Teach for India and Generosity Day

Every time Generosity Day comes full circle, I know I’m the lucky one.

So many actions, great and small, will go unregistered by all but those who take part in them, but every so often we get a glimpse of what the greater whole looks like and the power of a simple idea that spreads.  It grows, it evolves, it strengthens in the hands of others.

Recently, two teachers from Teach for India decided to bring Generosity Day into their classroom.  To see these kids talk about what generosity means to them is a lesson for all of us, and a real gift.

(if the video doesn’t appear below you can click here).

Prateek Kanwali and Sapna Shah are the Teach for India Fellows who partnered with the Acumen Fund India office to make this happen.  Their blog post has a lot to teach about education and how to create change for kids.  Just two of the many excerpts that struck me:

We joined the Teach for India movement because of our belief that education is the answer to a lot of the problems that plague our nation and the world at large….[and] we soon realized academic achievement alone will not be enough to change the life trajectory of our kids, that along with academic excellence they need grit.  The strength to overcome difficulties and challenges at every step, but also zest and optimism to face everything that life throws their way with a smile.  They will need gratitude to be thankful for what they have and empathy towards others.

The affirmation of this [generosity] experiment came in the form of a generous act by one of Prateek’s students Pooja Patel.  She spoke to him before school one day and asked if she could sit with Tusshar Gupta, one of her classmates who was struggling to meet his end of year goals.  She said, “Bhiyya (elder brother), if I can get good marks, he can also do it, please give me a chance to help him.”  From that day onwards for two months she relentlessly taught him before and after school hours and even went the extra mile by tutoring him at his house on weekends.  The result was unbelievable.  She showed the class that it was our collective responsibility to ensure everyone is on equal footing.

My thanks and gratitude to Prateek and Sapna from Teach for India and to Keya Madhvani at Acumen for showing us all this light.

How Many Ways Can We Be Generous in a Single Day?

Note: this post first appeared on the Huffington Post.  A lot of you know the background, but many have asked how this year’s Generosity Day compared to 2011, so I wanted to share that.  Thank you for making it happen!

That was the question we posed to the world as part of an effort to re-boot Valentine’s Day as Generosity Day. The premise was simple: Could we transform a day that’s been weighted down by overpriced flowers and boxes of candy into one known for active, purposeful generosity to all?

The idea for Generosity Day was hatched last year, after I conversation I had with Katya Andresen at Network for Good about my “Generosity Experiment” — a month in which I said “yes” to absolutely ever request for help.

The idea was simple enough, but changing my standard response from “no” to “yes” wasn’t. Each time I gave to a homeless man or a musician on the street, each time I got a coffee or ate out and I tipped outrageously, each opportunity to help a colleague or greet someone I’d passed every day but didn’t know — these were all opportunities to reassess how I walk through the world, to reevaluate what had become normal behavior of being too rushed, too closed off, too much in my own head to fully see everyone around me.

It was transformative and I wanted others to have that same experience, even if just for a day. Generosity Day 2011 was born out of this very simple idea: Could we get the world to say “yes” for a day? Amazingly, with less than 72 hours of lead time and no budget, we did, so we knew we were on to something and decided to do it again in 2012 to make it even bigger and better.

The day surpassed all expectations, as people all over the world participated and shared their stories. The word spread on social media, where we counted 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), and Kevin Bacon even tweeted and took an awesome photo to help spread the word. None of this would have been possible without the spontaneous partnership of organizations like Network for Good, Global Giving, the Case Foundation, Kiva, the Gates Foundation, See3 Communications, the Jubilee Project and amazing bloggers like Beth Kanter, Brene Brown, Kelly Wallace, and, of course, Katya Andresen.

More exciting still, thanks to our friends at Causes we were able to create the Generosity Day Causes site, both so people could learn about Generosity Day and so they could share their own generosity stories.

One person shared that she approached an elderly woman on the street and gave her a rose, only to be told that this the first Valentine’s Day flower she’d ever received. Another woman finally had coffee with someone she’d long thought could a new friend — and she was right. A third person told an 80-year-old woman how beautiful she was and the woman shed a tear, saying that no one had told that to her that in years.

Much more than any statistics about the word spreading far and wide, it is these actions that made Generosity Day real, these actions that created innumerable moments of joy. We heard stories of anonymous acts of kindness, outrageous over-tipping and heartfelt thank you notes. We heard about people paying strangers’ tolls on the parkway, folks passing out croissants to the morning-rush crowd, and loads of people who spent the day or the night volunteering. We heard from people who were donating money, and those who were donating blood. We heard from so many people who made the day better for others and experienced the joy of generosity themselves.

These are the actions that rippled through people’s lives, these are the ways that people created new expectations and a renewed sense of possibility — about how they can act, how others might act towards them, and what, collectively, could happen if we all were more purposefully generous each day.

You too can be part of this movement, today or any day. All it takes is the decision to say “yes.”

Generosity and social risk

In addition to all of the beautiful, touching stories I’ve heard about Generosity Day, I’ve also heard some very honest, usually light-hearted stories about people who tried to be generous on Generosity Day and failed.  People reached out to help and their hand was slapped away, often by an unknown stranger.

What we know about feedback (e.g. product reviews) is that the people who speak up are at the extremes, so I know that the stories I hear about Generosity Day are the best ones and the worst ones, the most moving ones and the failures.

The failures are quite interesting, and they are teaching us something.  There’s a certain class of spontaneous generous action that is all about taking social risk. This is why taking these actions makes us feel uncomfortable. We are breaking social norms and our own patterns of behavior.  We are practicing deciding to take a social risk and keeping our promise to ourselves.  And we have the chance to reflect on the validity of that pattern and, maybe, to decide to break it.

Guess what?  The new behaviors usually work out, and even when they don’t it isn’t all that bad.

So we add another layer in our understanding of why a deliberate practice of generosity might be transformative: because it is a safe opportunity to take social risk and to explore the difference between our terror before the risk and the actual experience of taking that risk.

Behavior changes don’t come from what we read or from what people tell us.  Behavior change comes from behaving differently, having something positive happen, and wanting more.

For those of you who had some generosity failures in the midst of your generosity day, I hope you keep at it and I hope the failures showed you that failure isn’t all that bad.  Better yet, I hope there were also some great successes that keep you coming back for more.

(HT to Keith Ferrazzi for helping me see the relationship between generous acts and social risk).

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.

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!

One day to go – nothing to lose

Generosity Day is tomorrow, and it’s hard not to stare at the #generosityday twitter search results and feel a little bit excited.

At the same time I’m realizing what a tricky thing expectation is.  Last year, when I was hesitating about writing that first (outlandish, crazy) blog post announcing that we wanted to turn Valentine’s Day into Generosity Day, a friend pushed me over the edge by saying, “Go for it!  The worst thing that happens is nothing, and no harm would come of that!”

That’s right.

Great things happen when you realize that no real harm will come from coming up short, but nothing will happen if you don’t try.

It’s possible that a few huge things will happen tomorrow that will catapult Generosity Day into the main- mainstream.  It’s also possible that they won’t and that this will continue to be a grassroots, distributed effort that builds every year without some giant step-change between here and there.

Either way, Generosity Day will always be owned by everybody, for everybody, and we’ve got nothing to lose.

Thanks for being part of it.

Dear Hakiem

Dear Hakiem,

I know everything at the Apple Store is designed to be techno-blissful, but you really took things to another level.  Not only did you shake my hand, make me feel welcome, and help me get a Genius Bar appointment in less than five minutes, but you managed to make me feel just a little bit less bad about dropping my iPad on 6th avenue and cracking the screen (and I was feeling REALLY bad).

I was already appreciative of you for that, but then as I was walking up 9th avenue, you ran out of the store and up to 15th street and stopped me to make sure that my problem had been solved.   Wow.

I bet you go above and beyond every day for folks, and I’m sure they appreciate it more than you know.  I’ll be sure to tell everyone who goes to the Apple Store at 14th and 9th in New York City to look out for you.

Next Tuesday we’re rebooting Valentine’s Day as Generosity Day.  Thank you, already, for being part of it.

Yours in generosity,


Generosity Day – in graphs

It’s been more than two years since my original Generosity Experiment. The experiment was an intuitive, gut reaction to an incongruence I felt between my commitment to creating massive social change, my work with philanthropists to support this mission, and how I saw myself behave in the face of acute need right in front of me.  The “Experiment” was just that: a chance to test what it felt like to live with a totally different orientation.  It was a commitment to take a door that was too closed for my taste and open it wide.

Of course the story spread thanks to Generosity Day last year and my Generosity Experiment talk getting posted on TED, so I’m having (and witnessing) a lot more conversations about generosity and Generosity Day.

One thing I’ve observed is that the powerful original story – of giving to a homeless person when asked – is both helping and hindering my ability to explain what Generosity Day is all about.  To be clear, generosity day is not designed to be a philanthropic strategy (“say yes to everything”). Rather, the whole point is to use the day (the month) to develop a different practice of generosity in our lives – whatever that means to you.

Since I’m a visual thinker, I’ve drawn some graphs to explain what the Generosity Experiment meant in my life.  The red line represents my perceived “ideal” level of generosity (for me).  The blue line represents my perception of how generous I actually am.

In the time leading up to my original Generosity Experiment, two things were happening.  First, because I was spending so much time with philanthropists, I was gaining a deeper understanding of philanthropy and of giving, and part of my reflection was that generosity was more important than I’d understood it to be. That’s why the red line slopes upwards: what I understood to be the “ideal” in terms of generosity was going up.

Second, you’ll notice that the blue line (my perception of how generous I actually am), is sloping down.  That reflects my experience of spending all my time and energy understanding how difficult it is to create social change efforts that really make a difference.  And so, increasingly, I began to feel like more and more things didn’t hit the bar (“what’s the model for sustainability?” “show me your impact numbers!” “what’s your broader theory of change?” etc.), which, practically speaking, meant that I was saying “no” to more and more people/organizations that were asking for my support.

This is what I meant when I said that I felt like what was smart was keeping me from doing what was right.

This next graph represents what happens (could happen) when you conduct a generosity experiment. You choose to be exceptionally generous and open for a period of time.  That experience changes you.  It gives you the opportunity to reflect on old habits and consider whether they’re still serving you well.   Of course the experiment eventually ends, and you revert to “regular life,” but if the experiment changed you in some significant way, then you reset to a “new normal” of generosity (again, whatever that means to you) – in the graph, that’s why the blue line stays above the red line after the Generosity Experiment.

To you psychoanalytically-minded folks out there, a generosity experiment is a tiny undertaking in cognitive behavioral therapy.  For those on the more spiritual end of the spectrum, it is like a yoga or a meditation practice – a chance, in a controlled environment for a defined period of time to practice acting differently so that, over time, new practices pervade your life.

Of course the big question is: what happens in just one day?  Does it touch peoples’ hearts enough to create a little shift?  Are enough people touched by millions of acts of generosity that they’re changed as well?  And if we can create a shift for millions of people, will that create a massive change?  I think it will.

Outside of revealing what an incredible analytical dork I am, I hope this post can help broaden the conversation – your conversation – about generosity day.