Why Doing Good Is Good for the Do-Gooder


Volunteers in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, gathered supplies to help with relief efforts for Puerto Rico and Mexico. CreditEdu Bayer for The New York Times

The past few months, with a series of disasters seemingly one on top of another, have felt apocalyptic to many, but the bright side to these dark times has been the outpouring of donations and acts of generosity that followed.

From Hurricane Harvey flooding Houston to Hurricanes Irma and Maria ripping through the Caribbean to wildfires burning Northern California, cities and charities have been flooded with donations and volunteers. The outpouring of support is critical for helping affected communities to recover. But acts of generosity benefit the do-gooder, too.

“Research suggests that these community social connections are as important for resilience to disaster is as physical material like disaster kits or medical supplies,” explained Ichiro Kawachi, a professor of social epidemiology at Harvard’s School of Public Health. “Voluntarism is good for the health of people who receive social support, but also good for the health of people who offer their help.”

The day after Cristina Topham evacuated her home as a result of the fires in Sonoma, Calif., she and her boyfriend immediately looked for ways to donate and help.

“I just felt like I had to do something. I love my town and my community, and the reach of the destruction was astonishing from the very beginning,” she said.

Why is the first instinct for many to volunteer and donate after a natural disaster? One reason is that as humans we’ve evolved to survive in groups, not alone. Rallying together makes us feel less alone in the experience, explained the sociologist Christine Carter, a fellow at the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley.

“When our survival is threatened, we are going to reach out and strengthen our connections with people around us. We show generosity. We show compassion. We show gratitude. These are all emotions that function to connect us with each other,” Dr. Carter said.

Scientific evidence supports the idea that acts of generosity can be beneficial when we volunteer and give back regularly — and not just after a natural disaster. Volunteering is linked to health benefits like lower blood pressure and decreased mortality rates.

Dr. Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist and founder of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, has been studying the effects of positive emotions, such as compassion and kindness, on the brain since the 1990s. He said the brain behaves differently during an act of generosity than it does during a hedonistic activity.

“When we do things for ourselves, those experiences of positive emotions are more fleeting. They are dependent on external circumstances,” he said. “When we engage in acts of generosity, those experiences of positive emotion may be more enduring and outlast the specific episode in which we are engaged.”

Helping others also gives us a sense of purpose. Dr. Linda Fried co-founded Experience Corps, a program that engages retirees as literacy tutors, after she discovered a strong association between a sense of purpose and well-being throughout life. Older adults who volunteered to help children with reading and writing tended to experience less memory loss and maintain greater physical mobility, one study suggested.

Giving back is a fundamental teaching of many religions. Jesus had the Golden Rule. Buddha said in order to brighten one’s own path, one must light the path of others.

During a trip to India in 2016, I experienced firsthand how the benefits of doing good are well established in Indian society. I paid a visit to a Vedic astrologer because I was anxious about an uncertain future, my own personal crisis, and received a list of prescriptions to help others to get through it. The first task was to buy a black-and-white checkered blanket, then visit a local leper colony and donate it to the first person I saw. My next task was to buy a six-pound bag of lentils, circle it around my head, chant a Sanskrit mantra and give it to a homeless person.

Certainly, many Westerners would roll their eyes at these unconventional “prescriptions,” but they were familiar to my Indian friends, who believe they hold real power.

Later, to better understand the significance of the rituals, I reached out to Dr. Deepak Chopra, author of “You Are the Universe.” He said the philosophical underpinnings in India come from the Vedas and Buddhist traditions, where “all human suffering is a result of the hallucination of the separate self.”

Dr. Chopra explained: “The moment you identify yourself as separate from other beings, or other people, or separate from life in general then you will suffer. And it all begins with initial anxiety because when you’re disconnected from people and life, you feel fear, and that creates the beginning of suffering.”

Would Western doctors ever prescribe acts of generosity? Dr. John Rowe, a professor of health policy and aging at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, doesn’t rule it out.

“We have sufficient scientific information to justify a very significant public health initiative,” he said. “If there were a retiree in my office I would ask them, ‘Do you smoke? Do you exercise? What is your diet like?’ I should also be asking them if they volunteer.”

Six Ways to Give the Gift of Generosity to Children and Teenagers


Cissie Bonini, who represented EatSF, a nonprofit that gives food vouchers to low-income residents, spoke at Brandeis School of San Francisco. Students there pool their money in what is essentially a mini-foundation. CreditJason Henry for The New York Times

This is not a guilt trip. Pile the presents to the sky, by all means.

