ONCE, I asked a class full of aspiring social entrepreneurs — all with business plans and ambitions to start nonprofits — how many of them were looking forward to fund-raising. Exactly zero hands went up. The consensus was that raising money might be a necessary evil, but it was a distraction from a social enterprise’s “real” work.
To their disappointment, I told them that today, soliciting donations is often the single biggest part of a nonprofit leader’s job. For example, I lead a research institution in Washington. Private philanthropy makes up our entire budget, so I travel every week, and the majority of my time is spent fund-raising.
Sound like fun? Actually, it is. Here’s why.
In 2003, while working on a book about charitable giving, I stumbled across a strange pattern in my data. Paradoxically, I was finding that donors ended up with more income after making their gifts. This was more than correlation; I found solid evidence that giving stimulated prosperity. I viewed my results as implausible, though, and filed them away. After all, data patterns never “prove” anything, they simply provide evidence for or against a hypothesis.
But when I mentioned my weird findings to a colleague, he told me that they were fairly unsurprising. Psychologists, I learned, have long found that donating and volunteering bring a host of benefits to those who give. In one typical study, researchers from Harvard and the University of British Columbia confirmed that, in terms of quantifying “happiness,” spending money on oneself barely moves the needle, but spending on others causes a significant increase.
Why? Charitable giving improves what psychologists call “self-efficacy,” one’s belief that one is capable of handling a situation and bringing about a desired outcome. When people give their time or money to a cause they believe in, they become problem solvers. Problem solvers are happier than bystanders and victims of circumstance.
If charity raises well-being, there is no obvious reason it would not also indirectly stimulate material prosperity as people improve their lives. By the time I published my results in an academic journal and book about philanthropy, the only real question was why I hadn’t intuitively understood this all along.
But studying the link between service to others and happiness changed more than just my research; the evidence led me and my wife to reconsider our personal behavior. We raised our financial support for the causes we cared about, increased our volunteering, and — proving that the path to the human heart can run through 100 megabytes of social science data — adopted our youngest child. These things have enriched our family beyond imagination, just as the research promised.
I also began working with nonprofit leaders, helping them to understand the transcendental benefit to donors and recipients alike. And after a few years I finally made the leap to fund-raising myself, leaving academia to lead my current institution, an organization with a mission to which I was morally committed: improving policy and defending American free enterprise.
In this role, I have found that the real magic of fund-raising goes even deeper than temporary happiness or extra income. It creates meaning. Donors possess two disconnected commodities: material wealth and sincere convictions. Alone, these commodities are difficult to combine. But fund-raisers facilitate an alchemy of virtue: They empower those with financial resources to convert the dross of their money into the gold of a better society.
Of course, not everyone shares the principles that motivate my institution’s scholars and supporters. But with millions of 501(c)(3)s and houses of worship nationwide, no one needs to wait on the sidelines and hope that politicians will marshal government power in service of their priorities. By investing their own time, talent and treasure, every American can bring his or her core principles to life. That can mean promoting literacy, conserving nature, saving souls or something else entirely.
None of this is exactly revolutionary; after all, Jesus himself taught his followers, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Poets and philosophers have often made this point. One example I love is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s lyrical test of success in life. In the poem “In the Churchyard at Cambridge,” he contemplates the grave of an unknown woman:
Was she a lady of high degree,
So much in love with the vanity
And foolish pomp of this world of ours?
Or was it Christian charity,
And lowliness and humility,
The richest and rarest of all dowers?
If the lady passed the test and gave of herself to others, who knows? She might have had a fund-raiser to thank.
Nonprofit leaders serve others, and help build causes. But just as important, by providing opportunities to give, they empower us to breathe more meaning into our lives.
Arthur C. Brooks is a contributing opinion writer and the president of the American Enterprise Institute.