The one powerful gift that keeps on giving

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The one powerful gift that keeps on giving

Written by Alischa Ross | 3rd December 2019

As we head towards the end of another year it’s easy to get caught up in the silly season and the focus on consumption and material giving. We’re surrounded by stimuli to buy and consume, wrapped up in the paradox that it’s the season to give.

But it’s not all bad. Thankfully, with conscious consumption on the rise, more people are considering what it means to consume less and consume with purpose. Perhaps this year more of us will make decisions to buy ethical, sustainable gifts that don’t harm people and the planet, or donate to a worthy cause in lieu of giving gifts.

But all of this focus on consumption raises a fundamental question: What does it mean to really give?

For grantmakers and funders, this question lies at the very heart of what you do. In the quest to maximise your giving, you constantly search for ways to maximise return on investment – and so you should. Resources are finite, yet there are so many great causes and initiatives that need support; you want to make sure you get bang for your buck and maximum impact for beneficiaries.

Our team have spent another year immersed in the complexities of social impact. Our job is to help organisations understand, communicate and transform the ways they generate positive social change for the people and communities they aim to serve.

This year we have taken on several major projects working closely with grantmakers and funders, allowing us to carefully explore the emerging practice of funding for outcomes. This growing trend is critical in helping find new, smarter solutions that help both grantmakers and grantees design and fund for enduring impact.

But is there one outcome, one thing that we can we give and embed in our funding and design for social impact that makes everything else have more value?

With the insights that come from working on hundreds of diverse projects with government, private and for-purpose organisations, we are constantly challenged by this question. Is there a common element in the projects we see that is the secret, elusive ingredient for creating enduring positive social impact?

When working with homelessness, family violence, elder abuse and intergenerational unemployment, we commonly see poor mental health and inequalities tied to gender, age, physical disabilities, sexuality and cultural diversity. We see and hear stories of social isolation that leads to feelings of loneliness, social anxiety, depression and unhelpful coping strategies. And we know that the stress of feeling misunderstood or disconnected from family, friends, work environments and social networks, as well as financial insecurity, poor health, lack of access to safe and affordable housing and limited mobility are common triggers for poor mental wellbeing.

The rise of loneliness is now flagged as an emerging public health crisis in Australia, with many other Western countries reporting a similar trend.

Loneliness is a subjective expression of social isolation that is a product of how a person feels about their connections with others. It is often connected to the perceived quality of a person’s relationships, rather than their quantity.

Loneliness has been defined as “a feeling of distress people experience when their social relations are not the way they would like.”

Research tells us that loneliness affects our physical and mental health and wellbeing. A growing body of evidence highlights the correlations between loneliness, depression and anxiety, and supports the understanding that “individuals with adequate social relationships have a 50% greater likelihood of survival compared to those with poor or insufficient social relationships.“

The Australian Loneliness Report found that:

  • One in four Australian adults are lonely.
  • Nearly 55 per cent of the population feel they lack companionship at least sometimes.
  • Lonely Australians have significantly worse health status (both physical and mental) than connected Australians.
  • Loneliness increases the likelihood of experiencing depression by 15.2 per cent.
  • Loneliness increases the likelihood of experiencing social interaction anxiety by 13.1 per cent.
  • Being depressed increases the likelihood of being lonely by 10.6 per cent.
  • Being anxious about social interactions increases the likelihood of being lonely by 8.6 per cent.

The Young Australia Loneliness survey commissioned by VicHealth found that young people are also increasingly reporting loneliness and social isolation, with young adults aged 18–25 years reporting higher levels of loneliness, isolation, social anxiety and depressive symptoms than adolescents aged 12–17 years.

Health promotion has long taught us that health is more than just fixing things that are broken; it’s about maintaining wellness. Therefore, it comes as little surprise that promoting good social health and connections can create protective, preventative effects for people at risk of social isolation and provide an effective antidote for those already experiencing good social health.

So, what does all this talk about loneliness have to do with giving?

If social connectedness is how a person defines their own experience of connection with others, then perhaps herein lies the secret ingredient we’ve been searching for – inclusion – and the need to focus on giving and doing things that build a sense of community and belonging.

It sounds simple, but people need people. We see examples of this all the time in our daily lives.Recently I was travelling home in an Uber having a friendly conversation with the driver, who looked to be a young man in his early twenties. He had a slightly foreign accent I couldn’t quite pinpoint.We were talking about footy and how family tradition was the critical factor in deciding what team I followed.

As we pulled up out the front of my house, I thanked the driver and I was about to hop out when I picked up a vibe that perhaps not everything was all right. I learned forward and asked if he was okay.“Yeah, I’m fine,” he said in a shaky voice, but I wasn’t convinced. I looked at him again and said, “Are you sure you’re okay?” Upon this second enquiry, he started to break down and cry.In a typically human response, he quickly tried to hide his sadness and brush it off, but I said to him, “It’s okay to not feel okay sometimes, but if you’d like to talk, I’m happy to listen. But if you’d like me to just sit with you for a bit I can do that too.”He turned around and looked at me and said, “Thank you, I’d like that.”

Over the next half an hour we sat together in the car, fairly quietly, and slowly his tears turned into a smile as he told me that he’d never had a stranger ask if he was really okay before and how surprised, yet happy, that made him feel.A few days later, I received a message via the Uber app that AJ, the driver from that night, wanted to reconnect with me. Comfortable with that, I accepted the invitation and we spoke briefly on the phone.

His message was one of deep thanks and he told me he had a small gift for give me that was symbolic of what he felt I had done for him that night.At first, I said there was no need, but I quickly realised that perhaps if that was important for him, then I would accept his gift. We arranged a time and place to connect. What happened next touched my heart in a way I could not have imagined.

When we met, it was only for five minutes, but he told me that sitting and talking with him that night had “saved his life”. He told me that he hadn’t even realised how isolated, depressed and alone he had been feeling, but the simple act of someone asking how he really was, showing him that someone actually cared, had made him realise he was in a lot of pain and needed support.

In the days that followed he had been motivated to seek support, and he now felt that things would be okay, because he realised that people do care and he did not need to go through this alone. As we parted, he told me that the whole experience had boiled down to one thing for him: a reminder that we’re all human, that we’re all vulnerable and that we all need to feel loved and feel like we belong.

With that, he gave me my gift, a beautiful poster with those famous lyrics on it: “All you need is love, love is all you need”.

While this story is a reminder that sometimes a simple act of helping someone feel a sense of belonging can emerge from the least likely place, it is also a reminder that the power of people needing people is universal and as old as time itself.

So if loneliness is having its moment, and if at an individual level we all have the power to help people feel like they belong, then perhaps the greatest way to amplify our ability to counter the epidemic of loneliness is to make inclusion a central tenet of how we fund and design for social impact.

The people, populations and issues that funding seeks to support will always be diverse,, and the size and volume of grants will vary, but if we were to develop one central benchmark for every single grantmaker’s funding strategy in 2020, it would be this: inclusion. Make sure you build in the outcome of inclusion.

The value of impact measurement lies in the communities it transforms, and nothing has the power to transform people, and in turn communities, more than the feeling of connection.

Funding and designing for initiatives that connect people, build confidence and build a sense of belonging, and the infrastructure to support these, are the central and essential ingredients that all grantmakers need to adopt to have an enduring impact on the health and wellbeing of people and of the communities in which we live, work and play. That’s this year’s take home message from all of us at Think Impact.

Inclusion is the gift that keeps on giving.

With thanks to Our Community for their support in writing and publishing this article in The Australian Institute of grant Management. Read the original post here.