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

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.


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.


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.

Happy New Year – 2013

As the father of three young kids, vacations (and even weekends) are never “relaxing” any more.  They can be invigorating, joyful, replenishing, exhausting – just not relaxing.  There’s just too much going on.

Last Thursday our family was in Nashville, TN to visit my in-laws.  We were having a typical family vacation day: getting up early with the kids, the grandparents took them to Cracker Barrel for breakfast (they were thrilled), then at 10am we bundled everyone up to head to the Science Museum – where I don’t think I was the only adult who found that the planetarium show made me queasy.  After a bunch of climbing, of the kids bouncing in zero gravity and exploring giant-sized replicas of organs of the human body, we corralled our tired, hungry crew and drove off to Burger Up, an upscale burger place with locally sourced meats and a mean black bean and quinoa burger.  My 8-year old son, once a picky eater, has recently discovered bacon cheeseburgers.

Burger Up

Burger Up was filled with a lunchtime crowd and we found ourselves waiting for a table.  As a defensive move, I took our 19 month-old daughter away from the front entrance to entertain her, and she and I ended up standing next to a couple that was halfway through their meal, a guy with a long red beard and a black cap, and fair woman with jet-black hair eating a veggie burger.  My daughter was smiling and giggling a lot, and I joked with her that if she smiled big enough they might even let her steal a French fry.  They did offer a fry, which we declined, and we took a few steps towards the other end of the bar to let them eat in peace.

A few minutes later we found our way to a table, ordered six burgers (I got the veg one) and a starter of fried oysters; and, as we always do, we asked the waiter to bring everything all at once since the kids can only sit still for so long.  The waiter got it – he’d seen crews like ours before.  A few minutes later, he came back with our drinks and, after setting them down, he said with a smile, “I wanted to let you know that that gentleman over there (the guy with the beard who offered us a French fry) has picked up your tab for lunch.  He said you are such a nice family and he wanted to wish you a happy new year.”

Gasps ensued.

I’ve read a lot about people paying for random meals, at restaurants or at Starbucks or the drive-through line, or even at Karma Kitchen where the bill comes for $0 and you pay what you want to keep the chain forward and pay for the next person’s meal –  but it’s never happened to me.  It was really an incredible experience – something brand new that no one in our group really knew how to address.  We all were a little giddy, feeling both shy and elated.  And as the meal wore on we started saying things like, “C’mon, if we’re all such a nice family let’s sit still and wait for our food to come without shouting…!”

It was a joke at first but it did feel like the gift bestowed some sort of truth upon us, at least for a little while.  Things that afternoon felt charmed, easier.  By seeing ourselves through someone else’s eyes and by being exposed to a gesture that didn’t make “sense” in any traditional way – and because it didn’t make sense in any normal way it was uniquely pure and full of joy – our perspectives shifted, our reality shifted.  We were living up to that gift.

As that gentleman stood up from his meal, I walked up to him, looked him in the eye, shook his hand and thanked him.  I told him we would pay it forward, which we did, but mostly I just wanted to be grateful and gracious without putting him on the spot or making him at all uncomfortable.  With the kids clamoring in the background and all the newness of that situation, I didn’t manage to have a proper conversation with him, I didn’t manage to ask too many questions or get to know him or do anything that would allow me to see him again.  But maybe it’s better that way.  He got to be an angel for a day, I got to have an angel in my life for a day.  It didn’t change the course of my life or of his, but it touched me and it taught me – and that was all very real.

My and our forever struggle with generosity is: are we using our heads when we are being generous?  I think the answer to that question is “sometimes,” and I think it depends on where you are in your practice of generosity.  Some people have an advanced practice of generosity – it imbues who they are, and the spirit with which they walk through the world.  I bet those peoples’ generosity muscles are so well-developed that they can flex in all sorts of situations.  For me, well, I know that I’m still cultivating generosity, still working at not having analysis squash the heart-full practice of generosity.  For me, a regular dose of pure, unadulterated, unanalyzed generosity every now and again is just what the doctor ordered, both in giving and in receiving.

Here’s wishing you a happy and generous 2013.  And if you find yourself in Nashville this year, I’d recommend a stop at Burger Up.  You’ll probably have to pay for your own meal, but it will be delicious.