Trump-hating grown-ups may want to throw every last gift-budget dollar into the Planned Parenthood bucket. If that’s your thing, do it.

But let this column be an additional seasonal reminder that generosity is a trait that nearly all of us share and hope to imprint on the children and teenagers in our orbit. So if you’re so inclined, commit yourself to doing at least one thing before the end of the year to bring the gift of giving to young people.

Here are six ideas to get you started:

FAMILY HISTORY Why be generous? It’s a perfectly reasonable question for an innocent kindergartner or oppositional teenager to ask.

One of the best reasons is to honor your own family’s history of having been helped, as I’ve written before. Every family has one, if you stop to think about it.

Mine includes receiving financial aid at two schools over the course of a decade, a mother who survived premenopausal breast cancer thanks to some excellent medical care, and grandparents on my wife’s side who survived the Holocaust and were welcomed to the United States.

So tell your family history to your children, grandchildren, nieces or students. Update it each year with new examples of others who helped you out along the way. Kids love hearing these stories, and it helps them understand why you feel moved to support the causes you do.

YOUR CHARITABLE PIE One of the most meaningful family conversations I can recall resulted from explaining to our older daughter how we divide our charitable budget. To my wife and me, the list of organizations was a pretty good inventory of the things we cared about most.

But was there anything missing, we wondered? There was, according to our 8-year-old, who made the case for donating to a scholarship fund at her camp.


Students at the Brandeis School of San Francisco listening to Ms. Bonini on Wednesday. Charities pitch to the students to request a share of their funding. CreditJason Henry for The New York Times

You don’t have to lead with the total dollar amounts or disclose them at all. Instead, drop 100 beans on the table, divide them into piles and then label each pile, noting that for every $100 you give away, this is how you divide it up.

Still, you should be prepared for possible questions about how much you give, which may lead inevitably to ones about how much you make and how much you have. Not all children have the financial knowledge to make sense of the answers or the discretion to keep the numbers to themselves, but by the time they’re in their late teenage years, they are often ready.

FINDING A CAUSE Not every family, let alone every child, has a burning desire to help in some particular area. Annie Hernandez, the executive director of the Frieda C. Fox Family Foundation, suggested the possibility of a tour.

Call your local community foundation (the local entities that help collect and redirect charitable dollars), ask to speak with a program officer, disclose your budget and see if that person is willing to take you to see organizations and neighborhoods where assistance would be helpful.

No, this is not poverty tourism or akin to favela tours; you’re seeking out an expert precisely to avoid any insensitivity and to try to establish a lasting relationship. And even if the person you speak with can’t help you in person, he or she may be able to send you to other local organizations that are compatible with your general areas of interest.

SCHOOL-BASED FUNDS The best school-based giving program I’ve ever encountered is the yearlong effort that the seventh graders take on at the Brandeis School of San Francisco.

Rather than give one another token bar and bat mitzvah gifts, the students and their families at the Jewish kindergarten-through-eighth-grade day school take the money they would have spent, toss it into a giant pile and let the children give it away. With additional fund-raising, the total can sometimes exceed $30,000. Essentially, it’s a mini-foundation that opens in the fall and closes the following summer, featuring grown-ups representing charities who visit the school regularly to request a share through pitches to the students.

As part of the school’s Judaic Studies curriculum, students pair off, establish an area of interest, find three local organizations that help in that area and then present one of them to classmates for further evaluation. Criteria for the culling include the importance of the problem, proof of the organization’s effectiveness and how big of an impact the students’ gift could make given the size of the organization.

Each one is ripe material for extended conversation, which is exactly the point. Students can change their minds about their allocation votes at least once before the day comes to dole out as much as $5,000 per group. “Every year at the culminating event, there are parents crying,” said Jody Bloom, who teaches the Judaic Studies class. “It’s a lot of the reason that they send their kids to the school in the first place.”


Students at Brandeis, a Jewish school, save the money they would normally spend on bar and bat mitzvah gifts and instead give to charity. With additional fund-raising, the total can sometimes exceed $30,000 in a year. CreditJason Henry for The New York Times

GIVING CIRCLES Many schools are not equipped to support curriculums that feature actual dollars, but nothing is stopping parents from establishing something like it outside the classroom. Mandy Kao, a mother of three in Houston and a real estate entrepreneur, had herself participated in a charitable giving circle, where a group of people pool resources to make collective decisions about grant making, when she decided to start a circle for her three boys and other children a few years ago.

