The Alchemy of Giving Back

By Fay Kajee – Managing Director of Fountainhead Design

The public domain is overflowing with inspirational quotes of the benefits of “giving back”. For good reason it is seen not only as a virtue in society, but also as a moral obligation placed on corporates, governments and anyone who has benefited from good fortune. It is also a practice that has been used by organizations and individuals for personal or reputational advantage.

Then there are the pundits who are vehemently opposed to the term “giving back” as it implies that one must first have “taken something”. That’s a topic for another day and another article.

In the aftermath of Mandela month, I have been pondering how reaching out to help someone, without expecting anything in return, can have two beneficiaries: the giver and the receiver.

The Bible, the Talmud and the Quran all speak clearly of the virtue and duty to help those less fortunate. For me, “giving back” can take many forms and transcend the common understanding of charity and philanthropy. It can manifest as a thought, a word or a deed, and it is in everyone’s power to make a difference.

Let’s call it the “X-factor”.  The ancient alchemists were very familiar with this X factor; the magical, secret ingredient that allowed them to turn lead into gold. This captures the essence of what I consider to be vital to giving back. There’s no art to it. But the science is incontrovertible. Showing kindness to others is the magical ingredient that releases energy and a natural dose of dopamine.

It makes you feel good because it made someone else feel better.

Many years ago I had the privilege of spending a few days with Mother Theresa – a modern day alchemist of note.  Just being around her and exposed to her love, humility, compassion and drive to help others was enough to release a flood of happy hormones. She said “even bad people can do good” and that ‘doing’ is as important as ‘giving’; to simply love and give help to others without asking of either in return is the ultimate act of charity.

So how does this play out in daily life? In South Africa, particularly during this time of the Covid-19 pandemic, the spirit of Ubuntu is the ultimate alchemy. In addition to the amazing generosity displayed by so many to provide solutions to big challenges, it’s those random acts of kindness that have kept us all going. A kind word to cheer someone up, an errand for an elderly neighbour, running an extension lead through the window when your neighbour has a power outage, a bag of groceries for a family in need, paying the parking for a stranger who has run out of change; these may seem like small, relatively insignificant acts, but their impact is huge and restores our faith in humanity and gives us a sense that we don’t have to go through it all alone.

Mother Theresa said it best:

“Not all of us can do great things. But each of us can do small things with great love.”