The Spirit of Giving Is More Powerful Than Ever

Kelly O’Brien, VP of philanthropy, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. (Illustration by Praveen Tipirneni)

When people look back on the pandemic, they will be amazed by the outpouring of generosity.

The response from frontline healthcare workers, scientists, and the biopharmaceutical industry is simply extraordinary. Food banks and social services are also saving lives.

The common thread is the inherently human capacity to be generous.

The word philanthropy brings to mind a variety of images, from PTA bake sales to benefactors whose names appear on buildings. With Greek roots meaning “love of mankind”, philanthropy today is defined more broadly as using one’s time, talent, or treasure to improve the human condition.

I come from the generation that went trick-or-treating with UNICEF coin boxes, and have worked as a professional fundraiser for more than thirty years. I have one of the best jobs in the world raising money for one of the world’s leading scientific organizations, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

More than $425 billion was given to all kinds of good causes in 2018 in the US alone. In June, GivingUSA will release its annual study for calendar year 2019 and it’s likely that we will see some increase. Whatever the number, private donations represent, on average, 2% of our GDP per year. That level of giving is pretty consistent, year after year. It may not sound like a lot as a percentage of the economy, but these numbers capture only a fraction of our annual generosity.

Beyond our borders, philanthropy is also increasing. While there is no comprehensive data source, the Charities Aid Foundation tracks charitable behaviors in 146 countries. Developing nations often report the highest responses for “helping a stranger” and “volunteering.”

Historically, disasters evoke a desire to help, with more than 40% of Americans saying that they have given in response to earthquakes, hurricanes, and tsunamis. We started the year with a global outpouring of support for those suffering from the Australian wildfires. I am sure many of you gave. Tragic events, whether in our neighborhood or a continent away, ignite our desire to be helpful.

Now, donations in response to COVID-19 are increasing at a rate that rivals the spread of infection and, to borrow a catch-phrase—this is one curve we do NOT want to flatten.

The Center for Disaster Philanthropy estimates that more than $9 billion has already been committed to COVID-19 response, research, and relief efforts. I cheer every time I see news of a big gift. Really—I let out a little “woo-hoo” while working at my kitchen counter. Jack Ma, Bill and Melinda Gates, Jeff Bezos, Aliko Dangote, Lady Gaga, the Wellcome Trust, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and many more are putting their resources and wealth to work around the globe. While some debate the merits and motivations of giving by the world’s wealthiest, I’d argue that this is no time for cynicism. Charitable giving is completely voluntary. I am grateful for any and all who give.

Here, civic leaders launched #AllinSeattle and raised nearly $30 million—from gifts of all sizes—to provide support for food instability, small businesses, homelessness, rent assistance, and children impacted by school closures. Our city is not alone in these efforts.

While big gifts make headlines, it’s everyday generosity that is the greater source of hope. Thanks to today’s tech, ways of giving have been transformed. You can swipe, tap, and transfer while staying home. I can “Ask Alexa” to donate for me. My Facebook feed presents fundraising options every time I post or peer into the lives of my friends. The social media platform has raised more than $3 billion from 45 million people since introducing this feature five years ago.  

At the same time, the lines between non-profit status and the ability to ask for donations is gone. Crowdfunding enables us to support projects as diverse as a teacher’s classroom, a friend of a friend’s hospital bill, an entrepreneur who needs to pay rent, or the Veronica Mars movie.

Here’s the best part. Philanthropy is about so much more than giving money. The challenges of COVID-19 have brought forth an equally unprecedented spirit of support.

We moved quickly to donate food for healthcare workers and to food banks. We’re making masks. We’re giving blood or plasma. We’re cleaning our closets and donating to shelters. Staying home makes each of us a philanthropist.

The creative community has sprung in to action with concerts and conversations. Ben Gibbard, Tim McGraw, Yo-Yo Ma, Debbie Allen, and John Krasinski are making physical distancing a little less socially isolating. Yoga classes have pay what you wish options. Our hair salons and favorite restaurants have GoFundMe accounts to help sustain their employees.

We have a long road ahead. At Fred Hutch, we are rethinking everything. We are visiting with donors through Zoom. We’re hosting virtual Town Hall conversations with our researchers to increase understanding on the pandemic. And we’re postponing or transforming our spring and summer fundraising events.

Many of you reading this are familiar with (and have donated to!) our Climb to Fight Cancer program. We also have a phenomenal bike ride, walk, and run event every August. Obliteride and dozens of other fundraising events are now being reimagined and recreated with physical distancing and stay-at-home guidelines as our top priority.

I had set a really big personal goal this year—riding 100 miles with 3,000 others members of the Fred Hutch community. With a virtual fundraising event, and way too much time in front of a screen these days, I will adjust. Maybe I’ll ride 25 miles four days in a row. Whatever I decide, we are not unique. Every organization you care about is simultaneously scrambling and innovating and counting on you.

Events serve many purposes, foremost being the empowerment of those participating. Fred Hutch’s volunteers and donors believe in the power of research to save lives. Whether it’s a 5k, a specially prepared meal and entertainment, or climbing 832 steps up the Space Needle, these events create shared purpose and community around a common goal. Traditionally, here, that goal is curing cancer. That’s still our focus. Fred Hutch also has four decades of expertise in studying infectious diseases and we have scientific studies underway to help forge a path forward for COVID-19.

Kelly O’Brien

This work is just one piece of the vast biomedical research enterprise. Our governments are pouring money in to medical and market solutions. The resources it will take to create a vaccine for billions of people—and to sustain our healthcare and public health systems—so that history doesn’t repeat itself is staggering. It’s almost hard to imagine.

When the time comes and we look back on what got us through, it will be our generosity.


Kelly O’Brien is Vice President for Philanthropy for Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

May 5th is #GivingTuesdayNow a global day of giving and emergency response to the unprecedented need caused by COVID-19.

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