one tenth

With a little sweat from my friends
May 7, 2006, 4:07 pm
Filed under: benevolence, Self-Improvement, sweat equity, Uncategorized, volunteering

Even in businesses, which are arguably the primary entity in which financial matters make up the main goal, some things go unpaid. Start-ups often offer under-market salaries during their infancy period, balancing their employees’ financial losses with promise of stock options, as well as the feeling of contribution to something new. Maybe, in a company started between a few trusted friends, no salary is offered. Obviously not a great long-term incentive package, this model only works for awhile. But the point is: it can work.

How can jobs that don’t pay, or pay shabbily, fit anywhere in business? To put it simply, because even though we must work for our livelihoods, we don’t only work for our livelihoods. Something we do between anywhere from 12% to over 48% of our time is something that is, for better or worse, a part of us. In our big-brained evolutionary path, complex social systems such as exchange and peer circles matter in our self conception. They help make us happy, fulfilled, and fit in.

The buzzword for this kind of business presence is “sweat equity.” It is defined in opposition to financial equity: in the latter, money is given in exchange for something, while in the former, sweat is exchanged. It can also mean something more tangible, such as shares given with the consequence of partial ownership in the whole affair. This idea is not just reserved for corporations or start ups. The philosophy of sweat equity is used also in public service, in the well-known Christian philanthropic organization Habitat for Humanity.

Habitat, as it’s often called for short, uses volunteer labor and donations to help one family at a time to build their own home. The organization selects families by their financial need, their willingness to repay a no-interest loan, and their commitment to helping Habitat’s team build their home, and others afterward. The family has to sweat for it, but they get a home, with no initial costs. Even when the housing market is good, homes can be priceless. They represent a refuge, a respite, an escape.

Habitat is not a government program. It cooperates with other government programs, and it solicits help, especially with PR and web space, for corporate assistance and partnerships. These other bodies, with financial resources, help the inevitable need for money. It is the sweat of the masses that sees the projects to their fruition.

Why follow this model? Why not ask for a grant from the Melinda and Bill Gates foundation for enough funds to hire professionals to construct homes? Why not require a down payment from the needy family, to help secure paid help? If it’s not obvious enough, it is because sometimes people are motivated by more than money.

In extension, this concept finds meaning in one tenth’s paradigm. Giving time, giving assistance, giving support and expertise can help in ways that money can impersonate, but cannot duplicate. The extra incentive in the workers being paid on faith is like a seat of hot coals. It pushes, it demands creativity and engagement. The community of benevolence, of lots of hands kneading a hearty dough, goes farther because people know they were important enough to merit the time of others. They weren’t handed a check and forgotten. They carried enough worth to warrant some sweat.


The challenge begins
April 26, 2006, 2:06 pm
Filed under: Self-Improvement, Uncategorized

A tradition emerged in theist religions. It was the giving of part of what one had to others in need. In those dusty days, it bore the moniker tzedakah, or alms: the giving of money to those without. One-tenth of one’s purse was the generally accepted stipulation.

These days, money is still important. If this were not the case, politics would be a much easier game, education would know no material bounds, and the basic needs of many around the world would be met. Money alone, however, cannot be the tautological end. Rich people would be perfect. They would be godlike. They would be happy. We all know this is not the case. Rich people can become greedier (Enron), adulterous (Kobe Bryant), and even suicidal (Christina Onassis). Even if we don’t already have money, the mere pursuit of it can wreak havoc. Credit Card debt quickly accumulates after an ephemeral goal of living up to the Jones’.

Money’s fallibility is in its inability to buy happiness, and also in its general commonness. The five million dollar reward fails to produce the missing paintings stolen from the Gardner Museum in Boston, in only one example of art theft. In Tim Burton’s latest take on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Grandpa George calls money, which is printed every day, completely inferior to golden tickets, a one in a lifetime chance. Some things are just too priceless.

Even with the constant importance of money, and its shady place in the pursuit of happiness, it can be argued that in dusty bygone days as well as now, some other traits of humans might just be a priceless gift as well. Rabbinic scholars have argued that tzedakah and the rules of one-tenth were not confined to pecuniary contributions. If only financial contributions held clout, the wealthy could write off a portion of their richesse without even engaging the least in their communities. This, clearly, could not be the wish of their worshiped leader. The meaning of tzedakah, afterall, was something close to “righteousness.” It was more than giving money; it was giving a part of oneself.

What if, today, the idea of giving a part of oneself went beyond physically helping someone in need? What if it surpassed money and charity, and entered the realm of thought? Could using one-tenth of one’s daily/weekly/monthly thought allowance for the greater good be akin giving something so tangible as money or community service? The logic is startling.

Let’s imagine the possible thought cloud of an average person that could be reading this. She works or studies enough to amount to a 40-hour week. He drives/walks/bikes/rides from home to destination, and back, consumed with traffic, the top 40 hits, and whether that painful spot on his back molar is a cavity. She gossips with her friends/spouse/lover about her boss/professor/friends at that class/meeting that day. He catches the 7pm news, calls his mom, and watches the new sci-fi show on Showtime. Maybe on Saturday she goes on a long run, or he meets his friends for a picnic or a hike. These are all respectable, commonplace regiments for people. If there are 168 hours in a week, and she sleeps/thinks about sleeping/comes out of sleep for 56 hours and works or studies for 40, that leaves 72. One-tenth of that time equals 7.2 hours or just over an hour a day. Imagine the thoughts one could manage in an hour a day! One could finally find out where Tajikistan was on the map, or refresh about the Bay of Pigs. One could see how those people who were once in the limelight were doing, in Islamabad.

There is something inherently charitable about giving the time of one’s mind to something. Why not use it to follow the Michael Jackson trial, or find out the name of Katie Holmes new baby? It might be just a stab in the dark, but the last two examples don’t matter much outside of the present. They might keep a person courant who works for Tom Cruise’s Public Relations person, or help a legal justice scholar attuned to the current events in her field. Put another way, many people don’t have to follow current events or world history in motion. It doesn’t weigh on their daily lives and, so, who cares? But the fact is that many of us live in a democratic system where the events swirling around us are being shaped and molded by people who answer to us! If we know what’s going on, if we are curious and thoughtful, we can speak up at the podium for which democracy has made room.

In fact, I offer a bet. I challenge that if you devote one tenth of your time to keeping up with the world, your brain, your feelings, and your confidence will increase. You will feel like a member of the society, instead of an onlooker. You will connect yourself to other people who struggle to make sense of it all, and while possibly not succeeding, a least have some lively discussions along the way.