THE BLOG

Race for a Cause: Why People Really Give

Jun 24, 2014 | Updated Aug 24, 2014

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Almost a thousand people had signed up for the race. I boarded the plane from San Francisco to Chicago for an overnight trip -- just long enough to spend Saturday evening in the city, attend the race and then turn back the next morning. With many hours to kill on the plane, I wondered why people came? I wondered why I myself made the effort?

Flying from San Francisco to Chicago for an overnight trip and giving up a precious weekend sounded extreme. Well, I reasoned with myself, I had to go because it was in support of my nonprofit. That sounded like a good enough reason but why did a thousand people really come?

So I asked several people in the check-in line, "why did you sign up for the race?"

"I came because my sister was running... and it sounded like a great cause."

"I came because it was a family event... and we could all come."

'I came because it was in my community and seemed like a fun event... and it sounded like a cool cause."

"I love running!"

While most of the people there appreciated the cause, none of these well intentioned people had ever experienced life without a light switch within their arm's reach. They could flip a switch and there would be a flood of light. Light to brighten up their rooms and lives. Energy to power their air conditioners and fans, kitchen appliances and gadgets. The actual cause and effect of light was conceptual, too far away, physically and emotionally.

Lack of light takes a high toll on communities that live without it. These Chicagoans had never walked along a dark field at night, afraid for their lives, every day. Or cooked food on an open fire in a 10"x10" room filled with toxic smoke. Or had their infants born in darkness and then grow up with respiratory illnesses, or worse, died before they turned three. While real, these experiences were literally foreign. They came to the race for their own reasons and the cause was secondary.

By talking to the people at the race, I learned a fundamental truth about giving. When it comes to supporting causes that are not in the immediate grasp of people they will attend events and support these causes only if the event is satisfying a primary need for them. No amount of outreach will get results if you are not satisfying a reason to take action -- in this case -- a community or family event that could be enjoyed locally. So go ahead and plan that gala event. People love a good party!

And then I turned to myself and asked, why do I do it? Well, the honest truth is that I too work on this cause for myself, to satisfy some of my own primary needs. I began this project thinking about my own children and showing them a different side of life. Growing up with the trappings of comfort, I thought it would be a good way to expose them to the realities of how a third of the world's population lives. Great for the kids, you are saying, but what was in it for me?

After the initial connection with the village school that led to the idea, I was immersed in a beautiful world of stories, pictures and videos from the children and families of these communities. They touched my soul and fulfilled my otherwise exciting but structured and somewhat sterile life in the fast lane of Silicon Valley. They inspired me to do my best, work hard and be grateful for what I had. It was also the perfect outlet for my creative juices. Visiting these exotic places and learning about new cultures ignited my creative side and nurtured by right brain. All my senses were engaged and I felt alive again.