performance, rather than taking employees for granted while pushing them to do more with less.
But nonprofits also need to create incentives for individuals to work together because functioning as a team can mean the difference between the success or failure of an organization.
Greater collaboration might seem at first glance to undermine part of the culture of big nonprofits, like universities, that reward fundraising professionals in different departments or programs for raising money for their own unit.
So nonprofits should help employees see that working together will benefit them as individuals while also strengthening the organization.
If they were to share information with one another about which donors seem like the best prospects for annual, major or bequest gifts, for example, the respective development staff could better focus on the donors most likely to make those kinds of gifts.
Like development professionals, many organizations can become preoccupied with controlling turf and donors in their respective communities and fields of interest.
Yet in the face of seemingly unsolvable social and global problems, severely strained resources, and donors and funding organizations anxious over the crippled economy, nonprofits working on similar problems or in the same regions need to find ways to team up.
The impulse to lend a hand, not the drive to beat competitors, represents the spirit of the charitable sector, and nonprofits should be looking for ways to inspire their employees and organizations to excel at advancing their mission through collaboration.