Goldilocks giving

When it finally comes time to ask someone to make a philanthropic donation, how much should you as for – a little, too much, or just right?

“Too little” is never right.  If anything, “too little” is a polite way for someone to say “no.”

“Just right” in my experience also isn’t the answer.

Why?  Because we need to ask the most of everyone if we are going to accomplish great things together.  To be our best we all stretch, we reach just a bit too far, we dream audacious dreams because before something can happen we have to imagine that it just might be possible.  So too with giving.  It should be a stretch, should feel a little outlandish and a bit impossible.  At that moment of connection and excitement and commitment, people will go a bit further if you ask them – and even if they don’t no one gets hurt along the way.  We’re all grown-ups here.

This is particularly important because of how people tend to approach renewals of their giving.  While occasionally someone who gives at a low amount relative their other charitable work will jump to a significantly higher level, those sorts of shifts are rare.  Which means that if things work out well, the giving conversation you are having about this year is setting the bar for giving for next year and the year after that and…

In this case, “too hot” is better than “just right.”

The thing about being generous

Is that most of the time the generosity comes right back at you, except when it doesn’t.

You can lean into that rejection too.

That tiny sense that someone just took advantage of you? It’s a reminder that this isn’t a zero sum game.  It’s also a chance to remember that there are times when you, too, were less generous than you could have been.

Whatever you do, don’t let these rebukes stray you from your path.

(and speaking of paths, here’s Nipun Mehta’s beautiful UPenn Commencement speech on generosity – the transcript of which has been read more than 100,000 times)

Each and every dollar

If you work at a nonprofit, as I do, you might pause and consider: each and every dollar for your organization comes from a gift.

Obvious at some level, but if you stop to think about this for a second your perspective changes.  Think of the seriousness and the intention of every donor, the dreams – small or big – they attach to the donation they have made.

I’m not at all advocating for penury for nonprofit staff; in fact I firmly believe that we need the best people to create massive change.  The problems we are working on are so important, so challenging, so complex, and pay is part of the equation in getting and keeping the best folks.

But there’s a certain humility that comes with remembering that you are working on someone else’s dime, that no matter where you are and what you are doing, you are engaged in service work thanks to the trust that someone has placed in you and in your organization.

It never ceases to amaze me that the nonprofit sector has a reputation for being less rigorous, less focused, less fast-paced, less strategic than the private sector.  First, because all the people I know who work at nonprofits put their hearts and souls into their work every day.  Second because once we’ve made the decision to do this work we have no choice but to be completely committed and to do our best work every day.

The minimum bar is to treat the money your organization spends like your own.

The higher bar is to remember that it is a gift from someone else, entrusted to you to make a change in the world.

It’s a huge responsibility.

Generosity excerpt

A friend sent this in as a non-sequitur in another conversation we were having.

The other day I was coming out of a coffee shop and decided to give a homeless man a $10 bill…what can you get for $1 these days?…I feel like I’ve been giving $1 since I’ve had discretionary income…I subconsciously never accounted for inflation/cost of living increases.  He thought I made a mistake and said: Ma’am, I think you made a mistake.  Did you mean to give this to me (assuming I meant to give him $1).

I replied: I absolutely did.

Nice.  And kinda shatters the whole angle of the panhandler who is trying to pull one over on you, doesn’t it?

I hesitate to share too many examples of giving to people on the street when talking about Generosity Day, since somehow that’s a lightning rod for what I consider to be a distracting conversation (namely: “should one give to people on the street?”).  At the same time, the immediacy and humanity of giving (or not) to someone who is standing right and front of you and asking for help is, I think, something we cannot shy away from.

Do you have more generosity stories to share?

Gifto reducto ad infinitum

A donor with $50,000 to give faces a surprising conundrum: she knows, intellectually (and perhaps in her gut) that $50,000  is itself not enough to make lasting, large-scale change.  However, we can all agree that $50,000 is an awful lot of money, and the donor is well within her rights to ask what will happen as the result of her donation.

Donors who push hard on this question may be asking one of three things.  It could be about accountability (“I’m going to make sure you’re not going to waste it”); it could be about comparison shopping (“the nonprofit down the street told me they could buy __________ with this money”); or it could be about the story they need to tell someone (their board, their spouse, themselves) about what they “bought” with the gift.

The real challenge here is that a number of seemingly contradictory truths happily co-exist: if you give someone in need $5 worth of ________ (de-worming; safe drinking water; emergency shelter), their lives will absolutely be significantly better for a period of time – so 10,000 “significantly betters” are potentially on offer for this $50,000 donation. OR a few medium-sized things can be built (a library, a well, a school) for $50,000. AND we also know that large-scale, lasting change comes in much bigger bites – whether to fill that school with teachers; to transform the educational outcomes for a community; to dig not one well but instead to build an organization that’s going to solve the water problem for a village or a hundred or a thousand villages.

