Like most people who have lived or spent time in Paris, I experienced a deep sadness that quickly turned to tears, anger, and confusion as the news flashed across social media that the great cathedral of Notre-Dame was burning. The blow to French identity, and the sense of loss for all of us who hold Paris dear, was and is profound.
Within days, my despair had given way to faint hope as I read news stories detailing pledges of more than €900 million from some of France's wealthiest families toward the reconstruction of the cathedral. But that hope soon gave way to feelings of guilt. Just weeks ago, Cyclone Idai smashed into southeastern Africa, leaving more than a thousand people dead and thousands more missing in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Malawi. It was a disaster of epic proportions that went largely unreported in the Western media and generated little in the way of disaster recovery funding. While I felt frustration at the contrast between the philanthropic response to the two events, I probably wasn’t as angry as I should have been. The fact I felt conflicted about what philanthropy could and was willing to do to save Notre-Dame versus the enormous challenge of mitigating human suffering and building peaceful societies, not just in Africa but around the world, has been haunting me ever since. And the juxtaposition of the two responses underscores a complex societal problem.
People's engagement with issues tends to be driven by their values and passions. Giving is shaped by the many different and connected parts of human psychology, and Notre-Dame was a classic example of giving driven by emotion (and, in the case of certain French billionaires, a healthy dose of ego). The fire was a blow to a collective French identity rooted in a distant, romanticized past, and the immediate outpouring of support for restoring the cathedral to its former glory was a way to stand in solidarity with that past and make oneself feel good in the bargain.
It's generally understood, however, that we don’t always make our best decisions when responding out of emotion….and that maybe, in times of crisis or in response to a disaster, we should pause and try to be more thoughtful about our response — or let an algorithm make such decisions for us.
Human emotion is of course a crucial (if flawed) aspect of giving, but it is not the only thing that should influence our decision making.
As we marvel at the €900 million-plus committed to the rebuilding of Notre-Dame, let's consider what we already know about philanthropy in France. The public record shows only $58 million (€51.5 million) in philanthropic giving over thirteen years — a little more than 6 percent, over twelve-plus years, of the amount pledged in twenty-four hours for the restoration of Notre-Dame. That isn't the actual number; it's a number based on data made available by the philanthropic sector for the specialized needs of the philanthropic sector.
Wouldn't it improve our decision making, however, if we really did know how much had been dedicated to philanthropic causes in France over the last dozen years, as well as how those philanthropic dollars had been invested? And wouldn't it be great if our future (emotionally driven) giving decisions could be supported by a little more knowledge that enabled us to be more strategic about our giving? Isn't it time for philanthropic entities, in France and elsewhere, to open up their data in addition to their wallets? And isn't it time the Church started tracking its giving and opening up that information to the broader public? After all, sharing is giving.
As far as support for Notre-Dame goes, the question is not whether restoration is necessary or appropriate; the cathedral was in need of restoration before the fire broke out (and in fact was undergoing restoration), and the fire didn’t change that fact. Notre-Dame has inspired the Catholic faithful, Frenchmen and women, and people from far and wide for more than eight hundred years, and it seems right that it should do so for another eight hundred years. But while it was exciting to see philanthropy act quickly and nimbly (for a change), the enthusiasm for the Notre-Dame project has raised a number of questions for me:
- Was it a good idea for French billionaires and millionaires to devote resources to the cause when perhaps it was the job of the Church (one of the wealthiest institutions in the world) or the French government? Shouldn't private philanthropy be deploying its capital to challenges that are difficult, for whatever reason, for government or the Church to support?
- Now that we know that philanthropic funds in France can be unlocked quickly in response to a crisis, should we insist that additional funds from the same sources be freed up to deal with other pressing needs? Should philanthropy be doing more to end Paris’s ongoing challenge with homelessness — a crisis that has seen the number of people sleeping on the streets of the City of Light increase by 20 percent over just the last year?
- Were the funds committed to the rebuilding of Notre-Dame by a handful of French billionaires and their companies a way to market those companies and buy a lot of goodwill? Is there anything wrong with that?
- And given the tax benefits that countries like France and the United States provide for charitable giving, who really pays for that giving?
Let me be clear: I am not advocating for a system that would discourage giving by the wealthy. Instead, let's use the Notre-Dame case as an opportunity to invite and encourage greater self-reflection, education, and transparency in philanthropy.
What can we do, in terms of giving, to satisfy our emotional needs but also a strategic imperative when a crisis or disaster strikes?
Collaborate. Reach out to your peers and ask them what they are thinking of doing. Think about how you can support and leverage those efforts. Share you giving strategies and what you have learned in the past and think about what else you can do to build the knowledge base. Remember, philanthropy is not a competition. Leave your ego at the door. Know that you don't have to break new ground every time you make a gift: sometimes, all people want and need is the basics. Partner and pool funds for greater impact. Engage with the community you’re seeking to serve. Are you supporting what they need, or what you think they need?
Reflect, be honest, and practice what you preach — and then take a seat in the corner, meditate, and become an enlightened strategic giver!
Notre-Dame de Paris is damaged, but she will emerge from the ashes in a new, beautiful incarnation. As she does, let's do what we can to ensure that philanthropy responds with both its heart and its head when the next disaster strikes.
Lauren Bradford is senior director, global projects and partnerships at Candid.