Fundraising Among Prisoners

President-elect Obama is calling on Americans to serve their country through volunteerism. His plans include giving a $4,000/year higher education tax credit in exchange for 100 hours of community service each year and requiring all middle and high school students to do 50 hours of community service per year.

The immediate benefits to people in need within our communities are numerous and obvious. The hidden upside is that the widespread experience of giving will have a profound effect on our society.

Giving, whether time or money, makes the giver happier, healthier and wealthier. So says Arthur C. Brooks, who I saw speak at the Association of Professional Researchers for Advancement conference this past August. He talked about the "helper's high" and emphasized that human selfishness is actually unnatural -- our brains reward us with dopamine and other happy chemicals when we give.

In The Year of Living Biblically, in which A.J. Jacobs attempts to follow all of the rules of the Bible, he decides to tithe a portion of his income. He donates money online to several non-profit organizations:

"When the confirmation emails ping in, I feel good. There's a haunting line from the film Chariots of Fire. It's spoken by Eric Liddell, the most religious runner, the one who carries a Bible with him during his sprint. He says: 'When I run, I feel His pleasure.' And as I gave away money, I think I might have felt God's pleasure. I know: I'm agnostic. But still -- I feel His pleasure. It's a warm ember that starts at the back of my neck and spreads through my skull. I feel like I am doing something I should have been doing all my life."

Even compulsory community service benefits the doer with positive effects on health and happiness -- so disgruntled 7th graders required to do community service will still feel the buzz of the helper's high. (And there's nothing like the travails of middle and high school to drive young people to seek an endorphin boost, so they may get hooked.)

Givers are more likely to be informally generous as well. "They are also significantly more likely to give food or money to a homeless person, or to give up their seat to someone on a bus," Brooks said in an interview with The American.

Lest you dismiss Brooks as a feel-good hippie, he is an economist and visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. He actually set out to counter a common claim of high net worth individuals: that their wealth was in part attributable to their philanthropic endeavors. He theorized that this could not possibly be true, and that philanthropic giving could only decrease one's wealth. While researching his theory, he learned that not only does giving make one happier and healthier, but also proved that charitable giving is positively correlated with income! For each dollar one gives, one receives $3.75 in return.

Brooks concluded his talk by praising fundraising professionals. He spoke of fundraising as a moral imperative -- we are providing individuals the opportunity to make themselves healthier, happier and wealthier by asking them give. It is our obligation and our privilege to provide individuals that opportunity.

A few months ago, I saw the tail-end of a documentary concerning a group of prisoners who donated their meager earnings from working prison labor to help build a school in Vietnam. At first I thought: who would fundraise from prisoners!? They are so downtrodden already -- why would you ask them for money? But when the school was built and the prisoners, many of whom were serving life sentences, saw the pictures of the completed school, it became clear why one would fundraise among prisoners. Tears of joy coursed down one man's face as, feeling the "helper's high," he proclaimed that he finally felt like he was a worthwhile person.

So, volunteer coordinators, coordinate on, and fundraisers, fundraise on! You are providing an invaluable opportunity to people. Here's to the people of our nation serving one another while becoming healthier, happier and wealthier in the process.