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.

Just like

Arriving at the airport, looking for a cab, a woman accosts me.


“Yes, I’m looking for a taxi.”

“Come with me!  I’m just like a taxi.  Same price.”

No thanks.

Here are the problems with “just like” something else:

  1. It’s obvious to you and to me that you’re not, really, just like them.  If you were, you’d be them.
  2. What you’re really saying is “I’ll be a little bit cheaper than them” and so it’s up to me to decide how much ick factor I’m willing to put up with in exchange for a “little bit cheaper.”
  3. By definition you never started selling me what you were since the whole pitch was that you’re kinda sorta like something else

Stop pitching what you’re almost like and start pitching what you are.  It’s much more compelling, to you and to me.

(no this post isn’t about taxis).

Fundraising math and electoral politics

When I first joined Acumen Fund in January 2007, our goal was to raise $100 million in philanthropy in 24 months.  Like lots of things in life, a little ignorance goes a long way – I didn’t have direct fundraising experience and basically had no idea what it meant to raise $100 million in philanthropy.

We split things down the middle and set a $50 million target for 2007, and it was my job to lead the team to hit this goal.  Most of my energy in the early days was on building the fundraising pitch, figuring out the systems we would use, putting in place the building blocks that would set us up for success.

But, as I said, I didn’t have direct fundraising experience and a big part of what I needed to do was to get out there and fundraise.

What I remember like it was yesterday was when, in the spring of 2007, I personally closed my first $100,000 donation.  This is a lot of money, and I felt pretty chuffed that I had pulled this off.  I got the confirmation of the donation in an email while I was heading home, and I recall thinking, kind of vaguely and absentmindedly: how many of these would I have to pull off for us to hit our $50 million goal?

It sort of seemed like the answer to that question should have been 50, but of course it wasn’t, it was 500.  I would need, in the coming 8 months, to get 500 people to commit to give $100,000 each to reach a $50 million goal.

This is elementary math, but as anyone with fundraising experience will tell you, with a small team and a small organization, getting 500 people to commit to giving $100,000 is nearly impossible – the only way you’re going to hit a $50 million goal is either by creating a machine that can raise, say, five-hundred thousand $100 donations OR you focus your greatest effort on getting a very small number of $1 million, $5 million, even $10 million donations.  (We did the latter).

While I’m positive that I could have successfully divided $50 million by $100,000 long before I had my job at Acumen (in second grade, say) until you’ve sat in a fundraising seat (CEO, head of development, Board member, political candidate, etc.) you won’t feel the reality of this math in your gut.

This brings me over to the Presidential election and Super PACs.   Until recently the most you could give was $2,300 to a candidate, $30,800 to the national party, $46,200 to all candidates and $70,800 to all PACs and parties.  Under the new rules, Harold Simmons, who was described yesterday by the NY Times as “a wealthy Texas businessman,” has personally given $14 million to a revolving door of Super PACs supporting various Republican presidential contenders (Perry, Gingrich and Romney).  Simmons and another two dozen individuals have given more than $1 million to Republican Super PACs – their collective contributions total more than $50 million so far making them “easily the most influential and powerful political donors in politics today.”

So let’s be totally clear: what the fundraising math tells us is that these 7- and 8-figure donors are the entire center of gravity, they are dominating the US political system, they will end up having undue influence over both over the outcome of the electoral process AND the future decisions of our elected officials.  The gravitational force of this group, on both the Republican and Democratic side, is a black hole in the democratic process, sucking up whatever light was left in a system that was already mostly broken.

My real hope is that what is going on today with Super PACs is so beyond the pale that it could actually create a whiplash effect and give momentum to campaign finance reform…but I color myself skeptical on that count.  Less outlandishly improbable, 2012 will be an aberration and we will soon revert back to the old, still-broken system we used to have that, at least, was better than this one.

Marketing vocab lesson

I noticed this new ad for the Amazon Kindle today….

….and then was reading my friend Tom Fishburne’s weekly Brand Camp marketoon: “What Ads Say” (due homage paid to Gary Larson)

It seems so obvious that the best way to speak to our customers and describe what we do is by using regular language, but it’s so rarely what we do.

The Amazon ad struck me because “No wi-fi hot spot required” is a sentence you absolutely couldn’t have used as ad copy 10 years ago, or 5 years ago….2 years ago? Eh, probably not.

Where you sit relative to the vocabulary your customers are comfortable with is a conscious choice, one that communicates something about your brand and where it sits relative to the mainstream.  Of course if you’re actually writing ad copy – as opposed to, say, blogging or communicating in some other sort of anticipated, personal and relevant way – then by definition you’re shooting for the mainstream and you should pick your words accordingly.

Occasionally, just occasionally, you can decide to teach your customers new vocabulary (e.g. “4G”).  But I can’t think of a single occasion when it’s OK to use jargon.

Joy is

Watching an idea grow, seeing someone else take it places you didn’t know it could go.

I’ve already shared the wonderful Jubilee Project video for Generosity Day, which magically captured how Generosity Day is fundamentally about reconnecting to love and genuine human connection – on Valentine’s Day and every other day.  I watched it again last night after the dust had settled and I like it more each time I watch it.

But I never would have imagined anyone passing out croissants in the streets of London.  I never would have imagined someone sharing, so openly and honestly, the actual struggle of giving away 10 Starbucks gift cards.   I never would have imagined someone telling a woman in her 80s how beautiful she is, and making that woman cry.

I’m thankful for all the stories I’ve heard, and I know they are just a fraction of the stories there are to tell thanks to the work we did together to spread this idea and to challenge ourselves and our own perceived boundaries and limitations.

Let’s keep pushing (and pass the croissants!).

What would be great

…is if yesterday was the beginning of seeing how we could act the other 364 days of the year.

Not necessarily each and every action, totally unfiltered, but an orientation to the world.

Happy day-after Generosity Day.

(and give us all an extra gift by filling in a square in this beautiful generosity tapestry: bit.ly/g-day-actions)

Happy Generosity Day 2012

I’m so excited – the day is here and I’m getting wonderful generosity stories from far and wide.

One person went to a simple, down-home restaurant and appreciated the service so much that he left a tip “as if it had been a four star restaurant;” another guy asked the flower vendor how much he was going to charge for roses on Valentine’s Day (double) and just paid that amount yesterday; someone else had a long conversation with the security guard at the bank who was counting the minutes until the end of his shift.

Today you can give yourself permission to be outrageously kind, irrationally warm, improbably generous.  I promise it will be a blast.

(BONUS: please share what you did or generous acts you witnessed in text/photo/video on the Causes site)

Sitting at the center of this fabulous maelstrom, it’s a joy to see the spirit and love people have put into making today everything it can be.  We have three (three!!) beautiful videos – Celebrating Generosity Day (See3 Communications); Generosity Day: What is Love (Jubilee Project); and Me to We – Generosity Everyday (Hodge Pictures).   These videos are alternately fun, irreverent, heartwarming, joyful, and profound, and to see other storytellers take this story forward is a true joy for me.

The Huffington Post’s take on Generosity Day is on the home page of their Impact section and the lead story of their Good News section, and we have blogs and tweets coming from all directions.  (click here to see it all unfold in real time).

Also a special thanks to all the bloggers out there who have helped spread the word, with a special shout-out to Beth, Brene, Katya, Scott and Seth.

Have a great day!