It's a Wonderful Life?

Columns

We approach the holiday season amid economic woes, political turmoil and industry concerns about release schedules, production slates, etc. In these tough times, it seems everyone’s hurting. Whether it’s gas prices, stock market woes or the depressed housing market, the news is more often bad than good. Even my friends who are perennial “glass-half-full” types are decidedly “half-empty” these days.

So it was in that frame of mind that I opened one of those “FW” e-mails, thinking, “Please let it NOT be another quasi-political propaganda pyramid thing.” What I found instead was a forward of an essay attributed to none other than the late George Carlin, supposedly written sometime between the death of his first wife in 1997 and his own departure earlier this year.

After diligent research (a few minutes on snopes.com), I learned that this quote had also been attributed to a student who witnessed the 1999 Columbine high-school shootings, as well as a retired pastor of questionable reputation from Seattle. Oh joy.

Authorship questions aside, here’s a portion of what it said:

The paradox of our time in history is that we have taller buildings but shorter tempers, wider freeways but narrower viewpoints. We spend more but have less, we buy more but enjoy less. We have bigger houses and smaller families, more conveniences but less time. We have more degrees but less sense, more knowledge but less judgment, more experts yet more problems, more medicine but less wellness.

We drink too much, smoke too much, spend too recklessly, laugh too little, drive too fast, get too angry, stay up too late, get up too tired, read too little, watch TV too much, and pray too seldom.

We have multiplied our possessions, but reduced our values. We talk too much, love too seldom, and hate too often. We've learned how to make a living, but not a life. We've added years to life, not life to years.

OK. Shoot me now.

I’m trying to be “half-full,” but after reading that (which, irrespective of authorship, rings true), and given all that’s going on, it just doesn’t feel to me like the “hap-happiest season of all” (with all due apologies to Andy Williams).

So as I’m standing on my own symbolic bridge looking down at the icy waters of pessimism with Jimmy Stewart (that’s an It’s a Wonderful Life reference by the way, for you younger folks out there), my own “Clarence” comes to me with the following solution…drum roll please…give more. I know, it may seem odd at a time when we feel like we have less than ever, but bear with me.

In a tight economy, it is often those with the least that suffer most. So, more pressure is put on the charitable organizations that support the poor and disenfranchised, because demand for their services is up. But unfortunately, just when they’re needed most, these organizations are less likely to be able to help. Why? Because we give less. A kind of charitable “Perfect Storm,” if you will.

A recent national study titled Giving in Tough Times reports that when people are concerned about their personal economic situations, overall charitable giving declines by nearly half. This is backed up by research prepared by Giving USA which shows that in the past 30 years, the only years in which annual growth in charitable giving did not meet or exceed inflation were those around the economic slumps of 1973 and 2001.

So people need our help more than ever, but we can afford to give it less than ever. What do we do?

Fortunately, giving can take on many forms. Don’t have extra cash? How about something that doesn’t cost you a dime: your time…or even better, your company’s time. Many employers allow employees to take paid time off from work to volunteer at local charitable organizations. AMC recently launched just such a program, titled “Giving Back,” which allows salaried employees the ability to donate one full day per six months (two days per year) to volunteer for a needy charity. That day is not counted against vacation or absentee accruals.

It’s our way of reinforcing our commitment to the communities in which we do business, and of being “a company with a heart,” to quote Peter C. Brown, chairman of the board and chief executive officer of AMC Entertainment Inc.

One of the cool things about this from an employer perspective is that it really doesn’t cost the company any hard dollars, while helping charities at a time when they need it most. Additionally, this kind of program can help employees feel a sense of pride about their employer, one of the key factors the Great Place to Work® Institute has identified in its research supporting Fortune Magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” list. According to the Institute, “As companies become great…the workplace becomes a community. Employees take pride in their job, their team, and their company.”

And lest we scoff at the financial benefits of being “that kind of employer,” it should be noted that, as a group, companies that show up on Fortune’s “100 Best” list historically outperform the S&P 500 by a factor of almost two-to-one.

Lastly, there’s the personal impact that such giving can have on employees. There’s nothing quite like volunteering at a local homeless shelter to help put some perspective on low bonuses, or having to defer that “designer challenge” bathroom remodel. When you see someone who can’t even afford to put food on the table, it makes you think a little differently about how your 401(k) investments are doing.

So as we approach this “worrisome” season, we should count our blessings, and take to heart the words of Winston Churchill (or was it George Carlin?): “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”

Best wishes for a truly meaningful holiday season!