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Money or the Cause? 5

“My childhood dream was to start a business, like my dad, and then use the money for a good cause”, says my friend Kate as we pick our way along the hill on a narrow, muddy path. She tells me how her dad arrived here as an immigrant, worked hard to support his family. “We didn’t even have milk money at one point” she says. “My dad had left everything behind in Asia, but he built a successful business from nothing, and now quietly gives back to the community. He’s an inspiration to me.”

It’s Saturday morning, a glorious day already. Blue sky, low-lying ribbons of mist along the bay that come into view as we climb Twin Peaks. We wind up wooden stairs bolted to the side of the hill, climb up to the topmost peak, where the city and ocean sweep out around us. We talk about entrepreneurship, and education, and making an impact.

“I don’t know, sometimes I think making money first is more important than focusing on the cause; once you have money, you can do so much more” Kate says. “It’s true, money is power”, I reply, “maybe it’s better to start by making a lot of money; but the problem is, people sometimes end up losing parts of themselves in the pursuit of money, and they forget about the cause.”

We keep walking, and the conversation turns to other things. But the question stays with me. If you want to do good, does it make sense to focus on making money first, or working for the cause you care about? Can you do both at the same time?


  1. Megsie

    01/16/2011 at 11:08 pm

    This is SUCH an interesting question! One I have never really considered. When I was growing up, my parents had money. I was spoiled and got anything I wanted, within reason, you know, the hand-me-down car, new clothes every fall, anything I asked for, really. But somehow, I knew what to ask for. I didn’t go overboard and ask for outrageous things, and I never spent money like I had it. I saved most of it, but picked up the tab for my friends when we went out for pizza. I never thought much about money because I didn’t have to.

    Now that I don’t have the luxury of not having to think about money, I sometimes wish I had gone into a field where I would be rolling in the dough. I dream of winning the lottery (except I don’t buy the tickets, so I don’t know how I would) so I could do everything that I dream about. Most of it is selfish, I admit. Most fantasies are. But in the midst of that, I find myself bailing out my friends from their worries, and maybe building my own school. Doing things that would make a difference. That is who I am I guess. That is why I teach. I, of course, went after the making the difference part. I wonder what it would have been like to begin from the opposite side? So fascinating. However, making a lot of money is no easy task. It is not guaranteed. If it was wouldn’t everyone be doing it? So, I guess I made the right choice after all.

  2. Cherry

    01/17/2011 at 10:03 am

    Meg, I think this is why I thought the question so interesting–because I hadn’t ever considered it in this way either. Having grown up with my parents barely making ends meet from month to month, my model of doing good was always through small gestures. And in my own life and work in education I do not feel driven by money at all. But maybe it would be good to try harder to ultimately make a greater impact?

  3. Irenka

    01/17/2011 at 12:01 pm

    Saturday was filled of wonderful and interesting conversations! It must have been the sun 🙂 I have always felt that doing good was something you did everyday. Of course I am talking of small things: smiling to the clerk who is busy and seems to be having a bad day, listening to a friend, helping out someone in the street,… things like that. Then are other things that require you to be there in special moments: advocating for changes in public schools by attending a debate or participating in a silent demonstration to support a cause you believe in…I have never had money, nor my family had any for that matter, but I have always felt that what we were giving others was our time. My mother has always been a model with that: she gives away her time to make others happier or to help out. It was interesting to me to think that the discussion was framed as ‘if you had no money it was difficult to do good’ because I never thought of it that way! Interesting post as always!

  4. Cherry

    01/17/2011 at 4:23 pm

    Irenka–I think we were thinking about where you’d have the greatest impact, if you’re picking a direction for your life going forward. I’d never thought about it quite this way either, which is why our conversation stayed with me. Thanks for your thoughts–hope to connect with you soon!

  5. Larry Gallagher

    01/18/2011 at 12:36 am

    Very interesting questions… Not that I have any easy answers (and I don’t come from a family with money), but I think that first and foremost we have to be somehow in alignment with what we’re doing for a living. I used to work in the software industry, and I could have stayed there and have a lot more money (and consequently give more away) than I currently do, but to do so I would have been dishonoring some important parts of myself that would have withered and died if I’d stayed in that field. I suspect Bill Gates enjoyed the work he did that earned his fortune – I don’t think he sacrificed his quality of life to get where he today. For me to follow Bill Gates’ path (even if I had the right timing, opportunity, and ability) would be torturous.

    So are we willing to sacrifice – truly sacrifice – a part of ourselves to earn extra money in order to do more good in the world? I just don’t think it works that way, but I’m open to dissuasion.

    Now, it’s a different story if you are doing something that fits and you’re making a lot of money in the process. In that case, yes, I can see how it’s tempting to start focusing on the money (or not even the money, just the self-satisfaction of living life) and forgetting to attend to the needs of others. I just couldn’t get a sense from your writing which scenario your friend Kate was thinking of.

    I wonder if they’re really orthogonal issues: making a lot vs a little money, and being self- vs other-oriented. You can imagine being in any of those four quadrants. I think if you’re strongly other-oriented, then sure, you’re going to think of the impact you can have on others as you make life plans that entail higher earnings (become a teacher or a corporate lawyer?) A corporate lawyer could start a school, and hire the others who chose to become teachers. 🙂


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