Your story, your choice: Philanthropic possibilities in turbulent times

What Matters

Storytelling is everywhere.

It connects us to each other and to our past. It builds an understanding of who we are as individuals and communities. It sells products and experiences. It helps us explain ourselves in both intimate and formal situations. It educates; teaching us what all kinds of things mean in the world, from physical phenomena to professional trajectories. It helps us build our sense of dignity by portraying our participation in what is valuable in our lives and by interpreting how we are seen in the eyes of others who matter to us.

Storytelling also divides us. It tells us how different we are from others, individually and collectively. It tells us dangers to avoid and errors to prevent. It clarifies how we are not like others, why we belong with those we feel closer to, and why and how we are more distant from others, often explaining why we direct our affections and allegiances where we do.

On a global level, there used to be a more prevalent story about how the United Nations emerged from the same spirit that animated the founders of the United States. The UN charter at its founding was seen to echo elements of America’s founding documents, and the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, like the U.S. Bill of Rights, provided touchstones for civil rights movements around the world. The story of universal human rights helped animate civil society activists within and across borders.

Today we have the effective altruism movement, working to convince me that my child’s welfare, beyond a certain point, should not count all that much more to me than that of a stranger’s on the other side of the world. This dispassionate calculus rooted in every person’s equal capacity to realize the universal value of happiness is not yet making much headway against the growing chorus of divisive stories on the global stage.

With the 75th UN General Assembly taking place last month, multilateral institutions are less in favor in many countries that are also more likely to be restricting civic space at home. Our research team, led by Professor Una Osili, participated in a “side event” at the Assembly to discuss findings from our Global Indices and COVID Tracking research with a group of organizations assembled by the UN Development Program to better align philanthropy with the pursuit of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Some in the philanthropic world are working to sustain the global cooperative story that will be needed to advance progress on the SDGs. And the role of philanthropy in the animating spirit of the UN also remains symbolically evident in the fact that the UN Headquarters sits on land donated by the Rockefellers and in the engagement of millions around the world who advance and experience international solidarity through the work and the idea of the UN.

Nationally, the story of the United States has always been contested as one would expect in a democracy that values free and independent expression. The intensity of the differences in interpretation and the vastness of distance in viewpoints at this juncture, however, seem truly remarkable and worrisome.  We see many echoes of previous narratives, yet I think we are right to worry that it will be difficult to get anywhere without a new national story that makes sense for many more of our fellow citizens.

At the same time, our ways of sharing our stories are so different from the time when the UN emerged from the ashes of World War II. Individualized newsfeeds have replaced communal front pages. Inequalities are rising as the conditions for safe and open debate on issues can scarcely take place in good faith. Little work is done on melding divergent stories.

There are more incentives for sowing division and inflaming passions through the ways we share information and media. We are in a fight to decide whose story will win. Those who benefit from passionate division stoke fears that their followers' prized stories will disappear or be disallowed.

Echoing another time when we were deep in crisis and Franklin Roosevelt was first inaugurated, I think we need to beware of placing fear at the center of the stories we tell. There is a strong tradition of responding to crises with fear, which is evocatively depicted in the novel Lord of the Flies.

The story of young boys stranded on a desert island who devolve into warring tribes intent on domination and violence has, for many, depicted the natural order of things that will emerge without a strong authority to prevent it. But in his wonderfully accessible book, Humankind, Rutger Bregman argues that there is actually no evidence to support this argument, based as it is in fiction.

Indeed, the real-world experience of such stranded youth points to a much more cooperative and communally responsible outcome. It would not be the first time in history that we have been in thrall to unhelpful fictions about who we are and what makes us so.

So as we glance at stories that range from the global to those that seek to distill human nature itself, I feel fortunate to be at a school that begins its inquiry in a place of generosity, realizing that this itself is no panacea. Looking at the stories we tell about our largest global collectives to our most intimate relations, I am pleased that we have a place where we see that we have choices to make, whether to include generously or exclude fearfully. This choice is not simple, as when we wonder how much of our generosity to devote to our children compared to the children of others.

The instinct of inclusiveness is not automatic in philanthropy, but neither is the fact that generosity can be self-serving. Indeed, some of our faculty have a piece in the current Stanford Social Innovation Review that shows how beneath the contentious clash about the role of titanic wealth and the eye-popping fortunes making their way into donations, everyday donors are often using their more modest means to get closer to those they seek to help.

And even if you are overflowing with good will, it is not easy to decide what to contribute to the world. It requires bringing many stories together as you craft your own. This is the privilege and the burden of a liberal education, and one which we strive to provide through our school, as seen by these student stories. And we think one very promising pathway begins when you start with generosity toward the stories of others.

Best regards,

Dean Amir Pasic

Amir Pasic
Eugene R. Tempel Dean

Tania Castroverde Moskalenko

Tania Castraverde Moskalenko, M.A.'19, came to the U.S. as a little girl in the 1960s as a political refugee from Cuba. One of the first things she remembers being loaded off the truck when her family moved into their new home was her mother’s piano. Now, Tania has led arts organizations across the country and serves as the executive director of the Miami City Ballet.

See Tania's story »