Live Well, Do Good

A Year of Living Generously

Brandon Sun, January 2, 2011 - David McConkey

Well, how did 2010 work out for you? And what about that 2011?

A great way to reflect on what one year can be is the new book A Year Of Living Generously: Dispatches From the Front Lines of Philanthropy.

Author Lawrence Scanlan, from Kingston, Ontario, reports on his volunteering for a different charity each month for one year.

He brings to his project 40 years of experience as a journalist: in daily newspapers, magazines, books, and radio.  

Scanlan picks volunteer opportunities that range from his home town of Kingston to ones as far away as Central America and Africa.

He chooses some that build on his previous interests, like horse riding (as a form of therapy this time). Others are very much outside his comfort zone, like visiting inmates in a prison.

Sometimes, his volunteering employs skills he already has, like when he teaches writing to aboriginal youth. Other times, he brings no particular skills but chips in as part of the team, like when he helps build homes with Habitat for Humanity.

Scanlan’s great writing floats the reader effortlessly alongside him as he volunteers in places as varied as a soup kitchen a few blocks from his house to a community radio station that gives a voice to women in Senegal.

The reader also absorbs Scanlan’s emotions as he soaks up the atmosphere. We experience the anger of the advocate for the homeless to the gentle kindness of the hospice worker comforting the dying.

Some of his volunteer choices incorporate his family. His wife accompanies him to Costa Rica and Senegal; his dog partners with him in visiting a centre for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities.

Some encounters tell more of an exotic story than expected. He volunteers for Habitat for Humanity – not in his own city of Kingston, but in hurricane-devastated New Orleans.

Scanlan shows the range of volunteer activities that are open to anyone who might be interested. Half are close at hand in his own community: there would be similar opportunities just about anywhere. Others suggest embarking on more adventure and travel.

As he describes his volunteering, Scanlan also shares his thoughts about philanthropy in general, including people he is interviewing and books he is reading.  

Philanthropy is important as poverty (both locally and far away), environmental problems, diseases, and other concerns are ever present.

The need is there – to help with both financial and volunteer contributions.   
Philanthropy is also in the news as Bill and Melinda Gates with Warren Buffett are establishing the biggest charitable effort the world has ever seen.

Scanlan provides a historical backdrop to such fantastic giving by relating how Andrew Carnegie and other “robber barons” donated vast sums in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (Several public libraries in Manitoba got their start from Carnegie.)

Lest anyone think that their involvement is not needed in light of these billions, Scanlan reminds us that the total value of volunteer labour is still an even larger amount.

A central question weaving its way through the book is the extent to which charitable works simply enable the status quo. In the short run, for example, food banks do help the poor. But in the long run, do they just perpetuate the wealth divide and let governments and others who should do more off the hook?

Scanlan acknowledges the complexity of the issues and has no simple solutions. Instead, he offers innovative ideas as food for thought, suggestions of books to read, and reflections on ways to help.

He recommends contributing to a mix of charities that provide both immediate assistance and long-term advocacy work.

“Show empathy as a volunteer, show passion as an activist,” Scanlan counsels.

“Be less the avid consumer and more the engaged citizen.”  

Reflecting on his year of living generously, Scanlan reports that he has a new sense of the world and his place in it.

“What I felt most powerfully was anger at the disparities that I witnessed first-hand, gratitude for my own health and good fortune, and a conviction that even a small act of kindness can profoundly affect both giver and receiver.” 

* * * 

See also:

Charitable Donations: Top Ten Canadian Tax Tips

Tax Time Offers Folks a Chance to Reflect

Reflecting on Consumption

Youth May Soon Lead Change

Review of Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World

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