A few weeks ago my wife and I took a cab at night in New York city. As we were leaving we noticed a black bag on the floor in the back seat. It contained a Lonely Planet Guide to the USA, two pairs of ticket stubs (a Knicks game at Madison Square Garden and the Museum of Natural History), a digital camera, a business card of a trainer at New York Sports Club, and a copy of an Australian passport with some phone numbers in Kenya handwritten on the back.
We had a mystery on our hands.
We made a few phone calls to places that were underlined in the Lonely Planet guide. The Harlem Flophouse was absolutely no help – the person who answered the phone didn’t speak English very well and had never heard of the guest. We left a message at NY SportsClub. Then we looked at the photos on the digital camera, hoping that somehow this person had photographed the outside of their hotel in NYC (sure!). No luck on that count, but clearly our forgetful traveler had been all over the world on a long trip, including a stint in what looked like sub-Saharan Africa. What a shame to lose the record of that experience.
Next step: the Internet. Facebook, Australian Whitepages, etc. Luckily the traveler’s name was uncommon. We sent a few emails, even tried calling an opthamologist’s office in Australia on Skype – but it was closed for a holiday and you couldn’t even leave a message.
A week passed, and then another. Nothing. The trail had run cold.
Then, an email last night. Our world-traveling Australian was back home. He was thrilled, and so were we. Better yet, his good friends are leaving tonight back to Australia. We met this morning, and I gave them the bag. They were thankful, and I was glowing. Who could believe this story would have such a happy ending?
Why did this make me so happy?
For just a few minutes this morning, I got to live in a world that was just how I’d want it to be. In that world, when you lose something, you get it back. Complete strangers treat each other kindly and with respect. Generosity is the norm.
And then I got to thinking about philanthropy and the warm feeling I had. And it helped remind me that philanthropy is an act of giving, and not an asset allocation.
This may seem obvious, but all the talk about creating more efficient philanthropic marketplaces and increasing donor demands for objective data seems to miss this point: that part of the reason people give is so that the world, for them, can be how they want it to be – at least for a little while.