Compassion vs. Charity

How can embracing compassion drive healthy organizational culture?


What would it mean to you personally and to your organization to embrace compassion for all human beings and help alleviate just one world problem? Jessica Jackley, founder of, talks about the difference between compassion and charity, and how the former ignites dignity, hope and respect to bridge the "false separation" between people in need and people who are in a position to help.

Jessica discusses the origins of Kiva, which began with a passion to help alleviate poverty across the globe through microfinancing. "I discovered that poverty isn't all about pity and suffering; it was about smart, strong, hard-working entrepreneurs in a developing country, and I wanted to pursue that and to learn more about what that encounter could be like."

Regardless of your organization, Jessica demonstrates that developing empathy, compassion and connection with others helps those you lead feel more engaged and valued in their role.

Jessica: If I'm honest with myself, unfortunately a lot of my emotions were . . . it wasn't all pure and lovely about compassion. It was about feeling so bad that I wanted to whip out my wallet, throw some money at it and feel better. And unfortunately, I think that's perpetuated a lot.

That was a problem for me, so what I did was I kept searching and trying to figure out what my personal role could be in alleviating poverty. This looked like trying out a lot of different volunteer opportunities so I could get to understand different methods and ways of alleviating property. At one point five years ago I learned about microfinance.

Just to define this for anybody that might be unfamiliar with this term, think of microfinance as financial services for the poor, and to picture it, think of all the things you might access at your bank. You can have a savings account, insurance programs and perhaps even a loan. Microcredit is a very small loan for the poor. So think of all these products and services tailored to the needs of somebody living on a few dollars a day, and you have microfinance.

I learned about this and what blew me away was this was a way to encounter somebody living in poverty that wasn't all about pity and suffering. It was about an entrepreneur, a smart, strong, hard-working entrepreneur in a developing country somewhere, and I wanted to pursue that and I wanted to learn more about what that encounter could be like. A few months after I learned about microfinance I quit the job that I had at Stanford and moved to East Africa to learn more. I basically went from village to village throughout Kenya and Uganda and Tanzania, interviewing entrepreneurs to hear their stories, and they were stories of trying to help.

Interviewer: So you're visiting with people who are working and doing jobs there and trying to build their own businesses?

Jessica: Yes. The way a lot of developing economies look, there are people who wake up every day and perhaps they're subsistence farmers or they're raising animals, they're tailoring clothes, mending clothes, or a seamstress.

Interviewer: That's amazing.

Jessica: There are all these small activities that people are doing, and when they have access to a small loan those activities can, they can build them up and build them into larger businesses that provide a sustainable livelihood for themselves and their families.

These stories and the people I encountered moved me deeply, so I became a little bit obsessed with sharing their stories with my friends and family back in the U.S. As I did, my co-founder Matthew and I, who was in East Africa with me at the time, started to ask the question, "Wait a minute, they already have amazing stories. Their lives are changing. Why can't we participate in the next chapter of those stories and lend a little bit of money? It doesn't take much, just a few hundred dollars, to allow them to do the next thing and to grow their businesses to the next level?"

That was the basic idea that we had four years ago. We started very small. We said, "Let's try this. I had come back for a few months. I went back to Uganda, brought a camera, took pictures of seven friends that I had met earlier and put their pictures and their stories up on a website, and then spammed our friends and family and said, "Hey, here are our new friends in Uganda. They need a total of $3000 among the seven. What do you think? Do you want to help?" The money came in almost overnight and then after about six months they were paid.

That was Kiva's official beginning. In our first year we grew very rapidly and did $500,000 in loans. The second year was $15 million.

Interviewer: Whoa, back up. Back up. You started with seven . . .

Jessica: Okay. We started with seven.

Interviewer: And then within a year, how many?

Jessica: In our first year was $500,000, and average loan size is about $500. So you can do that math. The second year was $15 million. The third year was more than double that, and we're not even at our fourth year and we're about to cross $100 million.

Interviewer: You know, you've got 12,000 leaders, businessmen, businesswomen in the room and if you could say one thing . . . because this is an inspirational story. This is incredible. If you could say one thing to these leaders, what would you say?

That's a nice question. I would say this. I think it's interesting, it's been interesting for me to observe the way people have responded to Kiva as a story of a business that has scaled rapidly and there's a lot of money moving around, and that's great, and worth talking about and interesting. But that's not the point for me. That's not in my life's work what I care about most. The money moving back and forth is a tool. It's a tool for poverty alleviation in the lives of the entrepreneurs, but it's also this tool for connectivity with lenders.

I talk about my conceptions of poverty growing up. They were based on these stories that brought up in me really negative emotions. I think unfortunately that creates distance between anybody who might be a potential donor, the rich and the poor. It creates this separation and this kind of false dichotomy. What I hope Kiva can do is kind of blur these lines and create more connections that are based on dignity and hope and respect so that we don't see each other as a project or as someone to swoop in and save, but a person that's actually working harder than anyone else in the world to better their own lives.

Interviewer: That's a great point. That is a great point.

Jessica: So I hope that Kiva can perpetuate that kind of relationship, that kind of encounter with the poor. What's so neat is Kiva launched in the U.S. a few months ago, so now to really blur these boundaries, an entrepreneur, maybe that goat herder that I loaned to in Uganda a few years ago now has the means to lend to my neighbor in San Francisco that's starting a daycare center, and that is good for the world if we can truly believe in each other as actual equals.

Every day we all have needs. We all get hungry every day. Not all of us need to go to a food bank to get food, but we all have hunger and many needs every day, and we all have something to offer, whether to give or to loan, even if it's a word of encouragement. So the more we can see each other truly as just fellow human beings, and build these relationships of respect, that's what I really think changes the world.

Jessica Jackley

Jessica Jackley currently serves as an investor and advisor with the Collaborative Fund, investing in entrepreneurs who champion the sharing economy.

Before this, Jessica was a Co-Founder and CEO of ProFounder, a pioneering cr...

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