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The Most Generous on Wall Street

13 Mar

As part of our series on generosity in business, we’re looking at some of the financial wizards who are using their skills and assets to give back to society in the most impressive and inspiring ways.


Introduction by: Alexander Stein

Generosity is an emerging market. Social-good philanthropy is forging into territories once the domain of conventional charities and donor-grantee philanthropy. This month, the Co.Exist / Catchafire Generosity Seriessingles out an elite group who’ve pivoted from exceptional success in the financial sector to launching world-changing social giving initiatives.

But, even for these wealthy donors, being generous is more complicated than you might think.

Rather than being inspirational, giving of this magnitude can generate rip tides of envy. Could the astronomical wealth and mammoth institutional resources behind these ventures overshadow their missions? Avoiding that is the first challenge. Remember, positive impact matters more than who’s giving and how much.

As Warren Buffet puts it, “the most precious asset a person can give is time.” To Buffet, gifts of time and talents to help others “often prove far more valuable than money.” A struggling child, he suggests, “befriended and nurtured by a caring mentor, receives a gift whose value far exceeds what can be bestowed by a check.”

How can this serve as a model for emulation? To be optimally leveraged, we need to better understand generosity. Generosity is commonly defined as “liberality in spirit or act, especially in giving” and a “willingness to share with others.” Its etymology is linked with nobility, nearly every world religion vaunts its moral virtue and, as any child can tell you, it’s better to give than to receive.

But generous behavior isn’t itself an accurate indicator of true generosity. People donate time, service, knowledge, and money for lots of reasons–exhibitionism, social pressure, to be influential, in control, or feel powerful, guilt, conformity, moral posturing, self-gratification, tax advantages, even disguised hostility. While, to varying degrees, these are legitimate catalysts to giving, they have little to do with actual generosity or altruism.

Social scientists explain generosity as “prosocial behavior”–actions that benefit others learned through role models in the home or school. But the underlying psychology–how our capacity for giving develops and functions–is more complex. Why is this important to know? Because true generosity isn’t just about generous acts. It means being generous knowledgeably and thoughtfully–understanding generosity inside and out.

Taking generosity from blueprint to delivery can get deformed or derailed by any number of under-the-radar obstructions. Hard to see, looking at the members of this list (see below). They epitomize mission-aligned giving. They also present an opportunity to study, by contrast, some problematic giving types, whose generosity is mitigated by ulterior motives.

Knowing the signs of the wrong kind of generosity can help you spot them, in others or even in yourself, in advance.
Important? Very. The social good sector–and generosity in particular–pivots on the human element. In a successful giving venture, psychology is a critical factor equal to any. Punt it aside, and you’re handicapped.

Here’s the short list:

  • 5-Alarm: Generosity catalyzed by catastrophe. Natural disasters, 9/11, and other social trauma generate outpourings of mass-empathy. Active interest can exceed the news cycle but eventually subsides once a semblance of ‘normalcy’ has returned.
  • Mother Teresa: These givers’ generosity is boundless. Their need to help others seems insatiable.
  • Guilty: Its familiar face leaves the recipient feeling guilty for accepting the giver’s munificence. A sense of ingratitude is baked-in; no amount of thankfulness can fully acknowledge the sacrifice made in having given so much. The underbelly is the guilt driving the giver: his generosity is an imperative of tithing or expiation, an attempt at compensating for something forever owed. This substructure is often invisible, as many appear to give quietly, anonymously, or selflessly.
  • Investment: Generosity (actually pseudo-generosity) delivered with an unspoken expectation for a return. It’s not tangible ROI like admiration or bragging rights; the giver’s generosity is an esoteric hedge. Potential returns could be an internal “get-out-jail-free card,” to feel deserving of respect or love, enhanced self worth, or delivering a model of how he hopes to be treated.
  • Little Big Man: The giver dreads being “too much.” The ramifications of too muchness are presumed dire. The solution? Divestiture and redistribution. The quotient deemed dangerously over the line is reducible to safe levels with a noble bonus: giving to others.
  • Pollination: Scattering small seeds of generosity to multiple recipients. Each parcel is too insignificant for sustainable positive impact but sufficient in the aggregate to create the appearance of great magnanimity (distinct from potentially useful micro-giving, a variation of strategically thoughtful micro-lending).
  • Tyrant: Generosity delivered with militaristic precision and vice-grip control. All effective philanthropy requires structure and regulation. But this is stiflingly hyper-codified. The consequent, inappropriate focus is on giver, contract and performance. The recipients’ needs are eclipsed.
  • Atlas: Generosity borne of a sense of over-responsibility. Usually derivative of a childhood devoted to emotionally subsidizing a weak, sick, or immature parent. A deep reservoir of resentment flows under the generosity.
  • Bling: The charitable gesture is really camouflaged boastfulness. Generous acts are a contrivance for trumpeting and memorializing the giver’s resources and generosity.
  • Strip Mall: Unrelenting and over-abundant generosity. The giver can never give enough (and may never stop) irrespective of how much the recipients need.
  • Trojan Horse: Largesse with a hidden time-deferred agenda. The recipient doesn’t learn of the contingent expectations bundled into the ostensible gift until after the fact.
  • Tony Soprano: As in, “it would be a cryin’ shame if you didn’t accept this gift.”
  • Jackass: Wasteful, mind-bogglingly ludicrous pseudo-charitability (as one of many Technicolor examples, see Leona Helmsley’s bequeathing her multimillion dollar fortune to her dog).
  • Carrot on a Stick: Keeps the recipient hopeful but perpetually suspended in need. The promised generosity comes tantalizingly close to fulfillment, or is sparingly apportioned over time. But is always attached to a string. (Similarly: “YoYo”: generosity serially offered and retracted).
  • Madoff: Fraudulent generosity. Can involve the giving of stolen or misappropriated assets. Can also be a deceptive practice: generosity as red-herring, straw entity, or disguise for intentional malice or, purely psychologically, as a veil for hatred, envy, or rage. Hostility and sadism are parts of the human condition. Social imperatives to conceal them are embedded in language: the German word “gift” means ‘poison’ in English.

