Several years ago, renowned social scientists Nicholas Christakis and James H. Fowler wrote a book about the incredible power of social networks. The results were explosive. Connected: How Your Friends’ Friends’ Friends Affect Everything You Feel, Think, and Do, led to Christakis being recognized on Time magazine’s 2009 list of 100 “people who affect the world,” and on Foreign Policy’s 2009 and 2010 lists of top global thinkers. The book has since been translated into 20 languages.
Christakis and Fowler originally attracted public attention with a report about how social networks can lead to weight gain. Or as they put it, “Your friend’s husband’s co-worker can make you fat.”
The two researchers demonstrated that the characteristics of our social networks ripple outward and affect us in extraordinary and unlikely ways. It turns out that we’re not just creatures of nature and nurture, but of networks. While we’re all indeed individuals, we’re also intimately connected parts of what Christakis and Fowler describe as a superorganism. That means that each of us “lives in the sea of genes of others, others with whom we have chosen to connect. Our friends’ genes, for diverse traits, may help determine how our own genes are expressed and thus who we are.”
But obesity isn’t the only thing that’s contagious. The two showed that drinking, tobacco use, happiness, sleep, exercise, the prescribing behavior of physicians and altruism are also contagious.
Our need for social networks may shape our ability to think. So it makes sense that our attitude towards charity would be affected by the people who surround us. The more that philanthropy is ingrained within our social networks, the more it will ripple outward and spread. It’s contagious.
In his recent book, A Path Appears, author and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof takes a different tack but arrives at a similar conclusion. Kristof and his co-author, wife Sheryl WuDunn, highlight the big affect that even small actions can cause, no matter how overwhelming the issues. Even when it comes to complex topics like poverty, education and health, each of us has the power to make an impact in the world that ripples outward to countless people beyond our immediate circles.
As one example, Kristof cites Olly Neal, a troubled teenager in Arkansas who frequently cut classes. The school librarian secretly stocked the shelves with books tailored to his taste and even allowed him to steal books. Neal later went on to become one of the state’s first African American lawyers and a judge who has helped youths who are disadvantaged, just as he was.
The idea that one person really can make a difference is not just a nice cliche, argues Kristof. And as media companies decrease their coverage of humanitarian issues, it’s more important than ever for individuals to promote charitable thinking themselves. “To some extent, citizens using social media or Facebook can help spread the word about these issues,” Kristof recently told a gathering at a book festival. “I hope that you will do that.”
Over the past decade or so, I’ve seen firsthand how charity is contagious, through the dramatic evolution in how companies define what it means to be a good corporate citizen. The ante is constantly being upped, the expectations continually expanding.
Not too long ago, many companies barely paid lip service to corporate philanthropy. Then they started writing checks. Over time, companies began to realize that they needed to go beyond checkbook philanthropy and give employees a chance to give back. So they did “done in a days,” big volunteering events that involved everyone at once. Then companies began using more sophisticated tools like matching gifts and dollars for doers to enhance their volunteering programs.
Now what I’m seeing is a greater focus on skills-based volunteering and impact. The companies that are generating the most results within their culture and for the nonprofits they care about are the ones that are creating more focused opportunities. This translates to curated volunteer opportunities that target employee passions and skills, and a real effort to match the personality, mission and abilities of the company with the causes it’s addressing.
As the charity contagion spreads like wildfire throughout Corporate America, company leaders are pushing themselves and each other to be more ambitious, more innovative, and more focused when it comes to engaging their employees and moving the needle on social issues.
What a beautiful virus.
Every company has its own social purpose waiting to be discovered and deployed. Every company has a skilled army – its employees – hungry to feel that what they’re doing matters and that they’re a part of a mission larger than themselves. Every company has the power to go far beyond pitching in and instead reframe its purpose as bringing specific solutions to issues it helps to define.
And the exciting thing is that with every step that companies take to create an impact, they’re spreading the good germs of charity.
So be contagious. Network your altruism and compassion, and know that the more that you strive to make the world a better place, the more that others will as well. Whether acting as an individual or an employee, you have more power to positively affect the world than you ever could have fathomed.
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