Searching for Solutions to the Decline in Philanthropy
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Searching for Solutions to the Decline in Philanthropy

By Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore
Tue, Nov 21, 2023 8:57amGrey Clock 4 min

The need for more philanthropy and the importance of volunteering was front and centre of a panel presented by Penta and United Way Worldwide at the Midnight Theatre in Manhattan on Thursday.

Half of working New Yorkers are struggling to make ends meet, according to a report released in April this year.

“The way we tackle that is through bringing partners together, from the corporate side, non-profits, and policy makers, to make sure that we are attacking the root causes,” said Grace C. Bonilla, CEO and president of United Way New York City.

Yet, philanthropy has been “decreasing” according to Angela F. Williams, CEO and president of United Way Worldwide (UWW), the 135-year-old non-profit which connects partners, donors, and volunteers in 1,100 communities across 37 countries.

Williams attributed the decline to several factors.

First, donations via once robust community institutions such as the church and popular charity schemes such as the United Way payroll deduction—formerly a staple in corporate culture—are not “as strong as [they] used to be.”

Second, young people want to see “immediate impact” when they donate a dollar and nonprofits are under increasing scrutiny over spending.’

“There is this missing understanding that some problems, some issues, whether it’s solving poverty, whether it’s graduation rates, whether it’s low-income housing, all of those things take time and have to be intentional,” said Williams in a discussion with Raymond J. McGuire, the president of financial advisory and asset management firm Lazard and 2021 candidate for New York City mayor.

Non-profit, she added, “doesn’t mean no profit, no margin. We have to operate; we have administrative costs.”

Williams said that there needs to be more emphasis on public-private partnership.

“We know that government can’t do it all, government can’t solve all the problems that are going on in communities and we also know that companies have employees in communities, and they draw their employees from those communities,” Williams said. “What company wants to operate in a community that is unhealthy, uneducated?”

“I think we need to do better,” McGuire agreed. “The challenges that we are now facing are as formidable if not more formidable than the challenges we have ever faced in their country…So we need to step up, we need to be more engaged.”

Last year, US$499 billion was raised in the U.S., according to Giving USA. US$319 billion came from individuals, US$105 billion from foundations, and US$45 billion from gifts in a will or trust. In comparison, just US$21 billion was from corporations.

“I can’t say it’s a responsibility, it’s an opportunity,” McGuire said. “My observations will be that the private sector will be even more involved and more engaged, because they recognise that there’s more at risk.”

For Ohio-native McGuire, whose mother was a social worker and whose grandfather only had a third-grade education and taught himself to read by perusing the Bible, the need to fight for a more equal society is personal. In 1979 he graduated from Harvard before becoming one of Wall Street’s longest-serving and most-successful Black executives.

“I had to make it in a world that was completely foreign for me and for people who look like me,” McGuire said. “The fundamental premise of that which we are attempting to attain is prosperity for all, at least the ability to participate. If there’s an opportunity for us to make a difference… then by definition the foundation of that which we stand for [has] got to be education.”

The Nation’s Report Card showed across the board declines in math and reading ability in 2022, declines that have particularly hit kids of colour, according to McGuire. “Before Covid, we weren’t making progress and now after Covid, post Covid we’ve retreated,” he said.

For Williams, who is the first Black woman to lead UWW, a salient solution is to create “a new table” of opportunity.

“I want a table that is inclusive, I want a table that brings in the voices of those who we are trying to solve for,” she said. “I want to have a table that says I’m not your saviour but I’m your partner, so come in and let’s talk… and co create.”

Williams used the example of United Way’s work in Maui, Hawaii, following the devastating summer wildfires.

“How do we make sure that the natives… can sit in the room and along with the state and federal government and county and city as well to say: How do we not lose our ancestral heritage?” she said. “How do we create a new thing and a new way of living and surviving and thriving that is equitable?”

Priorities for 2024 touched on in the panel included the climate, AI, energy transition, America’s ageing population, and cyber security.

The panel ended on a note of hope. Former NFL player Carl Nassib, who launched the app Rayze last year to connect people to non-profits, pointed out from his seat in the audience that roughly a quarter of Americans volunteer but 75% of those who do volunteer end up donating.