I’ve given these psychological categories cheeky names to help explain them. But the issues are serious. In each, beneath the generous act, the giver’s internal conflicts and self interests dominate. Concern for the other is subordinate and functional. That’s a fundamental perversion of accepted generosity best practices.

Is there a fix? Can these archetypes be avoided?

Yes. Harnessing generosity’s full potential as an enterprise tool requires understanding both its negatives and positives. That these mental systems exist and can intrude in our daily affairs isn’t a dismal forecast for future giving. People are dazzlingly resilient and adaptable. These psychological mechanisms, and others too, start as ingenious coping responses–giving instead of receiving in a formative zero-sum environment where giving and receiving wasn’t feasible.

Generosity isn’t limited to giving. It also involves being accepting, emotionally charitable toward ourselves and others.

The capacity for empathy–a leap of imagination to understanding the experience of another based on one’s self–is a cornerstone of generosity, and a remarkable trait of our humanity. It’s present in varying degrees in nearly everyone. Being truly generous is to be humane.


The Most Generous on Wall Street are a group of unique individuals who have enjoyed a successful career in finance while also making time to give back in a significant way. These individuals are role models for us who are career focused, showing us that giving back and growing a successful career are not mutually exclusive, but complementary.

Come back every Monday for the next five weeks to read about a new honoree who uses their success off of Wall Street, influence in the world of finance, or post career life to make the world a better place. We’ve gathered in depth profiles that get to the heart of who these people are, their philosophies on giving, why they are generous and how they are using their time and talents (not just their bank accounts) for good.

Ready to meet the honorees?


Service 2.0: The New Giving Will Transform Philanthropy

7 Feb
Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, what are you doing for others? —Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Charitable giving is a part of life for most Americans. 65 percent of households with incomes less than $100,000 donate, and 98 percent of high net worth households donate. I predict that the future of giving is getting even brighter. I think that more Americans will give, and I think that more Americans will give more and smarter.

In fact, the catalyst behind this change is already at work. It’s called volunteering. Volunteering as we’ve known it for the last few centuries has for the most part remained the same—people giving labor. But now, volunteering is going through a rebirth. “Service” or “volunteering” will disrupt the $300 billion philanthropic sector and the effect will not only be more giving, but also deeper and smarter giving.
Service is the new giving. Let me tell you why.

Click here to read the full article on GOOD.

Redesigning Public Services So They Can Actually Help People

1 Feb

We’re recognizing game changing careers and inspiring acts of generosity beyond deep-pocketed philanthropy. The Series profiles continue today with Panthea Lee,  Most Generous Designer. It continues through the winter with most Generous Tech Founders, Wall Streeters, Marketing Gurus and Filmmakers. Follow the series every Monday, Wednesday and Friday  for in-depth profiles of all our honorees.


Reboot is a design agency that focuses on service design in international development. In other words, fixing aid programs so that they provide enough aid to the people who need it.

Where design, technology, and international development meet is where Panthea Lee and her firm Reboot work. Lee has overseen the implementation of projects ranging from improving disaster relief in Pakistan to a social accountability system with the Nigerian government. She’s turning field data into practical and effective intervention.

Click here to read the full article on FastCo.Exist.

Spending Martin Luther King Jr. Day with a Purpose

30 Jan


This year, rather than volunteering on location, Catchafire decided to open the doors of our office and celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day by providing friends and members of our community with personal volunteer consultations, a chance to learn something new and as a bonus an opportunity to hang out at our team’s potluck!

As we sent out invitations, it quickly became evident that most of our friends were not aware that MLK Jr. Day is the National Day of Service and instead were using the long weekend for a vacation. With this realization, we started to wonder, why don’t more people observe the National Day of Service or even know about it?

As the day started off, Rachael asked the team and our guests to settle around the couches in a large comfortable circle. After everyone relaxed into place, she posed a question that inspired a surprisingly intimate conversation for 10 o’clock in the morning.

Why do you serve?

