We often equate a large donation to a cause as a generous act. We praise the funds coming from donors with deep pockets that finally arrive at non-profit organizations that allow them to carry on with their missions.
Donors expect to know whether their financial contribution will actually improve people’s lives, thus insist the recipient organizations develop metrics to measure the effects of impact investing. These efforts are laudable since donors can be transparent about what happened to their money and how it was used to improve others’ lot but has little to do with the nature of generosity. A small coin can be a generous donation if it is given with a sense of compassion.
When comparing Bill Gates with Mother Theresa, one might argue that the latter had just as much impact than Gates but had a budget of zero. This Christian leader indiscriminately spent the only commodity she could spare–her time–with the most neglected members of Calcutta’s society, never expecting to be paid back.
At my previous office, E Buró, we did volunteer design and communications projects for non-profit organizations working on a variety of areas like rural development, education and sustainability. Through that experience, we met one of our favorite clients, but in summary doing volunteer work as part of the business was not financially sustainable for the office. However, doing it on our own personal timeframes, made more sense.
Recently featured on FastCo Create, I read the great story of Caregifted, an organization that supports caregivers, people who spend decades, if not a lifetime looking after their relatives with some form of disability like autism or Alzheimer’s. These unexpected conditions require family members to re-structure their lives around their relatives’ special needs, often leaving successful careers and personal goals behind in order to assist their relatives.
This Seattle-based organization gives, in the words of Caregifted, “respite in the form of all-expense paid getaways to full-time, lifelong caregivers of severely disabled family members.” People who are selected by this organization can spend some time away in different coastal locations like California, the Pacific Northwest, or Maine in order to rest, reflect and recover their much-needed strength to carry on.
Caregifted was founded by poet Heather McHugh, who used her McArthur genius grant to start this project. McHugh’s godson was found in a similar situation as his son was born with a rare condition that required him and his wife to change their careers, and move back to the US from Cambodia in order to give their baby the special medical attention he needed.
The decision to found Caregifted shows a lot of compassion on McHugh’s side toward her godson, and extends it to other families in similar conditions. It reminds me of Walt Whitman, also a poet, who spend many years visiting thousands of sick and wounded soldiers during the Civil War, listening to these anonymous young men and writing letters to their parents. You can read more about Whitman”s Civil War years here.
What struck me about Caregifted is the fact that it is using communication as a tool to bring awareness to caregivers. When travel grantees go on their vacations, they are asked to do some form of documentation of their time away. McHugh is partnering with filmmaker Adam Larsen, to help share the stories of these ”undersong heroes” during their retreat. Below is a trailer of their Undersung documentary.
How can our efforts as designers and communicators inspire others to give a voice to those who typically don’t have a voice? Can our work be rooted on compassion? Let me know what you think.
The story of Mike Williams, recently published on NPR, narrates how a successful inventor became a homeless man in Sacramento. You can read the full story here.
Once an inventor of medical technologies, Williams ran into a series of events that saw him lose his house, his car and end up in a dumpster. “I found out that I was really nothing, and that was very hard for me to grasp; the fact that no one wanted me around,” he says. “I was something nobody wanted to see or be involved in, and that crushed me.”
A visit to the emergency room after being beaten and robbed in a park, introduced him to Dr. Jong Chen who treated his wounds. After a few conversations, Chen decided to help the inventor get back on his feet. Williams came up with the idea of a temporary shelter for homeless people, just 6 by 6 feet long with a bed and a chemical toilet; a helpful invention even for FEMA-related emergencies or for airport travelers.
They key to the story lies in how some circumstances bring humbling lessons for us. No success is guaranteed to last, and some events lead us to develop empathy for people in unfortunate circumstances. Williams had once designed the first intra-oral camera when he asked his dentist if he could see his own tooth only to be given a mirror, not a camera, so he invented one. The lesson I take is to identify circumstances around me that can create opportunities to invent something new, or to help others.
Williams’s pod shelter may or may not find success in the market, but the experience of living on the streets made him see things differently and take action to try to improve other people’s lives so they don’t have to suffer as much.