So $5 and $50,000 and $5 million and $50 million all co exist.

More complicated still, each of those numbers is, alternately, either really big relative to the problem ($5 is a lot for a subsistence farmer making $1-2 a day), and small for the problem ($50 million doesn’t hold a candle to the annual health budget of even a very small, very poor country).

Echoing a theme from yesterday, the only truly satisfactory answer I’ve found is around solidarity: this is a change we are making together, this is what success looks like, let’s make this happen…and you figure out the piece that you can do relative to your own ability to give.

I recognize that this isn’t the strongest sales pitch, and that part of our job as people who mobilize resources is to right-size the solution to the funds being given – since it is 100% true that a gift of any size, when given to an effective organization, makes a significant impact.  But I still feel at some level that the game of optimizing a message to a particular giving level inevitably falls short of all the honest-to-goodness complexities of solving real problems in the real world.

Generosity Day

Generosity Day is here!!!

We announced it on Friday, and it’s spread like wildfire over the weekend (1,000+ tweets, expecting 30-40 blog posts today at a minimum…for example on FastCompany, ABC News, Katya’s Nonprofit Marketing BlogMalaria No More, Beth Kanter’s blog, New York Public Library).

Our hunch was spot on: people are hungering for something more in their lives – more connection and more meaning.

When I put up my post on Friday, I was hoping this idea would spread.  It has.

But that’s not good enough.  Now I have a much bigger aspiration.  We need people to ACT.  Thousands of actions.   Millions of actions.  Tweeting ain’t enough.

So please, today, continue to spread the word AND to celebrate Generosity Day through your actions. It’s a day of practicing saying YES, because doing so will change you and change those around you.

Give to people on the street.  Tip outrageously.  Help a stranger.  Write a note telling someone how much you appreciate them.  Smile.  Donate (more) to a cause that means a lot to you.  Take clothes to GoodWill.  Share your toys (grownups and kids).  Be patient with yourself and with others.  Replace the toilet paper in the bathroom.  All generous acts count!

As you act generously, and as you witness acts of generosity, please keep folks updated using the #generosityday hashtag or post on

For example:

I just celebrated #generosityday by tipping my waiter 50%! Reboot Valentine’s Day by being generous!

I’m commemorating #generosityday by volunteering for @pencilsofpromis!  Share your stories on

Just watched someone smile and shrug after being splashed by a car driving by.  It must be #generosityday

Happy Generosity Day, and here’s to the start of a new tradition!!!

(A HUGE thank you to all the people who have made this happen, especially Scott Case at Malaria No More for (inadvertently?) pulling together me, Katya Andresen and Ellen McGirt on a panel for Social Media Week, and to Katya and Ellen for their encouragement to do this now.)

Thank you to all the folks who have jumped in to spread the word, including:

Katya Andresen’s Nonprofit Marketing Blog, Ellen McGirt at FastCompany, Malaria No More, ABC News, the New York Public Library, Jennifer McCrea’s Exponential Fundraising Blog, The Marketoonist, Lucy Bernholz (Philanthropy 2173), Sharon Schneider (The Philanthropic Family), TBD, the Christopher and Dana Reeves FoundationHyderabad HappinessJocelyn Wyatt, Idea Transplant, New Frontier, Getting Attention Nonprofit Marketing Blog, Keoghzer’s Blog, Frugaltopia

Rebooting Valentine’s Day

I want all my readers to hear first.  This Monday, Valentine’s Day, is going to be rebooted as Generosity Day: one day of sharing love with everyone, of being generous to everyone, to see how it feels and to practice saying “Yes.”  Let’s make the day about love, action and human connection – because we can do better than smarmy greeting cards, overpriced roses, and stressed-out couples trying to create romantic meals on the fly.

I’ll share more on Monday morning (Valentine’s Day), but wanted to let my readers know today that I’m reaching out to a bunch of great bloggers who I respect to spread the word.  Would love your help in doing the same.

On the day of, we’ll be using the hashtag #generosityday to share what people are doing.  The goal is to spend Valentine’s Day being more generous, giving more money, sharing of yourself, being of service.  All acts of generosity, small and big alike, count.  But you have to say YES to everything that’s asked of you, all day long! It’s about creating more generosity in the world, and becoming a more open person along the way.

BACKGROUND: Longtime readers will remember my Generosity Experiment (here’s the blog post or, if you prefer, here’s the video).  My experiment lasted a month, and I found it transformative.  I bet you’ll love doing this for a day.

