Not long ago, a group of senior executives asked me to speak to them about generosity. So I started the conversation by asking each of them to share what generosity meant to them.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, but what I heard back were examples of niceties, little things they did on the side, things that mostly didn’t sound core to who they were and how they spent their days. It was probably my mistake to open a conversation with a new group and expect that folks would be willing to take a risk, be willing to share something poignant or even vulnerable. Nevertheless, it was telling.
Three years ago, a few friends and I created Generosity Day as a reboot of Valentine’s Day. The idea was to reconnect with the true spirit of love and to give people permission to make more space for generosity in their lives.
That might sound like an easy idea to get excited by, and it was. Thousands of people joined the Generosity Day bandwagon, the idea caught fire on social media and got a lot of mainstream press coverage, and Generosity Day spread around the world. It’s been a joy to behold.
One of the best parts of helping spread this kind of idea is that it has given me the chance to talk about generosity a lot. And while I’ve heard a lot of enthusiasm from people I’ve also found that lots of good, kind people – people who devote serious time and effort to making the world a better place – don’t feel comfortable with talk of generosity. I never really understood why until I heard the examples that this group of executives chose to share – I volunteer a little here, I helped with a bake sale there. This group that had deeper stories to tell instead decided to share stories of nice, kind, but mostly peripheral acts.
I’ve been purposely exploring generosity for nearly five years now, and while I humbly admit that my own practice of generosity is still very much a work in process, my points of reference when hearing the word “generosity” are profound, textured, nuanced, and potentially very deep. Generosity and giving are cornerstones of cultural practices dating back thousands of years; they are bedrocks of all the major religions; generosity is one of the five yamas in the eight-limbed path of yoga!
That’s the opposite of small, the antithesis of trite.
Nevertheless, just because that is my experience of generosity does not mean that is what others hear. If someone’s conscious engagement with generosity is limited, when they hear talk of “generosity” their minds can naturally avoid things that are deep, grounded, or profound.
If I could restart the conversation I had with that group of executives, I would ask a different question. Not “what does generosity mean to you?” which somehow got people to talk about when they had been generous, but “when has someone else’s generosity made a difference in your life?” I’ve been amazed with how consistently I hear poignant stories of generosity when people are freed to answer this question. People see others’ better angels. Small, fleeting acts from decades ago are revealed to be seminal milestones in peoples’ lives.
What stories do you have to share, examples of when a person’s generosity touched you?
And how many of these examples come in a business context? Are those examples hard to come by, and if so, why might that be?
Sacha Dichter spends his days as the the Chief Innovation Officer at Acumen Fund – a nonprofit venture fund that is creating a world beyond poverty by investing in social enterprises, emerging leaders, and breakthrough ideas. He is also a blogger and speaker about generosity, philanthropy, and social change. Find out more here.