The guys over at 3ThoughtsOn.com asked me to write one of their inaugural posts on generosity. They describe the site as “An Outlet For Renegade Thinkers focused on introducing innovative and adventurous individuals taking intentional steps toward positive change.”
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Before December 2009 I’d barely given more than a passing thought to generosity. This despite the fact that my work at Acumen Fund is all about fighting global poverty and that, as a nonprofit, we’re supported by donations. That fact that I spent a lot of time asking others to be more generous and to connect to a higher sense of purpose wasn’t causing me to reflect on how generous I was (or wasn’t). If anything, I felt I’d “given at the office” by virtue of what I’ve chosen to do with my life. It took an experience of not giving to someone who asked for help to send me back to the generosity drawing board, and I’ve been thinking about generosity every since. Starting that day, I conducted a month-long generosity experiment to see what it felt like to say “yes” for 30 days to every request for help; and later, together with a few friends, I helped create Generosity Day on February 14th, 2011 as a reboot of Valentine’s Day. Here’s what I’ve begun to understand:
Generosity is first and foremost about human connection
When someone asks you for help, the first decision you make is whether to stand tall in the face of that request and that person. When we don’t stand tall it’s often because our heads, our infinite ability to analyze and rationalize, our fear that we someday might be in a position of real need all scream at us to run and hide. What could be more terrifying, more honest, or more simple than seeing that someone standing right in front of is in need and that we are in a position to help? What could be more powerful than choosing to act? Generosity starts with this basic acknowledgment of our shared humanity. It honors the fabric that binds us to each other. It recognizes that that the person asking me for help is just as human as I am.
Generosity is generative
Generosity begets generosity, which means that our power to act and to create a shift in the world is unbounded. We know that when someone discovers a few extra quarters in a vending machine they are much more likely to be generous to the next person – to pick up papers that someone has dropped or to help them solve a problem. There literally is a multiplier effect of generous action: one generous act begets another. Our opportunity, then, is to create a shift not in one or two actions but instead in the place that generosity holds in our self-image and, ultimately, in how we walk through the world. This is why we started Generosity Day in 2011 and why we’re doing it again on February 14th, 2012 – to create huge ripples throughout the world, to show people what’s possible.
Generosity alone is not enough
Generosity is nothing more and nothing less than the foundation upon which we build. We won’t solve the big problems of the world just by opening our hearts. That is a dangerous dream, because the stakes are much too high. Yet without generosity too many doors are closed, too much judgment creeps in. Without generosity empathy is not given a space in which to grow and we experience the terrible misfortune of undervaluing the gifts we have been given. In so doing we run the risk of forgetting that each of us has something important to offer in creating solutions big and small.
To me, generosity is an active orientation towards the world and all its messiness. It is a refusal to walk by, to shut down, to pretend that if we just keep our heads down everything will turn out OK. It won’t, at least not without all of us.