Friday, November 21, 2008

If We Don’t Have Each Other, We Have Nothing.

The respected and widely admired self-made billionaire Gerry Harvey has been quoted making some confronting remarks about charity. Interviewed for a book called “Master CEOs”, Mr. Harvey was asked about the role that he and his company, Harvey Norman, have played in community service activities. His response is shocking.

He said: “You could go out and give a million dollars to a charity tomorrow to help the homeless. You could argue that it is just wasted. They are not putting anything back into the community. It might be a callous way of putting it but what are they doing? You are helping a whole heap of no-hopers to survive for no good reason. They are just a drag on the whole community. So did that million you gave them help? It helped to keep them alive but did it help society? No. Society might have been better off without them but we are supposed to look after the disadvantaged and so we do it. But it doesn’t help the society.”

Now to be fair, that is not everything he said and he went on to talk about the value of helping people to reach their potential, and the fact that he and his company have made significant contributions to community and charity work, including for the homeless. But the stark nature of his initial remarks is shocking. So is he right? Is donating to charity a waste of time if it only serves to keep social parasites alive?

The truth is that there is no way to know just who might eventually go on to make a positive contribution to society. And it doesn’t have to be anything huge like a cure for cancer either. Even a smile or a kind word has the power and the possibility to cause change in the world by its impact on the person who receives it. Every single human has the capacity to do something good, no matter how small, but there is no way to know just who will make a difference in the world.

More importantly, doesn’t the salvation of even one individual provide sufficient return on investment for any charitable work? That million dollars for the homeless that Mr. Harvey spoke about might keep thousands of so called no-hopers alive, but if even one of them goes on to lead a powerful and fulfilling life which contributes meaningfully to the community, isn’t that a worthwhile result? And it is all random, so you can’t know just who and how many might take that opportunity and turn it into such an outcome.

In fact, the very process of charity itself makes the community and the world a better place. It offers hope to the hopeless, shelter to the vulnerable, kindness to the suffering, and opportunity for the lost to be found. More than that, it allows all of us as humans to be better humans, and the comfort of knowing that should we ever be in need of such support it will be there for us because we belong to a compassionate and caring community.

Isn’t that what being alive is all about? If we don’t have each other, we have nothing.


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