How generosity spreads

One thing I’ve noticed about generous action is that it can be hard to talk about.  More specifically, doing something generous and then telling folks about it doesn’t necessarily feel natural.

The interesting part is to watch what happens when you spread a story about someone being generous to you.

For example, when I told people about my wonderful, outrageous experience of a stranger buying lunch for me and my family in Nashville over the holidays, people couldn’t help but share their own stories of wonderful, outrageous generosity they’d experience.  One of my favorites was from a colleague who recalls to this day the time she pulled up to a toll booth and was told that her father, in the car ahead of her, had paid her toll for her.  In her words, “What’s so funny about this is that my father was wonderful, caring…heck he paid for me to go to college…and yet that time he paid my 80 cent toll really sticks in my mind as a moment he did something special for me.”

Our critical brains are so adept at explaining why a small gesture of generosity – money, time, a smile or an open ear – is small, limited, maybe inconsequential.  Yet our own experience of generosity holds the real wisdom.  When we experience generosity, we feel noticed; we understand that we are not so separate from everyone else; we suspect that people around us are there to support us; we don’t feel alone.

When you hear about someone experiencing generosity, it’s almost impossible not to recall and share that day when someone made you feel special, noticed, worthwhile and lucky.

Don’t forget, we’re still on the hunt for a handful of additional Generosity Day volunteers.  Spread the love.

Generosity Day 2013 – Rally the Troops

One of the highlights of this time of year for me is that people start reaching out to me more regularly to talk about their plans for Generosity Day – which is coming up on February 14th.  I love the stories I get to hear about what they’ve done in past years, or what they just did or saw last week that inspired and grew their practice of generosity.  I learn from and am humbled by each of these people.

I’ve known since the start that Generosity Day is held by all of us – my role and the role of my co-conspirators has just been as catalysts.  That said, one of the things I’ve learned is that big ideas, new ideas, great ideas, they need some nudges, pushes, and a bit organization around them.  This is the fuel that allows them to catch fire.

So it felt like a HUGE gift when, 10 days ago, I got an email out of the blue from Parker Mitchell, one of the co-Founders and co-CEO of Engineers Without Borders Canada for the last 11 years.  The email was titled, simply, “Offering Help with Generosity Day.”

Some excerpts from Parker’s note:

“I love generosity Day. When I heard about it last year, I told everyone I knew. I gave money to homeless people, tipped wildly, bought food to share for an organisation I was volunteering with, leant my cell phone to a stranger – and made a commitment that later became an initiative called ShareThanksgivingDinner.org.

I’d like to help out this year. I’m a bit of a social change “free agent” these days, so I could put in a fair amount of time helping…”

Needless to say, Parker’s note hit a perfect note for me, and I am thrilled that he’s offered to lead the organizing effort for Generosity Day 2013, and to help make the day an even bigger success.

Right now, Parker is looking for a mini flash-mob of volunteers to make a big push over the next two weeks, and he’s created the Spreading Generosity Day website to help organize it all and make 2013 the biggest, best year yet.

If you’re interested in volunteering in ANY way big or small for Generosity Day 2013 (everything from writing a few Facebook updates to pitching an article in your local paper to organizing a massive Generosity Day Meetup), please sign up now!

And Parker, thank you.

Two traps

Each day, each post, I walk a narrow path.

I avoid thinking too much about all the people out there who are going to read each post I write – people I like and respect and whose time I know is precious.  Because if I get too hung up on that, I can easily decide that a post isn’t worthy of landing in thousands of inboxes.

Or I could worry that the number of people reading this blog isn’t big enough, and try to write posts that will get more people to sign up.

Instead, I try to show up and do my best, most honest work.  I listen to my own standard of the work I’m striving to produce, and limit internal debates to conversations between me and my computer screen and ask: is this the best version of what I’m trying to say?

And each time I hit “publish” the inner critic, the doubts, the second-guesses lose a little bit more steam.

30 Days of Courage

Christen writes, “Sasha, I know Generosity Day is coming up, and I wanted to share something with you. Last year I noticed that others, along with me, struggled with fear when they contemplated radical generosity.”

Thanks Christen.  I agree, and I think you’re on to something.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the fragility of generosity.  I find that my own generous actions can easily be quashed – by fear, doubt, self-criticism, breaking barriers, social risk or vulnerability:

Fear that I’m making a mistake (“should I really give?”) or that my generosity will be rejected or mocked.