Examples of great things to do on #generosityday:

  • Give money to….a street musician, a homeless person, your favorite charity
  • Take old clothes from your closet and give them to goodwill
  • Leave a $5 tip for a $2 coffee
  • Introduce yourself to someone you see every day but have never said hello to
  • Bring in lunch for your co-workers
  • Give someone a compliment

If you like this idea, please:

  1. Between now and Monday, tell people (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) that you’re committing to a day of generosity this Valentine’s Day.  Committing in advance will help you follow through. (Sample Facebook/Twitter status update that you can post BEFORE MONDAY:  “I’m in!  Let’s reboot Valentine’s Day as #generosityday on Monday”)
  2. Add to the list (above) of suggested generous actions by commenting on this post or contacting me directly.
  3. Share the idea with other bloggers and friends by emailing them the link to this page (

This could be big – but I’ll need your help to make it happen!

Whom do we honor?

Recently I found myself in the elevator at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, the doors closing on the name of yet another mega-Wall Street donor whose name was etched in marble, no doubt honoring a mega gift that built that wing of the hospital.

When I got upstairs I talked to a lovely couple.  The wife was a patient in the hospital who was at risk for giving birth to her twins at 26 weeks – more than 3 months before her due date.  She is a first grade teacher in the Bronx, worried that her students depend so much on her, worried that her sudden departure from the classroom would leave them without the support they needed.  Her husband is a social worker who does work for a number of local organizations in addition to some longer stints in India.

Where were their names on the wall?

Yes, I get it.  If someone chooses to part with tens of millions of dollars – maybe more – of their own money then by all means let’s write their names wherever they want to write them.  And maybe everything is working perfectly: the big name on the wall allows patients in need to get world-class care, so who cares what’s written where in what size font?

But walking through that grandiose hospital lobby, the names of subsequent Wall Street titans vying for all-caps supremacy in their etched legacy, I wished we had the same amount of space to write the names, in boldface, of people living lives of service: the teacher, the nurse, the social worker.

Here’s how I can help

When trying to console someone, I’ve often found myself, at a loss for what to do, saying “Let me know how I can help.”  Today, in just such a same situation, a friend modeled a different kind of behavior.  She said,  “Why don’t I….” and offered up a few very specific ideas of things she’d like to do to help.

This feels like the difference between not-so-helpful generic feedback (“Great job!”) and very useful, specific positive feedback (“What I particularly liked was when you…”).

Specifics help in all situations, especially when someone is feeling a sense of loss.  Usually, a big part of the gift you give is taking away someone else’s burden of making a decision.

Letting go of my gift

A few weeks ago I emailed a Pakistani colleague to ask for her advice about which organization – among those recommended by Acumen Fund – to give to for flood relief.

While looking at the recommended organizations, I found myself thinking about all the things one thinks about in these situations: how much of the money will go directly to help people? How credible and well-managed is the organization?  What kind of difference will this make in people’s lives?

All normal questions, though in some way they felt absurd upon further reflection.  I gave what I could give because of the tragedy that these floods represent, because of the tens of millions of people whose lives have been uprooted and whose homes and livelihoods have been destroyed.  I gave as an act of solidarity, as a too-small act of expression of my shared humanity with those who are suffering.

But the actual gift – its monetary value – in the context of everything, is tiny, is miniscule, is quite literally a drop in the bucket.  It’s like casting a vote in an election – something totally irrational in terms of my ability to affect an outcome, but something that is fundamental as an expression of my rights as a citizen, an act in support of democracy, and a statement of my values.

In this way, the act of giving is an act of self-expression, a statement of my values and obligations as a citizen of the world, and, perhaps most importantly, an act of generosity.  And generosity is act that expects nothing in return.

This made me wonder again what was going on when I was pondering the potential efficacy of my gift.  Was I, in some way, unable fully to let go of the notion that “this is my money that I worked hard to earn, and I’m only parting with it in exchange for something tangible that I’m getting” (in this case for someone else).

This may be where I – where we – get tripped up.  The thing that we’re used to doing, that we’ve been trained to do, is to buy stuff. We part with money and in exchange we get……  whatever it is that we get.

Maybe philanthropy is something completely different, maybe it’s a sheep in wolf’s clothing: an act of self-expression disguised as a transaction.  In which case we’ve got the order all wrong – we cannot first go through all the learned calculations of what-am-I-getting-for-my-money but instead have to start with ourselves, who we are, and who we want to be.

I worry that in our pursuit of better, smarter philanthropy, we run the risk of trading in soft-heartedness for hard-headedness, and in so doing everyone ends up coming up short – because this is a false choice, one we don’t have to make.  Of course we want money to go the furthest, we want to support the best organizations, we want to make change.  But the “we” in the equation matters a lot.  We, people who give (and people who ask others to give), are affected by our own actions.  We are also striving to be the best version of ourselves.  And we, in the act of giving (the way we approach it, the reasons for our actions, the way we let these actions change us) have a chance to take another step towards becoming the person we hope to be.