The Mundane Philosopher

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The dilemma of philanthropy: Start early with no money and power, or grow yourself first to have more leverage later?

The challenges of improving the world

Whenever I saw beggars, children selling souvenirs or people charity events asking for donation I wondered whether I should help or not. Even when I helped it always left me with a nagging doubt and a bad conscience. Have you also faced the following dilemma of philanthropy?

  • start helping early in your life with low impact due to lack of skill and resources (money and power), furthermore slowing down your own growth of your resources in the process or
  • postpone helping to later for a higher impact on the outcome due to more resources (money), influence (power) and skills you have earned through work and life experience

Last week I had an interesting talk with a journalist whose dream is to start a company to help children. I have learned that such kind of endeavor is called social entrepreneurship. A few years ago she tried to get the necessary funding in a competition for start-up funds for social entrepreneurs as she did not have enough money to set it up on her own means. Although she failed to get the funds, she kept in contact with the organizers of the funding event and the other social entrepreneurs who got funded. It looks like that after a few years, most those who received at the time of her application are still struggling to simply stay alive, not speaking of financing the greater good they wanted to do.

Child Street Hawker in Angkor Wat and other annoying types in developing countries

A young girl selling souvenirs in Angkor Wat.*

It seems that good intentions only without the necessary means can easily lead to failure. In the end of our discussion we boiled it down to the two most important tools to change the world to a better place: money and power.

With this in mind the important questions is when and how to enter the meaningful task of improving the world. In this context it is also important to decide wether to donate money to help indirectly or directly involve yourself personally.

If you feel similar doubts and face this dilemma, let’s take a look at this challenging question further below.

*I have written an article on my other blog – “The Mundane Traveller” – about why this type of child labour is sometimes preferable to some other types of labour in developing countries. To read that article please click here.

Why money and power is not evil and can used to do good – leverage is key

Some people who want to do good things have an issue with money and power. For these people those two are evil incarnated. For others, luckily, it is just what it is – one is a means of exchange and the other is a tool to achieve the goals we set.

Leverage is a key element of doing good. If you give a beggar some money you help him to survive another day. If you give 1000 beggars money regularly you become one yourself very soon. More importantly your leverage is very low on this level, you can help exactly 1000 people and only for a very short time. You have not even helped them to help themselves as you are without concept. Putting cash into some beggars hand is certainly not a good concept! It is actually no concept at all, it only serves you to ease your own conscience the act of simply giving money to beggars has no leverage at all, is too small to have any long-term effect.

Therefore you need a concept, system or organisation to increase the effectiveness of your help. To make them effective you need three elements:
time of you and of those people creating it
money to keep everything running and
power to influence the world, to push through the challenges such a concept, system or organization faces.

Increase leverage, control where your money and time goes

So how to put some leverage into your cause? You can indirectly donate money or directly involve yourself.

If you donate money to an organization to help the cause you feel for, then that organization has a higher leverage than you as a single person as they have systems and people in place. Often they even have a plan about what they are doing. Deciding about if you want to support their plan is another topic; fact is, what they do with your money is normally out of your control.

So, let’s get more control over the process of helping – involve yourself personally. You can either volunteer for free for a period of time, work part-time or full-time in an organization or even create an organization yourself.

Volunteering for free is a nice thing to do, and it makes you feel good about it – but is that sustainable? At a certain point of time you need to go back to earn yourself money to live, unless you have inherited something big enough to not worry about your basic needs.

When you work for an organization, no matter full-time or part-time, you always act under the premises and strategy of the organization you are working for, thus you are limited to their goals and cannot achieve what you personally think is important.

To really determine where the money and efforts goes you can start a social enterprise yourself. But doing this you need to be aware that if you start a small social enterprise early in your life without the necessary cash and power, it just stays small and with low impact unless you manage to increase its cash flow and its influential power.

The sustainability of charity organizations – skilled people and cash flow

Let’s be clear about it – people in organizations for a social cause tend to have all the best good intentions. Sometimes they are too good for this world, so their goodness might get into their way. In the end they struggle to just to keep themselves alive and need to keep running for more donations and may waste all their time on getting more donations.

There are two major factors to create and run such an efficient and effective organization
1. skilled people to set up the necessary systems and processes, as well as people to run it
2. cashflow to pay those skilled people

Let’s take a look at the situation when you are working in such an environment: If you stop working in a mundane career job and dedicate all your time and yourself to improve the world your effectiveness is determined by the level of skills, your cash and the level of influence you have reached when you exit your worldly job. Let’s face it, there is no such thing as a normal career path in such an environment. You can only contribute with your existing skills set, money or power. This is why these organization often look for seasoned managers and technicians instead of newly graduates or other less skilled people.

Most people working in such organizations are just normal people with a daily life. Like every other person in the world they need to eat, to drink and to have a roof over their head. Many of them need to sustain a family. Doctors in a hospital need to take care of themselves so they can treat their patients, nurses have children of their own. Therefore they need something very mundane to live: cash.