Doubt that I’m doing the right thing.

Self-criticism because, let’s face it, I’m great at criticizing, especially myself.

Breaking barriers, because often generosity requires face-to-face interaction with and acknowledgment of someone with whom you don’t have a strong connection (I think this is why I’m interested in the social distance we create with our iPhones and other devices).

Social risk, because you’re breaking about 10 different norms simultaneously (unless you’re part of a community, religious or secular, in which generosity is expected and valued).

And vulnerability because at a moment of giving you are open, you are tapping into something deeply human, you are acknowledging that you’re not so different from the person to whom you are being generous.

Just looking at this list also reinforces my conviction around the importance of cultivating a practice of generosity.  My own chorus of self-criticism is great at recruiting new members, and it’s so easy to belittle the practice of generosity – to think of it as sweet or nice but not truly important.  I think the next time my chorus of critics, internal or external, starts singing, I’ll remind myself that what I’m practicing encompasses everything from overcoming fear to being comfortable with vulnerability.  That feels right.

At the end of his email to me, Christen suggested that anyone who finds themselves confronted by fear – whether in their practice of radical generosity or otherwise – should try out Marianne Elliott’s 30 Days of Courage course.  I didn’t know Marianne before Christen introduced me, but she’s the author of Zen Under Fire, the account of her humanitarian work in Herat, Afghanistan; and is also a teacher of yoga and mediation.  Marianne’s walking the walk.

Generosity Day is less than 30 days away, and your generosity practice, my generosity practice, all of our practices of generosity could probably use a boost.  Maybe 30 days of courage is just what the doctor ordered.  I’ve signed up.

Thanks, Christen.

The bubbles

Not long ago, I spent an entire day going around New York City without my iPhone.

Really.

There’s nothing like being device- and newspaper-free on the NYC subway to realize how our devices are creating bubbles of separation in every public space we occupy.  And I think something’s getting lost there, something that has to do with the very fabric of society.  Yes, we’re all squeezed in to that subway car together, but we’re separate, and we certainly don’t have to look each other in the eye and recognize each other, see who each person is and think just a bit about their story and how it relates to ours.

Try this: take two trips on the subway or bus (or even an elevator) today without looking at or touching your device.  Just look around and notice the bubbles everyone has around them.

Progress

This is a photo of a water fountain at JFK airport that shows how many plastic bottles have been saved by that fountain.

Elkay EZH2

Just like that, I’m part of something. It makes meaning of my (tiny) piece of the puzzle, and helps me feel like I am making a difference.

Funny how much effort we spend shouting at people asking them to give, and how rarely we tell them what we accomplished, together.

Easy, Hard

I’ve noticed over my last six years of fundraising how different new relationships can take different paths – often self-reinforcing.

Sometimes, despite everything you do, it’s just hard.  I remember a few years ago one donor who, no matter what I did, I seemed to mess things up.  I’d reach out for a meeting and it would be the only day he had to be out of town.  I’d invite him to an event only to be told that he’d told someone else on our staff know that breakfasts never work for him.  I’d write an email and misspell his wife’s name.

And then other times it’s easy, it flows.  From logistics to the flow of the conversation to each step in building the relationship, it feels like everything is just working right and is easy.

The trick is figuring out what part of this is substance, what part of it is you listening or not, and what part of it is just luck.

In mid-2012 I was preparing to head out of town for a major fundraising meeting that I’d worked months to schedule – at least 20 emails and careful cultivation before and along the way.  And then, an an hour before I was to leave for the train, I got a migraine (one of 3-4 I get each year).  That was eight months ago and I still haven’t managed to reschedule the meeting.

Seven months later, it came full circle.  I had another out-of-the-blue introductory meeting that I knew little about going in, but it looked like it had potential.  As I sat down for the meeting I thought another migraine was coming on.  It was bad enough that when I sat down with this person I’d never met before, I said, “I’m sorry, I may just have to leave in 10 minutes because I think I have a migraine coming on, but let’s start our conversation.”  He rolled with it, so did I, and we jumped in.  Thankfully I didn’t get a migraine – and instead we have, since then, been building a great, new relationship that is already going from strength to strength.

If you’re just starting out as a fundraiser, you might not have the experience or the pattern recognition to decipher what’s what or to see that you can’t control each and every situation and how it plays out.  All you can do is keep at it, do your best, and continue to listen and to be present.