Buying Happiness

 In Charity, Fred's Blog, Giving, Money, People, Philanthropy, Uncategorized

Listen to “Buying Happiness” by Fred Smith


Like many of you, I have attended scores of galas, dinners, leadership retreats, and fund-raising events in my life. Some are grand experiences requiring gowns and black ties. Many are more relaxed and held in comfortable secluded settings. Most now include silent auctions, entertainment, food and drinks, and inspiring speakers before the inevitable (and necessary) ask for support. It was Millard Fuller, the founder of Habitat for Humanity, who said, “I have tried raising money by asking for it, and by not asking for it. I always got more money by asking for it.” Some organizations and ministries are more successful than others. For those, the evening’s final announcement is celebrating how many millions have been given or pledged. For others, I remember another quote from a veteran event planner, “Raising money with events is like transporting lettuce by rabbits. Very little gets there.” It all depends on the appeal of the cause, the capacity of the audience to give, and the experience itself.

I’ve thought about this after attending a fund-raising dinner for our Habitat for Humanity chapter last week. Not an elaborate event, it was a dinner in the lobby of a local bank with no entertainment or guest speaker. A silent auction preceded dinner but it was not for villas in France, lunch with Warren Buffet, or meal for two at the French Laundry in Napa. Rather, it was work by a local artist, a basket of popcorn and movies, or practical handcrafts. While there was a bar sponsored by a nearby vineyard, the glasses were plastic and the beer was served in cans. Dinner was catered by a neighborhood restaurant and served buffet style.

The main fund-raising was a live auction of tiny houses built or sponsored by construction companies, banks, a university or civic club. The goal was to sell them as playhouses for the backyard. Our ex-Sheriff, something of a celebrity himself, served as the auctioneer and it was tough going for him. The tiny houses were gems but they were not moving that night. I’ve seen our auctioneer at other events and he has never had to work so hard to get any bids. They finally sold but almost all of them went for the starting price or a little more.

Thinking that was the end of the evening I was getting ready to go and feeling badly about the lack of response. However, there was one more item on the program and that was the opportunity to purchase hardware for the next house. They put up on the screen pictures of faucets, sinks, ceiling fans, water heaters, dishwashers, doors and windows. The auctioneer had barely stood up before people started waving their paddles. Everything on the list was bought in a few minutes. What happened?

I’ve read a few studies that helped me understand. There is good evidence that the act of purchasing something practical for another person is at least as satisfying as giving money, buying an experience (lunch with Warren Buffet) or giving a gift. Such acts never “go to scale” and they do not address large issues but when given the choice between giving money and making a purchase that directly benefits another person, the purchase is more likely to result in happiness. It’s called pro-social giving and it stimulates the orbital prefrontal cortex of the brain. While neglect of this area of the brain can result in anxiety and depression, the opposite effect – happiness – results when it is activated. It’s not dependent on the size of the purchase or even the response of the recipient. It’s the purchase of something tangible needed by another person that matters.

I first met Millard Fuller at a retreat outside Washington, D.C. and over the years we became friends. I’ve never forgotten his correcting me when I complimented him on Habitat’s mission of building houses around the world. “No, that’s not the mission. That’s the means. The mission is building partnerships with God’s people.” That was far more important to Millard than how many houses were built – although Habitat built 300,000 before he died in 2009. I remembered that as I sat and watched people at the dinner snapping up things needed by others and knew that Millard would be pleased. Maybe millions were not raised that night but good people left as happier people for the purchases they had made and I know the water heater we bought will be my own tribute to Millard and the mission of Habitat.

Art by Hugh Stanton

You can make a very practical purchase of my book, “Where The Light Divides” here.


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    Sam Griffith

    Building partnerships with Gods people as the goal.
    And from that flows the acts, the deeds.
    We too often “put the cart before the horse”, looking at the deed.
    But Jesus came to transform us into His image, not to organize a charitable institution.
    Jesus understood that if we followed Him, infilled by the Holy Spirit, we would then be loving and compassionate as He, not needing either a church body or government entity to compel us to do acts we choose not to.
    Thus Jesus’ goal is to transform us, not the world. And it is from our personal spiritual transformation flows a transformed world.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith

      Thank you, Sam. I often think of this quote by Wendell Berry and you reminded me of it this morning:

      As I have read the Gospels over the years, the belief has grown in me that Christ did not come to found an organized religion but came instead to found an unorganized one. He seems to have come to carry religion out of the temples into the fields and sheep pastures, onto the roadsides and the banks of the rivers, into the houses of sinners and publicans, into the town and the wilderness, toward the membership of all that is here. Well, you can read and see what you think.

      Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow

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