The group of Houston-area youths raise money through a Mother’s Day brunch and other activities and receive matching funds from an organization called Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy.They’ve made grants to youth soccer programs that help refugees and to Big Brothers Big Sisters in an effort to try to encourage more Asian-Americans to serve as mentors.

In Manhattan, Sara Shapiro-Plevan, a consultant, is about to start a giving circle just for boys. She was plotting against the reality that by the time middle school rolls around, some children want nothing to do with members of the opposite sex, while others want everything to do with them. Either way, she figured, it would work better if it was just her sixth grader and his male friends. “It’s an easier way to have what might be a challenging conversation,” she said. “And to do something his mom was asking him to do.”

For many years, Jen Bokoff, a Brooklyn resident who works in philanthropy, has done a one-night-only circle with her family each Hanukkah. She and her relatives each bring $10, regardless of age, and then talk for a bit about an organization they favor. Everyone’s names go into a hat, someone picks and then that person’s organization gets all the money.

SHARING December can be a sad time for many adults, often because they feel diminished by the lavish holiday tales that flow through their social media feeds. Nevertheless, Ms. Hernandez is a big believer in talking about whatever giving we do, because it normalizes it as a regular holiday activity.

So how best for a family to share in a way that will not subtly shame some other adult having a more materialistic holiday?

Ms. Bokoff is the director of knowledge services at the Foundation Center, which helped build a resource-rich website for families and educators called youthgiving.org. In her world, the giving talk is often around donors’ treasure, time, talent and ties.

Treasure is the money. Time and talent are about volunteering, which children should certainly do too in their areas of interest.

As for the ties, that’s about your network — and for middle- and high-school-age children, their most powerful networks may be digital ones. “They can use those platforms to share causes they care about,” Ms. Bokoff said. “And if they do it, their friends are more likely to as well.”

Sacred Heart Greenwich Sophomore Named 1 of Westchester County’s Best and Brightest Business Minds and Innovators for her Philanthropic Work

Here’s an article about Sacred Heart Sophomore Mary Grace Henry.  Mary Grace honed her philanthropic organization through her 8th grade “Making History” project.

Wunderkinds 2013: Mary Grace Henry, 16

Founder, Reverse the Course


In addition to playing two sports, completing her homework, thinking about college, and socializing with her friends, Mary Grace Henry, a 16-year-old high school sophomore who lives in Harrison, runs Reverse the Course (RTC), a successful international nonprofit organization that she founded in 2008. RTC sells reversible headbands to raise money to send girls living in impoverished countries to school.

From a young age, Henry was aware that girls in other countries did not have the same opportunities she did. Her school, the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Greenwich, Connecticut, had a sister school in Uganda that they raised money for through jump-rope competitions and penny wars. But she was not happy with just supporting one school; she wanted to find a way to send more girls to school so they “could be in control of their own lives” and “give back to their communities.”

After attending a headband-making class in 2008, Henry knew she had found her revenue source. She asked her parents for a sewing machine and quickly made 50 headbands to sell in her school’s bookstore. They sold out quickly, and she started selling more in boutiques, at sidewalk sales, and at craft fairs across Westchester. By 2010, she had raised enough money to send two girls to school in Uganda. Now, she has raised enough (more than $35,000) to send 32 girls in Uganda, Kenya, Paraguay, and Haiti to school for at least two years. (RTC also works with the girls individually to determine which institution they should attend.)

“It’s kind of shocking to think that I’ve lived on Earth for about 16 years, and I’ve sponsored 75 years” in tuition, she says.

Organizations such as Pencil for Hope, the Philanthropic Educational Organization, and the Girl Scouts have recognized Henry’s success and have asked her to speak at their events. She also received the Richard A. Berman Leadership Award for Human Rights from the Holocaust & Human Rights Education Center. But Henry knows her work is far from over. Her short-term goal is to sponsor 100 girls, and, in the long term, she hopes to keep the organization up and running as she graduates high school and goes to college to study business or journalism.

“I think that for the rest of my life,” Henry says, “I will in some way be connected to this organization.”

► For more 2013 Wunderkinds, click here.