Why Generosity Day spreads

The good folks at Say100 Media asked me to answer some questions about Generosity Day.  Here’s the text or the original interview is here.

We asked Sasha to tell us about Generosity Day 2012, why generosity is contagious, and how to move millions of people to action without spending a dime.

What are the key things marketers can learn from Generosity Day? In 2011, Generosity Day went from an idea to a global phenomenon in 72 hours – with no resources behind it. This would have been impossible if the idea hadn’t been simple, sticky, compelling, a message that was easy for people to own that they were eager to spread. As marketers we understand these lessons, but we still put way too much effort into figuring out clever ways to try to spread OK ideas instead of putting all our effort into creating great ideas. Generosity Day was an idea that was built to spread and it reminded me how often we’re pushing the rope on an idea that matters to us but doesn’t matter to our audience.

What are some of your favorite ways to be generous that don’t involve giving money? Giving money actually is the easiest form of generosity. Generosity of spirit – being consistently kind to others, open, giving someone the benefit of the doubt, assuming the best in someone else – that’s where the rubber really hits the road for me and where the real work is. It’s so easy and such a bad habit to be quick to judge, and when that happens we are blind to so much wisdom, grace, creativity, knowledge and love. Quick judgment is the easy way to surround ourselves with people who act like us, think like us, make us feel safe … so generosity of spirit is a way to open the door to a whole new set of people and experiences.

Has the economic uncertainty in the financial world made people more or less generous? The official numbers say that giving levels have remained the same throughout the recession, so it’s hard to judge. In my experience people are definitely feeling more uncertain so while they may still be giving, willingness to make larger and longer-term commitments seems to be decreasing.

Is generosity contagious? If yes, why? Absolutely. 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.  This is hard-wired into our brains, so one generous act begets another.  We’ve all experienced this personally, but we rarely think about the massive multiplier effect if we could create even a moderate shift in generosity at a societal level.

Part of the problem is that we lack the lexicon and the habit of thinking more broadly and systemically about the role that generosity plays in our lives. Historical traditions, whether religious or tribal, have this vocabulary embedded in ritual and scripture – we once understood that people need guideposts and clear expectations about how to treat one another. It’s time to revive this language and make it applicable to our modern lives.

Do you still say find yourself saying yes to everything? No. I did an experiment of saying yes to requests for help for a month so I could see what shifting my default response would do for my orientation to life. It was a powerful experience but I can’t literally do it every day. If anything I’m working on saying no to more small things and yes to the big scary ones. Even if I can’t say yes to everything, I can change my orientation, I can recognize that I want to be more opens – to people, new ideas, improbable connections, possibility. The generosity experiment was a tangible way to practice that.

How did Generosity Day go this year? Any favorite stories? It was incredible. 2011 was our first year and we had no lead time at all – we conceived of the idea on Friday and had three days to spread the word. This year it was at least twice the size and people all over the world participated and shared their stories. We had more than 5,000 tweets seen by millions of people, hundreds of articles and blog posts (too many to count), three amazing organizations made videos on their own dime that were seen more than 40,000 times in one day (here, here and here). Kevin Bacon even tweeted and took an awesome photo to help spread the word, and best of all we got to capture some amazing generosity stories on the Generosity Day Causes site. And not a single dollar was spent to spread the word – everybody donated everything.

I was really touched by so many stories: someone shared that they’d told an 80 year old woman how beautiful she was and she shed a tear and said that no one had told that to her that in years; another guy bought $50 worth of Starbucks gift cards and shared his honest challenges in giving them away; a group in London spent the morning talking about generosity and all committed to specific generous actions – including walking around London giving out croissants to people on the street and talking about Generosity Day! It’s all fun and positive and it cracks the door open to new kinds of conversations and reflections.

If everyone were a little more generous would all our problems be solved? Sadly, no. Solving big problems is hard work, and generosity alone isn’t enough. But I’m sure that everything would be better, that more trust would be built, that more connections would be made, that we would see more possibilities if we all were more generous.

What are your top three priorities right now? We just had our 10 year anniversary at Acumen Fund where I’m the Chief Innovation Officer, so that was an opportunity for real reflection and also looking to the future. With more than $75 million invested in sustainable businesses that have served more than 85 million low-income customers, we have a lot to be proud of but also a lot of work left to do! So my top priorities are around scaling our impact: getting a much deeper understanding of the social impact we’re having on the lives of the poor and sharing those models with the world; helping people who are interested in our space (which has been termed “impact investing”) to understand that we have to be laser-focused on creating large-scale social change, and that if you make unattractive financial returns that create massive social dividends that is OK; and the global expansion our Fellows programs so we can deepen the bench of leaders who can do this work globally.

You’ve tried some other experiments recently like giving up meat, and the 360 project. What experiments are next? None of these are planned, so I honestly don’t know. They all come from a recognition that there’s nothing special or necessarily right about the way I’ve always done things, and a lot of old habits, attitudes and approaches aren’t serving me well.

The leaders I admire the most seem to have an almost unending capability to evolve, to learn, and to grow, so I’ve made a firm commitment to being willing to change and am enjoying seeing where that takes me. Learning how to change is probably my greatest accomplishment over the last 5 years.

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One Response to Why Generosity Day spreads

  1. Eric Winger says:

    ‘If everyone were a little more generous would all our problems be solved? Sadly, no. Solving big problems is hard work, and generosity alone isn’t enough. … ”

    I believe that being more generous opens you up to new ideas and new ways of thinking about problems. And if we’re more open, we’re probably more creative in how we solve problems, which results in better solutions.

    Just my 2 cents.

    Good interview, Master Marketer!

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