Faced with this question, most of us reflected back to our first ever volunteer experience. Listening to those around me,  it was clear that whatever experience it was, volunteering, at some point had transformed that person’s life. They were forever changed by the act of helping someone else. It comforted me that the friends who stopped by Catchafire felt a similar dedication to serve as my co-workers.


Whether it was a mission trip to foreign country, a role model whose actions they learned from or an expression of gratitude from the recipient of a good deed, it was clear that service had opened our eyes to the way our lives should be spent and service was deeply embedded in everyone who went to Catchafire that day.

The day continued with Martin Luther King Jr. twitter trivia and a Social Media Scavenger Hunt that challenged our knowledge and understanding of Human Rights. These games were a chance for us to recognize the people out there who are using the internet as a tool to raise awareness about human rights & service.
We finished up by screening Born into Brothels, a touching documentary about a woman who finds potential in children raised in Indian brothels. As she teaches them photography, it was nearly impossible not to feel attached to the children’s stories of hardship day in and day out.  Seeing the world through their eyes was inspiring and reminded us the importance of raising awareness and making change around human rights.

photo (24)All in all, our MLK Day was refreshing. It is a wonderful practice to reflect on why it is you serve, in fact, I challenge you to ask yourself the same question today. I hope that it will provoke something in you as it did us. We are excited to watch the holiday evolve, and we are sure that MLK Day 2014 will be very different.

We hope that as we all grow, the holiday will as well, imagine if everyone recognized MLK Day as the National Day of Service–seriously, if everyone did, woah I just got excited!

Training A New Generation of Designers to Design for Good

23 Jan

We’re recognizing game changing careers and inspiring acts of generosity beyond deep-pocketed philanthropy. The Series profiles continue today with Timothy Prestero, a Most Generous Designer. It continues through the winter with most Generous Tech Founders, Wall Streeters, Marketing Gurus and Filmmakers. Follow the series every Monday, Wednesday and Friday  for in-depth profiles of all our honorees.


Design That Matters has created some revolutionary devices to help fix problems like infant care in the developing world, but its more lasting legacy may be the new mindset it’s giving the designers it teaches.

At Design that Matters, Timothy Prestero is bringing together hundreds of bright-minded students, professionals and social entrepreneurs, to collaboratively experiment and design breakthroughs in areas such as infant health and literacy. You may have heard of some of their projects (you can see them above), like Firefly, a cheap way to treat infant jaundice; the Kinkajou projector, which brings media to the developing world; and the NeoNurture incubator, designed to run off common car parts. We talked to Prestero about how his program manages to keep creating these design innovation

Click here to read the full article on FastCo.Exist.

Designing Better Ways to Give Back

22 Jan

We’re recognizing game changing careers and inspiring acts of generosity beyond deep-pocketed philanthropy. The Series profiles continue today with Dawn Hancock, a Most Generous Designer. It continues through the winter with most Generous Tech Founders, Wall Streeters, Marketing Gurus and Filmmakers. Follow the series every Monday, Wednesday and Friday  for in-depth profiles of all our honorees.


Firebelly’s Dawn Hancock has found a way to inextricably link her design practice to helping her community, by incubating businesses and mentoring designers to create a chain of social consciousness.

Dawn Hancock is the founder of Firebelly, which works to create, as they say, “good design for good reason.” She’s also the founder of Reason to Give, an organization that allows people to give money to help the people of the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago. When not designing in the studio she is incubating entrepreneurs, educating young and hungry design students, and working collaboratively to ensure that Firebelly’s nonprofit arm reaches as many community members as possible. This leaves us asking, Is there anything that Hancock doesn’t do?

Click here to read the full article on FastCo.Exist.

Creating Meaningful Content To Catalyze Change

19 Dec

We’re recognizing game changing careers and inspiring acts of generosity beyond deep-pocketed philanthropy. The Series profiles continue today with Giselle Diaz Campagna, a Most Generous Social Media Maven. It continues through the winter with most Generous Designers, Tech Founders, Wall Streeters, Marketing Gurus and Filmmakers. Follow the series every Monday, Wednesday and Friday  for in-depth profiles of all our honorees.


How Giselle Diaz Campagna took an Indian organization with no social media profile to become a powerful presence online.

Giselle Diaz Campagna is a media entrepreneur whose daily mission is to actively promote social change. Our list of social media mavens would not not complete without recognizing this outstanding professional from the Catchafire community whose pro bono work using social media inspires us. She is the founder of Bodhi Media Labsand in her spare time doubles as a yoga teacher, snowboard instructor, experimental artist, and die-hard social activist. Personally motivated by organizations that give a voice to children, she eagerly accepted the challenge to help Sahasra Deepika (one of Catchafire’s partner organizations) compete in the Chase Community Giving Campaign. With only 325 Facebook likes the tiny, volunteer-based organization that houses and educates underprivileged children in Bangalore relied on Diaz Campagna’s creative and strategic storytelling skills. After long nights of collaboration and without spending a cent, they found their story in the children. With Diaz Campagna’s help and in true underdog spirit, Sahasra Deepika got enough votes to be one of the winners of the campaign and received $10,000 to send their children to college.

Click here to read the full article on FastCo.Exist.

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