“Have you thought about the positive mental health benefits of volunteering and what they can do for young philanthropists?” he asked, suggesting that the recent mental health youth crisis is linked in part to a reduction in volunteering.

Volunteerism is “one of the ways that allow people to really become proximate to their community and to the issues they care about,” Williams pointed out earlier in the evening.

“And I think once you’re proximate and you get to walk alongside someone and you can see how you can relate and help them, that really makes the difference. And that it makes for a civil society, it makes for a civil human being.”



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The Loneliness of the American Worker

More meetings and faceless chats. Fewer work friends. How the modern workday is fueling an epidemic of isolation.

By TE-PING CHEN
Wed, May 29, 2024 6 min

More Americans are profoundly lonely, and the way they work—more digitally linked but less personally connected—is deepening that sense of isolation.

Nick Skarda , 29 years old, works two jobs in logistics and office administration in San Diego to keep up with his bills. After a couple of years at the logistics job, he has one friend there. He says hi to co-workers at his office job but doesn’t really know any.

“I feel sort of an emptiness or lack of belonging,” he says. Juggling two jobs leaves Skarda exhausted, with little energy or time to grab drinks with co-workers . “It makes it harder to go in and give it your all if you don’t feel like anyone is there rooting for you,” he adds.

Employers and researchers are just beginning to understand how workplace shifts over the past four years are contributing to what the U.S. surgeon general declared a loneliness health epidemic last year. The alienation affects remote and in-person workers alike. Among 1-800-Flowers.com ’s 5,000 hybrid and fully on-site employees, for instance, the most popular community chat group offered by a company mental-health provider is simply called “Loneliness.”

Consider these phenomena of modern work:

It is a marked shift from even a decade ago, when bonds fostered at work helped compensate for declining participation in church , community groups and other social institutions. As the American workday becomes more faceless and scheduled , the number of U.S. adults who call themselves lonely has climbed to 58% from 46% in 2018, according to a recent Cigna poll of 10,000 Americans.

The faceless workday

The disconnection is driving up staff turnover and worker absences, making it a business issue for more employers, executives and researchers say. Cigna, the health-insurance company, estimates that loneliness is costing companies $154 billion a year in absenteeism alone.

“Work is social, it’s a lot more than a paycheck,” says James McCann , founder and chairman of 1-800-Flowers.com.

Earlier this year, 1-800-Flowers.com moved from three days in the office to four to boost a sense of connectivity among workers. It has also begun tapping workers across teams to serve as designated hosts during lunchtime, encouraging people to sit with colleagues they don’t know in common areas and chat, and suggesting conversation topics.

While today’s workers have more ways to connect than ever, “there are only so many memes and jokes you can send over Slack,” says Maëlle Gavet , chief executive of Techstars, a pre-seed fund that has invested in 4,100 startups. “We tend to have more and more people with back-to-back calendars, more meetings and less connections.”

Gavet says that is especially the case for hybrid workers on in-office days, which they tend to use to dash from one meeting to the next.

Paradoxically, meetings can make people feel lonelier—and even more so if the meetings are virtual, behavioural researchers say. A 2023 survey by employee experience and analytics company Perceptyx found people who described themselves as “very lonely” tended to have heavier meeting loads than less-lonely staffers. More than 40% of those people spent more than half their work hours in meetings.

In Cincinnati, Kelly Roehm says she came to chafe at the meetings—sometimes as many as 12—consuming her day after joining a consulting company in 2021. She would often feel her eyes glazing over as she multitasked on other screens.

“It’s like you’re a zombie, there but not there,” says Roehm, who lived 10 minutes from the office but worked mostly remotely because she says few colleagues typically came in. It is a more common setup as companies distribute teams across more locations: At Microsoft , 27% of the company’s teams all worked in the same location last year, compared with 61% in 2019.

She compares that experience with her time more than a decade ago at a company now owned by AstraZeneca . There, she enjoyed lots of social outlets at work: a Weight Watchers group and a lunchtime crochet club.

