This post was originally produced for Forbes.
Behind the divisions in America—and the world—over politics that seem broader and sharper than at any point in my five decades, there is a flourishing counter movement for kindness. In fact, some social entrepreneurs have built businesses around kindness. Professors are teaching it. Kindness is a thing.
Still, as much as I admire people and the movement behind kindness, I sometimes worry that when we hear the word kindness many people think mostly about being nice and polite. While I’m all for good manners, the real problems in our world are not due to a lack of civility.
The mosquitoes that carry the malaria virus don’t care a gnat’s rear end about manners, smiles or whether you thanked your mother for making breakfast this morning.
Climate change will continue to get worse no matter how polite we are to one another at climate conferences.
The devastating symptoms of poverty—illiteracy, lack of access to clean water and sanitation, and hunger—have nothing to do with the sort of surface level kindness that first comes to mind when I hear the word.
All the world’s problems can be addressed, however, by what I will call deep kindness, the sort that requires effort and sometimes pain and sacrifice.
It is the sort of kindness displayed by one of my clients, who didn’t ask that I share this story but whose permission I obtained to do so. Shaun Michel saw a homeless man in a wheelchair and offered him a new pair of shoes he’d just purchased. They didn’t fit. Michel went back to the shoe store and bought another pair in the correct size. Upon returning, he found the man had gone. Not to be deterred, he guessed, correctly it turns out, where the man might have gone on a bus and delivered the shoes.
Nonprofits have been doing this hard work for generations. Some have argued that they have little effect, after all, there are still hundreds of millions of people living and dying in poverty. Such observations are silly to anyone armed with a modicum of data.
When I was born just 54 years ago, about 60% of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty. Today, less than 10% does. Life expectancy in the Gambia in 1965 was just 33 years and today is 61 years, typical of the improvements across much of the developing world. Nonprofits may not deserve all the credit, but any suggestion that their work is ineffective simply because there are still poor and sick people in the world comes from ignorance.
Today, nonprofits have been joined in their efforts by social entrepreneurs and corporations doing much more strategic good through their corporate social responsibility programs.
Nearly four million people die each year from health complications associated with cooking at home over open fires. The use of wood for such cooking also contributes to deforestation and climate change as a result. Social entrepreneurs—often in partnership with nonprofits—are building and selling a slew of efficient cookstoves that reduce or eliminate smoke indoors and use much less fuel.
Social entrepreneurs are selling solar lanterns that not only reduce dependence on kerosene they charge cell phones. They sell clean drinking water that saves lives and increases productivity by reducing the time required to get water. They create what families in extreme poverty need more than anything else: jobs.
Corporate social responsibility programs are having more impact as well. MAC cosmetics has distributed about $500 million to fight AIDS. Microsoft gives about a billion dollars of software to nonprofits every year, technology that is used to fight problems from human trafficking to climate change.
For my part, after reading so much about kindness, I am slowly picking up better habits. They make my life better—and I suspect they improve things for people around me in small ways. Still, I admire most those who operate at the level of deep kindness, going beyond niceties to real impact.
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