Generosity experiment

On the subway today, a man was asking for donations so he could buy food, sandwiches, deodorant, even hand sanitizer to give for free to homeless people.  He had lived on the street two decades ago, he said, and now does this part time to give back, in addition to a part time job he holds.

I have absolutely no idea if this is true, but I was skeptical. I, along with everyone else in my car, got off the train without giving him any money.  Right after I got off the train I knew I had done the wrong thing.  It just didn’t feel right.

Most of the time I don’t give to people on the street. It seems to make sense, rationally, not to give most of of the time — and instead to give to great organizations that are doing things for the homeless. Perhaps, but it’s easy to take this too far. 

Giving is an act of self-expression, and generosity is a practice. Each time I decide not to give, I’m reinforcing a way of acting – one that’s critical and analytical and judgmental.

You may not be like this at all.  You may consistently act from the heart first and not the head.  Good for you.  More often than not, I don’t, though it’s something I’m working to change.

So I’ve been thinking that I need to try a generosity experiment: for a period of time, when I’m asked to give, to say yes.  To everything.  To emails and people on the street and friends raising money.  Everyone.  I think it will be good practice.

What do people think?  Does this make sense? [sic]

P.S. More on this topic from the Freakonomics blog, where Barbara Ehrenreich is very clear that you always give to someone on the street who directly asks you. 

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44 thoughts on “Generosity experiment

  1. I’ll be interested in hearing how the practice of saying yes to everything changes your outlook. How long is your experiment?

    I do know that saying NO to everything has an effect on a person, cultivating hopelessness and distrust.

    Perhaps during your period of generosity you will obtain a deep gratitude for having the ability to help others.

  2. I was thinking the month of December, with the hope that the experience will inform what to do going forward. What do you think?

  3. I’m not sure if I support this. What would you say to someone who told you to buy anything anyone offered you? Your generosity experiment is the same concept, but instead of buying a product, your donations are going to a service: change within the charity’s area of focus.

    I don’t want most of the products out there and I don’t want to support most of the charities out there. I have no issue with other people supporting those charities, assuming that they have a good reason to. I just don’t think “because they asked me” is a good enough reason.

  4. Jeff, solid points all, and aligned with why I try to be very discriminating most of the time. What about the personal angle of generosity as a practice?

  5. I think being generous as a practice is a wonderful thing, be it personal, professional, or casual, but we have to remember who is being helped by our giving. I feel like its irrelevant what we learn about ourselves through giving when looking at the broader goal in mind, i.e., helping others. If our donation to the homeless man on the street could have been better used at an organization that provides services to the homeless, then our money should go there. If it is actually better spent by giving it to the homeless person, then it should go there. But determining that takes discernment and thought, and not indiscriminate generosity.

  6. jeff makes good points – this would be ‘giving without good reason’ but maybe there is a point to that

    sasha i think you should try something like this

    the reason for doing it is that we can be too dumb and distracted to give with good reason. maybe you will give two dollars to a girl who says she needs bus fare and later learn that she collects money to buy drugs from a group of men that she hangs out with. experiences like this can help us become more observant, clear in our reasons for giving, and better in our methods.

    helping people is easy but we’re all bad at it.

    p.s. december is the worst time because we already have christmas season giving habits. try giving without thinking in january after the rush

    hi jeff

  7. Nice post Sasha. Your post reminds me of the ethic that Bill Somerville holds. Philanthropy is a personal act of caring and always trying to be logical actually turns off the empathetic part of our brain (see my Chronicle of Philanthropy column for more on this).

    As I wrote in my column, this presents a paradox with no easy answer. But I think that for people who work at places like Acumen Fund, Tactical Philanthropy Advisors and other organizations that have a Left-Brain approach to philanthropy, it is important to experiment with ways we can keep our giving firmly rooted in the critical human traditions of generosity, caring and empathy.

    Let us know how your experiment turns out!

  8. I made it a habit to give. Maybe I’m taken advantage of, maybe not, it’s not an issue, at least for me. Poverty and need are not universally measurable, and if someone reaches the place in which he/she needs to ask/beg – its enough to warren my giving. No questions asked, no due diligence required. Somehow I feel that this is the most basic of generosities (and yes I give to charities, causes etc. too).

  9. Sasha,

    The other day I was walking down 43rd between 5th and 6th in a driving rain. I was a few feet from the Princeton Club where I was on my way to have my lunch and work out. With lunch in a bag in my hand, I was hungry and almost running. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a woman huddled against a wall in a doorway. Her eyes were closed. Her mouth expressionless. Her face was covered with scabs. She had the typical cardboard sign. I passed her and was almost to my destination when I turned out went back to where she was and gave her my lunch. I think she was shocked that anyone had noticed her. The smile, though, that was what blew me away. I have never seen anyone so grateful. That I had the ability to make someone in that situation happy still blows my mind. I am grateful for my generosity but far more grateful for her appreciation. Cheers, Ann

    I have had similar feelings over the years– wondering if the person is just going to take the money to get drugs or a drink, but more often than not I really try to resist my dismissive impulse.

  10. As the CEO for an organization that is focused on left-brain giving, mostly in the form of building the capacity of nonprofits and funders to better measure, analyze and articulate results, I found this post refreshing, with a caveat:

    Although giving is not an altruistic act and often is done to make us, the giver, feel good, generous, and helpful, it is important to know that our giving is causing positive benefit rather than unintended harm.

    To this point, when I see the homeless person, sign in hand, I tend to always give food rather than money. And not junk food, but typically a granola bar or a meal I would have eaten myself. That way, at least I know that I didn’t contribute to a harmful habit and may have at least helped to stave off some hunger, even if short-lived.

  11. I would advocate using discernment and prayer, and I would ask for others to pray for you during the experiment.

    One thing I try is for people asking on the street–if I stop and engage with them–I ask them their name and try to find what they really need. Often, they let me know they really want something to eat, which I buy for them, rather than money. But one guy I come across quite a bit now doesn’t want me to buy him anything. He is unemployed and everytime I ask him how it’s going and whether work is on the horizon, he just shrugs it off. I always say hi to him, shake his hand, but I have stopped giving him anything since he has demonstrated to me no movement toward helping himself.

  12. good experiment but what if you had to give $100 to each person that asked? $1000? it is easy to give small but at what point do you have to start “choosing”?

  13. Is there a captioned version SOMEWHERE of your talk on the Generosity Experiment? I have deaf college students I’d like to show this to, but I can’t unless it’s captioned.

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