Many such organizations are not self-sustainable but only depending on other people’s good will, i.e. their donations. This good will can run out very quickly! That’s why most organizations realize that the organization needs to create a business model to get cash-flow to sustain the organizations operations to achieve their goals.

A good example is the Red Cross in Laos who runs a Spa & Massage place to keep up their health services for the community in Huai Xai, a border town to Thailand in Northern Laos (, or in Luang Prabang, the UNESCO heritage city of Laos ( Other hospitals run their coffee shop inside the hospital or find other services which they can sell.

The seat of the Societe Animo in Huai Xai

A fantastic example for successful social entrepreneurship is the Societe Animo in northern Laos who are running the Gibbon Experience, a stay in the jungle on tree top houses with lots of hiking, fun zip-lining and nature watching. This organization protects the near extinct gibbons in northern Laos by hiring ex-hunters from nearby villages to protect the gibbons from poachers.  These ex-hunters also serve as tour guides for the people joining – and paying – for the Gibbon Experience. Therefore they can earn the money sustaining this protection of flora and fauna through organizing and monetizing this tour. On the long run the villagers are going to run the Gibbon Experience themselves. I write about this great Gibbon Experience in these blog entries on The Mundane Traveller:

Tree house of the Gibbon Experience in Laos, a social Tree house of the Gibbon Experience in Laos, run by a social organization financing themselves through tree house stays

Tree house of the Gibbon Experience in Laos, a social Tree house of the Gibbon Experience in Laos, run by a social organization financing themselves through tree house stays

There are myriads of other possibilities to create cash flow. The important point is that an Entrepreneur setting up a social entrepreneurship in its core must do what the name says: to be an Entrepreneur, i.e. to create cash flow to pay for what you want to do. It is not different from what a normal company does with the only difference in the purpose of that company: earn mundane money and gain mundane influence to improve the world!

When and how to contribute to our world’s improvement

If you enter the field of doing good early and with no skills and power, your influence to improve the world might stay the same for the rest of your live or only increases slowly if you are lost in your daily tasks unless you put yourself under strict discipline to continue your education and training for growing further.

If you enter the charity game at a power and money level of a Bill Gates, who created one of the most efficient and effective organizations in this field, The Gates Foundation, you can indeed change the world!

Of course there are many shades in between the extremes, but the fact remains the same – money and power do make a significant difference.

The most difficult challenge now is how to rise to money and power as well as to gain the necessary skills to shape a better world without loosing your values on the way.

It is certainly not recommended that you give all your money every month to 1000 beggars. We cannot be the girl in the Tale of Star Money collected by the Brothers Grimm, who is giving all her belongings away one by one until she is with nothing left. At the end of the story the stars fall down to earth becoming taler, which made her very rich. Unfortunately the latter only happens in fairy tales, so the chance of money falling from the sky in form of stars is close to zero and thus impedes you relying on this method of divine intervention.

Having said that, surely you can start to contribute part of your money, time and skills to the improvement to the world daily, monthly and yearly now. You do not need to wait until you grow old and powerful, every single contribution to the world counts. If you ever had intentions to improve the world then there is no need to procrastinate using your personal growth as an excuse not to do anything.

Nevertheless there you need to balance the spending into the good cause and spending into your personal growth of money and power properly. So while helping others you still need to grow in money and power.

At a later stage in live you can in turn your accumulated money and power to do more even more good things with higher impact and longer lasting effect, thus creating a better world with more impact then you can do when you are still young, inexperienced and without money and power.

The Mundane Philospher meditating about dilemmas

The Mundane Philospher meditating about another dilemma


8 comments on “The dilemma of philanthropy: Start early with no money and power, or grow yourself first to have more leverage later?

  1. Pingback: Using money and power to improve our world: Start early in life with only small effectiveness or wait until later to have more leverage? | The Mundane Philosopher

  2. Pingback: Child street hawkers and other odd types in Angkor Wat | The Mundane Traveller

  3. Pingback: Living in a tree house in Northern Laos | The Mundane Traveller

  4. Pingback: Full moon – view from a tree house in the jungle of Laos | The Mundane Traveller

  5. The Mundane Traveller
    March 17, 2013

    Reblogged this on The Mundane Traveller and commented:

    Whenever I travel to developing countries I see a lot of poor people, bad infrastructure and the unsettling feeling to be better off then them. I also face the dilemma of deciding whether to give the beggar money or if it is better to donate it to a charity organisation or even to use my time to help. I gave this an intensive thought in my new blog entry on The Mundane Philosophe including the even more important “… dilemma of philantropy – Start early with no money and power, or grow yourself first to have more leverage later.”

  6. Pingback: The Mundane Traveller

  7. Pingback: Sunset on the 4000 islands in Laos | The Mundane Traveller

  8. Pingback: Absoluteness of values – social trust and externalities of swindling | The Mundane Philosopher

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