The Better Angels Invitation

Many of us will remember the Ice Bucket Challenge of 2014 for some time. It showed up all over the place – in social media, on television, and in our neighborhoods. Thousands of people dumped buckets of ice on their own heads and raised many millions of dollars to combat ALS.

The dumping of the ice was supposed to be an alternative to the giving of the money, and as it turned out a lot of people dumped the ice but didn’t bother giving the money. Thanks to lots of recent psychological research, however, we know that normal, healthy people actually derive pleasure and satisfaction in giving, especially when they do so in the company of friends for a cause that is larger than all of them put together. Thus many folks made a flamboyant gesture of dumping buckets of ice on their heads, often putting the event up on You Tube, and then gave the money as well. Lots of money also went ungiven because people forgot about it or didn’t know where to send it. Some of the ice-dumping episodes resulted in injuries and other unfortunate upshots. The whole effort, in other words, could have been managed more effectively.

The key element that made this viral, give-and-have-fun adventure so successful was, I think, the issuing of the challenge. The rules of the game were to dump the ice or give the money, but in either case to issue the challenge to somebody else to follow suit. That’s how it went viral. Had the challenge not been the main rule, the Ice Bucket phenomenon might have involved no more than a few dozen friends who shared a calling to help ALS victims they personally knew.

In a larger context, the Ice Bucket Challenge is part of an inspiring global movement to support good works, good causes, and good people of all sorts. This global movement has been documented quite a bit lately, perhaps most prominently in A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity, a book by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn that has also been adapted as a PBS documentary. Speaking of the global movement itself, the authors note: “Today almost any university bulletin board will have a poster appealing on behalf of some faraway group, but in historical terms that is a recent phenomenon. There’s probably more regard for chickens and cows today than existed a few centuries ago for slaves or foreigners. Princeton University professor Peter Singer [author of The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress] is the philosopher of this growing humanitarianism, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker [author of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined] is its chronicler, the singer Bono is its muse, and it has a vast and growing army of ordinary donors and volunteers.”

On the emergence of new corporate entities devoted to good causes, they note: “A new vocabulary is emerging to describe these hybrids trying to knit social goals into their operations: benefit corporation, blended value, mission-driven, for-benefit, value-driven, venture philanthropy, fourth sector, and hybrid organization. And these businesses are formed in many sectors.” Perhaps even a good old-fashioned tycoon like Henry Ford would appreciate this phenomenon, since he once said that “The highest use of capital is not to make more money but to make money do more service for the betterment of life.”

Mr. Ford’s personal opinion has been corroborated in our time by one of our nation’s richest men and the world’s biggest philanthropist, Bill Gates: “There are two great forces of human nature: self-interest, and caring for others. The most successful people are driven by a hybrid engine.” Anthropologist Franz deWaal offers a similar view from the social-science community: “The selfish/unselfish divide may be a red herring. Why try to extract the self from the other, or the other from the self, if the merging of the two is the secret behind our cooperative nature?” In sum, personal and social evolution have moved us from self-centered egoism to family-centered nepotism to reciprocal altruism (the basis for all economies and democratic cultures) to concern for all human beings. Most of us are, under differing circumstances, selfish, otherish, and groupish.

As in so many communities around the world, here in small-city Ripon, Wisconsin (home of Ripon College, the Wisconsin Leadership Institute, the Collaborative Leadership Network, and the grass-roots birthplace of the anti-slavery political party that elected Abraham Lincoln), there have always been core groups of individuals who have responded to the challenges issued by what Lincoln himself called “the better angels of our nature.” Now the Wisconsin Leadership Institute has created a nonprofit initiative called Our Better Angels (OBA) to support the global movement described in A Path Appears. OBA aims to encourage, connect, and celebrate people everywhere who choose to support good causes of various sorts. As an echo of the Ice Bucket Challenge, we issue the Better Angels Invitation.

Our invitation is simply to set an example by joining the Better Angels Community for a basic Citizen Angel membership fee of just $20 and then to issue the exact same invitation to other individuals and organizations. You can’t escape our invitation by dumping a bucket of ice on your head. In fact, we don’t think that’s a good idea in the first place. If you want to include a dramatic and unpleasant alternative to the Better Angels Invitation, we suggest that you think of something you don’t want to do – and then DON’T DO IT. Instead, just accept the Better Angels Invitation, choose a Good Cause to support, and sign up for a $20 annual membership. Since we are especially eager to support youth leadership development, we recommend that new members support their high-school alma mater, their college alma mater, or a youth group that focuses on leadership skills and values. And then we’d like you to invite a few others, or a lot of others, to follow your lead and support your Good Cause or another of their own choosing.

In essence, the primary elements of the Ice Bucket Challenge and the Better Angels Invitation are central to all noteworthy acts of leadership in all times and places: set the example, issue the challenge, and provide support. We can all do that, and even the most modest commitments can add up to monumental results. As Margaret Mead suggested, “Never doubt the power of a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens to change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

We think the driving energy of the Better Angels Community should be in the simple act of people inviting other people to join in, without dumping anything on their heads. We believe that the opportunity to give, to help each other help each other, to address a wide range of social problems and spiritual dilemmas, and to participate in an inspiring global movement should not just be for stupendously wealthy philanthropists, but for virtually everyone, including people who can only afford $20 per year.

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