“Now if I were to think about asking, ‘Hey, do you want to participate in something like this,’ it would just sound weird,” says Roehm, who left this year to focus on her own career-consulting business. “There wasn’t that emotional attachment that made it difficult to say, it’s time to move on.”

The power of small talk

Office chitchat, sometimes an unwanted distraction, seems to provide more benefits than many people realise, says Jessica Methot , an associate professor at Rutgers University who studies social ties at work.

In a study of 100 employees at different workplaces, Methot and fellow researchers surveyed participants at points throughout the day. They found those who had engaged in small talk reported less stress and more positivity toward co-workers.

Even exchanging pleasantries with a co-worker you barely know can help, says Sarah Wright , an associate professor at New Zealand’s University of Canterbury who studies worker loneliness.

“We used to think loneliness has to be overcome by developing meaningful relationships and having that degree of intimacy,” Wright says. “More and more, though, we’re seeing it’s these day-to-day weak ties and frequency of [interactions] with people that matters.”

Such interactions are substantially harder to replicate in a virtual environment. “The default now is, I have to schedule time with you, even if it’s five minutes, instead of just picking up the phone,” says Katie Tyson , president of Hive Brands, an online food retailer founded in 2020 as a fully remote company.

The frictions add up, she says. Last fall, the company added an office in New York where employees voluntarily gather a couple of times a week to foster more cohesion.

Coming to the office, even on a hybrid basis, tends to yield a roughly 20% to 30% boost in serendipitous connections, according to Syndezo, which analysed survey data and email and messaging traffic from more than two dozen large companies.

Yet there are diminishing returns to time in person, says Philip Arkcoll , founder of Worklytics, which analyses workforce data for Fortune 500 companies. Coming in once a month provides a significant boost in ties; two or three times a month adds a little more, Worklytics data show. Once or twice a week results in a smaller increase, though, and working in-person four or five days a week makes almost no difference.

A business priority

Ernst & Young has asked managers to use the first five minutes of team calls to engage in conversation “as real human beings,” says Frank Giampietro , whose title, chief well-being officer for the Americas, was created in 2021 to help support employees during the pandemic.

The professional-services firm is also training employees to spot and reach out to co-workers struggling with issues such as isolation. To date, more than 1,600 employees have taken the training.

One challenge is that American workers have sacrificed connection for productivity, says Julie Rice , co-founder of fitness chain SoulCycle. These days, with more business contacts preferring video calls, she finds breakfast meetings and coffee dates on her calendar have been replaced with Zoom. Though efficient, such video calls are less likely to yield conversations that can turn into useful professional connections or lasting friendships, she says.

Julie Rice says that her work schedule, once packed with coffees and in-person meetups, is now an avalanche of Zooms. PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER GREGORY-RIVERA FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“Even people I’m meeting with here in New York, we’ll just Zoom,” she says.

Last year, Rice co-founded Peoplehood, a company that runs “gathers” to improve connectivity and relationship skills, and employers are signing up. One, a beauty-services business with hundreds of field employees who never see each other, asked Peoplehood to host a series of gatherings for workers to meet and share job advice. Another, a marketing company with far-flung employees, requested help after surveys showed staff wanted to feel more connected.

“Whatever relationships we had pre-Covid have sort of run out of gas,” Rice says.

Good luck prodding employees to socialise, though. Nearly all the 150-odd staff at the Pleasanton, Calif., headquarters of Shaklee, the nutrition-supplements company, used to attend annual Earth Day gatherings, which involved community service, lunch and breaking early for the day, says Jonathan Ramot , the company’s North American human-resources director. Office happy hours, bowling outings and “mix and mingles” were also robustly attended.

Now that the workforce has gone remote, last year’s Earth Day event attracted 20 staffers, even though most workers live nearby.

“We have a lot of people asking for in-person events, but when we plan them, they don’t show up,” Ramot says. “Then they complain they’re lonely.”

This past April, Shaklee instead held a mandatory get-together with the chief executive, who had relocated to Florida during the pandemic and was in town. About 100 employees gathered at a brewery for food, drinks and conversation—and no speeches from the bosses.

There was a buzz in the air, Ramot says, as staff hugged and delighted in seeing each other, some for the first time. “People were saying, I miss this,” he says.

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