Moving from charity to investment, the power of radical generosity 


Asha Curran and Asim I. Khwaja


When the 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit Turkey and Syria back in February, no one could have imagined the earthquake – and more than 11,000 aftershocks – would kill over 50,000 people. In the following weeks, support poured in from everywhere – $6 billion in one fundraising drive in Turkey, close to $2 billion from the World Bank, hundreds of thousands of rescuers, including volunteers, rushed to help survivors, and so on. Communities across the globe rushed to support those in need. 

When disasters strike, generosity from individuals, corporations, and governments thankfully seems to be the norm. People are abundantly generous as we witnessed during the worst days of the Covid-19 pandemic. But our instinct to help – to be charitable – is not being sufficiently harnessed to confront the countless crises, from wars to natural disasters, that engulf us.

As leaders of organizations across philanthropy and academia with different missions, we’re driven by the same question: How do we build a thriving world for all?

For us, the solution is radical generosity. Radical generosity is a generosity so plentiful and instinctual it becomes a muscle memory across individuals and institutions, across norms and cultures. Radical generosity redefines the entire concept of giving from one of charity between ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ to one of investment in people and communities. It is evergreen and circular, a co-owned community effort with two-way benefits.

Giving is often hierarchical and one-sided. It is thought of as a transaction between people who have resources and those without or as money flowing largely from the ‘Global North’ to the ‘Global South’ with images of people in need that are often exploitative or reductive. We often give to a cause, not a community, and assume recipients have nothing to offer us. Our donation is a one-way and one-off act of faith.

What would it take to achieve radical generosity? To start, we need to rethink where, when, and how we can invest in each other.

Global anti-poverty initiatives are often limited to countries considered economically poor. Classification by the World Bank of the extreme poverty line – people living on less than $2.15 per day – and other poverty metrics, including categorizing the world’s economies into four income groups from rich to poor, shape major lending and grant decisions by institutions, aid agencies, foundations, and philanthropists– and even influence individual givers.

When a person is no longer below the poverty line or a country is no longer in the lower income classification, they can risk qualifying for assistance – their very success blocking further support. They are too poor to be rich, but too rich to receive aid. This catch-22 creates a broken global system where international aid is designed for people to survive, but not thrive.

This international development approach has guided us for decades. It places enormous emphasis on economic classifications, but not on brighter futures or opportunities. It assumes that once a person or country has reached above set poverty lines, they are no longer worthy of additional investment in their well-being. It misses the ability to see people with full lives, aspirations, and potential. It prevents assistance from reaching countries with low rates of poverty but high rates of inequality. It views those in need as unable to help others – the receiver can never become the giver.

There is no magic line to cross between poverty and opportunity or struggling and thriving. Real transformation at the hyperlocal and global levels requires long-term investment in people. Instead of introducing interventions that address a singular issue for a short time, we must invest in long-term, systems-based approaches developed by local leaders. Support cannot be artificially time-bound or limited to donations or handouts; it must go beyond charity to investing in local communities as equal partners. Local leaders need ongoing trust and resources to truly succeed at strengthening their communities.

Radical generosity does not limit who we invest in, where we invest, or how we invest our support. It emphasizes mutual respect between those who give and those who receive. Radical generosity recognizes the person receiving today can be giving tomorrow. It recognizes there are multiple ways of giving – so that even as those in need receive assistance, they can still contribute their time and knowledge. Radical generosity, with its focus on investment in each other, elicits potential, not plight.

Take for instance refugees fleeing from life-threatening conditions in Syria, Afghanistan, or El Salvador.  They can be given basic aid like shelter, food, and other life-saving measures. They may physically survive, but they may never thrive in refugee camps without a pathway to prosperity. A radically generous approach would recognize and invest in their futures. Harvard research in Bangladesh’s refugee camps shows that refugees prefer the opportunity to deploy their skills instead of receiving handouts. Today’s refugees could be tomorrow’s leaders – as indeed they are.

GivingTuesday and the Center for International Development (CID) at Harvard University, the organizations we respectively lead, both show how the power of radical generosity can work in practice. GivingTuesday has grown into a global generosity movement with leaders in 90 countries, and since its launch in 2012, it has inspired more than $10 billion in donations in the United States alone and countless acts of generosity worldwide. CID brings world-class researchers and practitioners together to solve the world’s toughest challenges and invests in building, convening, and deploying talent that seeds new generations of talent worldwide. Together, we work to inspire generosity, respond to community needs, and champion local leaders, especially in areas where existing systems have failed. 

Ultimately, our ability to create a better world requires a critical mindset shift that transforms what it means to give. Each person needs to be seen with limitless potential. Generous acts, big and small, need to be recognized as essential for the future of humanity. When we move from transactional charity to investment in one another’s futures, when radical generosity becomes innate, the pathway to building a thriving world for all becomes clear.

Asha Curran is the CEO of GivingTuesday, and Asim I. Khwaja is the Director of the Center for International Development and the Sumitomo-Foundation for Advanced Studies on International Development Professor of International Finance and Development at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Tagged in: Turkey-Syria earthquake

Comments (1)

Ibrahim Sesay

I have learnt a lot from this topic. Thank you so much

Otwikende Jimmy Zachary

As the world is becoming a Global Village it is high time the Developed Nations turned their attention to developing the Developing Countries using the Grassroots Nonprofits because when a family is self sustaining there is Peace and when there is Peace there is DEVELOPMENT. So make Families self sustaining humans wil not fight with nature or with neighbors and vice vesa

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *