I am generous when…

My daughter made this poster for a project in her Kindergarten class.  The assignment was to finish the sentence: “I am generous when…”

In case it’s hard to read: “I am generous when I have a lot of books and my little sister wants some I let hear her have some.”

Life used to be simple and we made it complicated.

Makes me think about finishing that same sentence from time to time.


Saving lunchtime

The other day I got lunch at Bowery Eats, a cooking supply store in Chelsea Market that also happens to have a sandwich bar.  My timing was terrible and when I got there at 1:20pm, there was a long line plus a stack of phoned-in orders.

Bowery EatsMore than 10 minutes passed and I still hadn’t gotten my Peter Parker wrap (avocado, warm portabella mushroom, lettuce, a bit of mozzarella, and vinaigrette on a spinach wrap).

10 minutes isn’t long, but it’s more than a couple of standard deviations away from the mean in terms of how long you expect to wait for a sandwich.  Plus, five people with higher order numbers than I had gotten their sandwiches, so I started to get antsy.  I asked the woman at the counter how things were coming, and if they’d lost track of my order.

That’s when things got interesting.  She smiled.  She went to the back to check on my order.  She explained that it was taking longer because they heat up the mushrooms in the oven.  She checked again a few minutes later.  And then, 15 minutes in (five minutes after I’d first asked how things were coming), she actually said to the staff, in Spanish, “I’m not going to put any more sandwiches out until we finish up Order 31.”

And, I swear, I hadn’t made a big fuss at all.

Because of her, not only was I not annoyed, I was impressed.  Her job description might appear to be taking orders, getting customers’ money, and giving them sandwiches, but she was a natural at knowing just what to say and how to say it, with a smile, to make me feel attended to.

This knack is something I look for in hiring fundraisers.  Sure they need storytelling skills and passion and empathy, they need a thick skin and a dogged determination and the ability to build relationships.  But all the truly great fundraisers I know are also….something that this woman had.   “Polite” is the word that comes to mind but that doesn’t capture it, though people who naturally have good manners have some of the trait I’m looking for.  It’s more an unspoken knack to let someone know that you see them, that you’re paying attention, that you are a concierge for them within your organization.

It’s not the easiest thing to test for, but after you conduct your interviews of your top candidates, you can take a step back and ask everyone who interacted with the interviewees: how did they make you feel?



(p.s. thanks to DC Foodrag for the picture)

Generosity Day – and now, the fun part

Earlier this year I found myself wondering: what should I do for Generosity Day this year?  Meaning “I” or “me.”

In many ways, I asked the wrong question.  Of course I have an important role to play, but what I’ve discovered in the past few weeks is the beauty of something you give away: it doesn’t belong to me any more.  Generosity Day is out there in the world, it has touched peoples’ lives, and in this day and age that means that Generosity Day lives and is real and spreads because of all of you.

This year in particular a crack team of volunteers showed up and took things to a whole new level.  Their work and dedication has absolutely blown me away.  And each volunteer had a real story, a personal story, of what happened to them on Generosity Day last year or the year before, and each story was beautiful and profound.  That’s a Genii you can’t put back in a bottle.

There are too many people to thank individually, and too many people who would be left out from any list I could write.  The good news is, you all know who you are.  I thank each and every one of you for showing me what generosity can be, for fueling my optimism, for sharing your own fears and failures so I could share mine, and for deepening my own exploration of generosity which I know just beginning.

In case you missed it, the crew created this fun 55 second video that will bring a smile to your face, as will the beautiful comment from a reader of Brene Brown’s blog about her daughter’s story of buying ice cream for everyone at MacDonalds.  When I read a story like that I’m reminded how real this is – the joy, the way we touch others, what we teach our children, how we walk through the world.  This is important.  This is potentially transformational.  Thank you for being part of it.

Now get out there be generous today.

Try it, you’ll like it.

Generosity Day – is it about the money?

Our stories hold truths for us.

One of my truths is that my journey into generosity began with an encounter with a person on the NYC subway asking for money (FOR homeless people, he was not himself homeless as far as I know).

Saying “No” in that situation makes a lot of sense.  If you don’t believe that, check out Zorro’s very personal comment to yesterday’s post.  He said that his son is homeless, that if someone gives his son money that money will be spent on drugs, that giving to his son is irresponsible behavior.

I don’t know the big answer to the question that Zorro is asking.  My personal answer has been that saying “no” all the time and automatically made me feel less human; and I also don’t believe that every dollar given to a homeless person makes that person worse off.

Even though my story started there, Generosity Day isn’t, for me, about whether or not I give to the homeless.  That said, at the outset, I did feel like giving money more freely was a critical ingredient (the critical ingredient?) to my own practice of generosity.  Four years in, I don’t feel that as strongly, but I still ask myself whether an active practice of giving is essential to a practice of generosity.  Put another way, can I fully explore generosity without directly confronting my relationship to money?

This is one in a long list of questions that’s a work-in-process for me, but here’s where I am today: in today’s society money plays a huge role in defining us.  It is one of our scorecards and an important source of our identity.  (Ugly to say that out loud, but it feels like a fair generalization).  And I think that part of seeing abundance and our good fortune in the world is letting go more of the money we have.  This is where the ancient notion of tithing comes from – that our good fortune flows from the blessings we have received, and part of our work on earth is to share these blessings with others.  (Even if a conversation with religious or doctrinaire underpinnings isn’t your cup of tea, I think it’s impossible to look at the world – the whole world – and deny that some or even most of my or your good fortune is due to accidents of birth.  We won a lottery we never knew we’d entered.  At yet, ironically, it is mostly up to us to decide what to do with that abundance.)

That said, my own practice of giving money is still evolving.  These are hard, challenging, very personal questions.  Broadly, I do give more than I used to and, as important, I agonize much much less about each time I give.  I experience less scarcity.  And that feels right to me.

I also know that this is only part of the equation.  These days I’m as interested in generosity of spirit, the generosity of a heartfelt apology, the generosity of giving time to help another, the generosity of putting yourself out there and (really truly) expecting nothing in return.  So today, for where I am, money is not the focus of my own inquiry, but it’s an important piece of the puzzle.  That said, I do feel that a practice of generosity, a practice of recognizing and sharing abundance, must impact to how we think about, hold on to, and let go of our money.

My hope for this year’s Generosity Day is that people will share their own stories of generosity – the questions they ask themselves, the insights they’ve gained, the fears they confronted (or failed to confront).  Simple stories.  Happy stories.  Hard stories.  Stories that make you laugh.

Stories about what they did on Generosity Day – and before and after.

Fun tools on the Generosity Day site make it easier to commit today to what you’ll do tomorrow. Or just throw a #generosityday into your online updates and we’ll see it!

Generosity Q&A

Edna Rienzi, one of the amazing Generosity Day volunteers, asked to me to do a short Q&A about generosity and Generosity Day (below).  She also shares her own beautiful, honest story in her blog post about her own exploration of generosity – and how learning about vulnerability from Brene Brown helped her understand the fear that she experienced with her own generosity experiment, and helped her reengage with generosity in a new way.

I’m so looking forward to reading all the generosity stories that get shared between now and February 14th.

Q: Generosity is…

Opening your heart, being courageous, creating connection, living a life of service.

Q: What is something you know now about generosity that you didn’t know before your generosity experiment?

A lot. Honestly I’d never given any proper thought to generosity before my generosity experiment and I never thought of it being particularly important. That is, I always admired generous action but I never understood how foundational generosity could be in our relationships, how it is the foundation of all philanthropy and social change work, how all the major religious traditions have generosity as a core foundational pillar, etc.

I find that we walk through the world deciding what to notice. So before I had kids, I never really noticed kids. And once I became a father I saw strollers everywhere! It’s been the same with generosity. Once I started paying attention to generosity, I started seeing it everywhere.

Q: Did your generosity experiment change your behavior in any lasting ways?

It did, but it really was the first steps down the path. I’d love to say that I’m radically altered, but I think change takes time. I’m naturally a highly analytical person, and I think that mindset can create separation. I see people who don’t have to overcome this like I do and I really admire them. That said, like everything in life it is a practice, and by creating a different intention and by creating space for a new orientation, I have seen changes big and small. I’m keeping at it.

Q: In your blog, you wrote that you believed that Generosity Day struck a chord with people because everyone is hungering for more connection and more meaning. What do you think makes connection and meaning more difficult to attain in today’s society?

At least in the West right now, we’re all so hyper-connected, hyper-busy. We’re running around with our heads buried in our devices and our inboxes overflowing. So on one hand we’re more in touch than ever, but it also feels to me like we’ve created so much separation. It’s so easy to tune out the world around us these days, and in some sense I feel like in doing so we’re denying our basic humanity.

Q: How do you respond to critics who say that it is irrational to give just because someone asks? Some, for example, would argue that it’s a more effective use of your money to donate to a homeless shelter than to give to someone begging on the street.

Of course it’s irrational to give just because someone asks! I don’t think giving starts with rationality, I think it starts with expressing a purpose, acknowledging abundance, and confronting the terrifying notion that you (the giver) and the person who receives your gift are not so different from one another.

What I think confused some people about my generosity experiment was that they might have understood me to be saying that everyone should give to everyone always. I don’t believe that. But I also believe that if you never pick up your head when someone asks for help, if you never actually see the person right in front of you with their hand out…well then you’ve lost a tiny piece of your humanity.

I see a lot of parallels between my generosity experiment and my yoga practice (which was pretty regular up until last year when my third child was born!) So much of yoga is about teaching yourself, through repetition, to unlearn patters of thought and reaction that you’ve taught yourself over decades. So while it’s not actually important to be able to contort your body into some strange position and not panic, it’s really important to learn how to be in stressful situations and stay grounded. The yoga poses are practice for real life. Similarly, I wanted to create a new pattern, to cut directly against the grain of saying “No” every time someone asked for a handout—just to see what a habit of “yes” would feel like and how it might change me. So far I’ve been happy with the results.

Q: Are there any requests for help that you would refuse even on Generosity Day?  

Sure—ones that seemed ugly or self-serving or intentionally against the spirit of the day.

Q: Does romance fit into your vision of Generosity Day or does that get lost in the “reboot”?  (One of my daughters, by the way, accused me of being the Valentine Grinch when I explained Generosity Day to her!)

My wife and I still celebrate Valentine’s Day—in fact, if anything, I’ve been more comfortable with Valentine’s Day than she has over the years! I finally understood what she was saying when we had one of our most romantic dinners early on a Saturday afternoon right before she drove me to JFK airport for a trip to Kenya. I’m a real romantic, but I do agree with my wife that saying, “OK, tonight we’re going to have a special memorable evening!!” can raise the stakes too much, and that the most romantic moments are often the unexpected ones.

Q: What do you hope Generosity Day accomplishes this year? And in the next 10 years?

I’ve had this dream that we could actually shift Valentine’s Day and create broader traditions of love and giving on this day. There’s no reason that can’t happen—I think it would be a relief to people (well, maybe not to Hallmark and Godiva, but to lots of folks).

This year, we’re really focusing on people engaging in generous action—in addition to spreading the word. Because the day won’t really stick with you if you don’t behave differently.

I promise, if you engage in just one act of radical generosity this February 14th, you’ll remember it for years to come!

Generosity Day – ready to launch

Just three days until Generosity Day and all the pieces are in place – so now is the time to start spreading the word!

The “why” of generosity and of Generosity Day is something I continue to explore for myself, and I’ll share more thoughts in the next few days.  I just posted a piece on Fast Company’s FastCo.Exist as part of their wonderful generosity series – and in the act of writing that I learned something about what’s at the core of this for me.  What I realized is that when this all started, when I first jumped in to my generosity experiment:

“…I knew almost nothing about generosity. I’d never worried about it, cultivated it, practiced it, or thought about how regularly I failed to be generous. And suddenly I felt a huge disconnect. Suddenly I realized that I could never make the change I wanted to see in the world using half of my brain and none of my heart.”

To me that’s the starting point, and it’s what I keep returning to.  I’m trying to understand what a practice of generosity means in social change work.  I’m trying to cultivate generosity in me because, paradoxically, it is core to so many decisions I’ve made in my life and yet at times it doesn’t come naturally to me.  So I work at it, I try to understand it, I decide to practice it even when it does not come naturally…and slowly, day by day and action by action (but never in a straight line, never just in one direction) I change.

If I have one wish for Generosity Day this year it’s that it be a day of action.  What would it mean to have a million generous acts happen around the world?  It would be transformational.

To help make that happen, this year it’s easier than ever to share your story.  There’s amazing momentum building already on www.facebook.com/generosityday.  People are already tweeting with the #generosityday hashtag – things they’re doing, ways they’ve been touched by generosity, and just to spread the word.  I hope you’ll be a part of it.

Just three days to go.  Can you hear the distant rumble?  That’s the momentum building.

Spread Generosity, and share your story

I’m a very visual person, but I’ve never learned how do to any proper design, so I’ve always been a bit bummed that we’ve not been able to visually represent the beauty and spirit of Generosity Day…until now.

I mentioned yesterday that the folks at Masterminds had done some incredible design work for Generosity Day this year, and this morning we’re launching the www.spreadgenerosity.com site that they designed.

You can get a sneak peak here but please click over and play around some.  There’s lots to discover and all of it is designed to help you share your generosity story and spread the word.

Just three days to go.  Can you hear the distant rumble?  That’s the momentum building.


Snowbound – and feeling lucky

I write this post looking out at 21 inches of newly-fallen snow outside my house, slowly recovering from a bout of the flu (I believe) that has more or less floored me for the last 72 hours.

In the meantime, a growing crew of Generosity Day volunteers has been working up a (virtual?) storm. As I mentioned last week, Parker Mitchell raised his hand to lead up the charge, and he’s been joined now by Arpit Gupta (social media); Chase Ault (social media and local ambassadors), Emily Bergantino (local ambassadors and media), Edna Rienzi (blogger outreach) and Jennifer Fink and the design studio Masterminds (their home page made me laugh out loud – in a good way). I thought you might enjoy a sneak peak of some of the great work they’ve been doing, which will all be going live in the next 24-48 hours on the new Generosity Day website they’re launching as well as on www.facebook.com/generosityday. (see below)

There’s amazing momentum building, and the team just needs a few more volunteers. Here’s what you can do to help.

Share your story

Visit and like the Generosity Day Facebook Page and start spreading the word online using the #generosityday hashtag. Nothing inspires others more than hearing beautiful acts of generosity you have witnessed, or your experiences of generosity and why it matters to you. Send a note to your church group, your school, your online community or your colleagues sharing ideas of what you can do together on February 14th.

Be a Local Media Ambassador

Local media is interested in stories about and from people in their area, we’re looking to sign up local media ambassadors in cities across the country. You don’t need any media experience (in fact this is a great way to get some!). Emily, Chase and the team have prepared materials and training and the team will provide all the support you need. You just need to have 4-6 hours free between now and February 14th. Email Chase Ault and she will send you all the details.

Blog about Generosity Day

The team has already contacted hundreds of bloggers who have written posts about Generosity Day in the past. We hope you’ll all blog again this year – and if you’re not a blogger but you love someone’s blog, you could comment/email that blogger and suggest she write a post about Generosity Day this year.

For those who are blogging, we can’t wait to hear your experiences of generosity, your own action, generosity that you have witnessed and that has touched you. Your readers will feel inspired and braver for hearing your story.

Additional background contact and links for you are here.

Thank you again for being part of this – for everyone from the volunteers to my readers to the people far and wide who have made Generosity Day their own, I’m humbled and am learning from each of you about what is possible.

Generosity Day 2013 badges

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.