Inspiring Generosity - Introduction

What Is Generosity?

Generosity is an activity that can change the world. It works its magic on one person at a time; then, almost effortlessly, its beautiful multiplying force animates families, friends, communities, cultures, and the world at large.

Unlike its close cousin, compassion, generosity requires action. To be a generous person, you must act. In many ways, generosity is compassion in action, and it is love in action. It’s no surprise that generosity is at the very heart of all the world’s major religions.

Generosity is a practice. And as with anything we practice, we get better at it over time. It’s a muscle that needs exercise. Generous actions have impact on the benefi ciaries, but they also change the lives of the generous in remarkable ways. Generosity can transform our place in the world and how we live our lives. Generosity can be revolutionary.

Generosity is often confused with giving. There are many ways to give. We all have something to give—our time, our caring and caretaking, a kind word, a smile, encouragement, material gifts of all kinds. But all giving does not necessarily fit my definition of generosity. You can give with the expectation of receiving acclaim for your gift. You can give to create a certain outcome that will benefi t you personally. You can give in order to be in the company of people who will be impressed by your ability to give. And you can give from a generous place in your heart that propels you forward to provide what is needed, with little concern for applause and recognition for yourself.

Generosity is often quite bold, ignoring the advice of friends and family and moving forward with courage and conviction. Generosity is willing to take risks. In fact, risks have little constraint on a generous heart.

Generosity invites us to put ourselves in another’s shoes, see and feel the existence of a pressing need, realize that it is within our power to help, and then act in whatever way we can. It’s really as simple as that.

The Invitation

This little book is an invitation to savor a sampling of the very best inspirations on the subject of generosity—leading voices from across cultures and centuries; wise words  from the worlds of religion and spirituality; moving stories about contemporary people whose lives have been transformed by the power of generosity; and eloquent poems on the theme of generosity. I invite you to dip in and enjoy a few pages at a time—or curl up for an afternoon and read them all. You can start anywhere—this book has no beginning, middle, or end.

In bringing together these moments of generosity, I have had the great joy of spending three years immersed in the study of this magnificent quality in its many forms and flavors. After a professional lifetime working in philanthropy, I have become a student again in creating this book. I have studied how generosity has been regarded through the lenses of history and religion, as elucidated in the Bible, the Koran, the Torah, Buddhist texts, and the Tao Te Ching. I have worked with poets and literature professors to comb the best poems of the last six centuries for those that have generosity at their heart. I have read hundreds of accounts of people whose lives were struck by what I call a “lightning bolt of generosity” that transformed their lives. I have studied the current scientific literature on whether humans are altruistic by nature (recent work points to yes), what chemical substances serve to make us more or less generous, and what areas of the brain light up when we are engaged in generous acts. I have attended conferences and retreats all over the world, most notably in Zurich for a remarkable meeting headed by the Dalai Lama, with economists, scientists, and Buddhist scholars who are exploring altruism in its many forms. (For those who want to dive more deeply into the literature of generosity, I include my reference bibliography of the main sources that guided me.)

I hope readers will want to give this book as a token of gratitude to all the generous people in their lives. I hope it will make its way to desks, coffee tables, and bedside tables, as well as beach chairs, pulpits, and meditation cushions. I hope that philanthropists and leaders of our foundations and charitable arms of our businesses will display this book in their homes and offi ces, and turn to it to renew the spiritual engine of their work. Nonprofit boards and executives should have this book, and should give it to those who donate to the organizations they lead. Fundraisers should have this book on their desks, and make it a gift to the generous people who light up their work. Retreat centers will want to make this book available to their students, teachers, participants, and guests. Volunteers could be given this book as a token of appreciation for all they do—and perhaps many will have already bought it for themselves! Teachers, professors, religious leaders, poets, and philosophers will all find inspiration in these pages. I even dare hope that our elected officials, who could all do with a bit more generosity of spirit, may find this book a source of inspiration.

Generosity and Philanthropy

There are as many forms of philanthropy as there are motives to give. American philanthropy is a uniquely wonderful phenomenon. Our museums, universities and colleges, opera houses and symphony orchestras, hospitals, libraries, and national parks owe their origins in large measure to the charitable giving of very wealthy philanthropists who have profited in extraordinary ways from success in American business. Some of these philanthropic gifts are meant to enhance our culture in ways the giver deemed important. Some are made to crown the givers in glory. Many philanthropists consider their giving akin to investing. Others give out of a spirit of enlightened generosity—a desire to give back to a world that has been immensely good to them. And the true angels step forward and ask: How can I help? How much do you need? How can we work together to change things?

We live in a culture in which philanthropy is everyday news. We are surrounded by an impressive army of philanthropic billionaires who put large chunks of their fortunes to work for the greater good. Successful, socially aware business leaders like Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, and George Soros have poured vast sums into nonprofit organizations designed to dramatically improve the quality of life of those in great need.

In times of catastrophe, Americans respond with remarkable charitable giving. In the days following the Asian tsunami of 2003, Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina, and the earthquake in Haiti, Americans opened their hearts and wallets with truly staggering generosity. I venture to say that, in each case, the individual act of giving, whether $5 or $5,000, gave the donor a deepened sense of meaning and participation in the stream of life that far surpassed the amount of the gift.

People pull together in their desire to help. We witnessed a dramatic moment of coming together as a national and international community after the attacks of 9/11,when neighbor helped neighbor in profoundly selfless and generous ways. It is in our genetic makeup to help, to off er, to step forward to make a difference. Recent scientific research points convincingly to an inborn human altruism.

But while we are a generous nation, it is worth remembering that 97 million Americans live in poverty today. And when we look abroad, the numbers are more staggering. In our world of plenty, 10 million children under the age of five die every year from causes related to poverty—that’s 27,000 every day. As our most noted contemporary American philanthropist, Bill Gates, says, “Is the rich world aware of how four billion of six billion live? If we were aware, we would want to help out, we’d want to get involved.” I would add that the need might be in remote Africa or just down the block. We can all make a difference in so many different ways. As former President Bill Clinton, who has now devoted much of his life’s work to philanthropy, says: “When we give what we can and give it with joy, we don’t just renew the American tradition of giving, we also renew ourselves.”

One of the great paradoxes of this time of increased philanthropy is that we are also the most self-involved, materialistic, grasping, distracted, ridiculously overconsuming culture in recent memory. Even the professions of philanthropy and fundraising often seem to have lost their way. Endlessly polishing their systems, policies, and procedures, they sometimes seem to forget that they provide the dynamic link between generous individuals and enormous needs. All too often, fundraising crosses the line into persuasion and arm-twisting to extract large gifts and meet ever-increasing institutional goals. We create relationships of exchange when we would be better served developing cultures of generosity.

My Path to Generosity

I grew up in a world of great economic privilege that felt nearly completely lacking in generosity. The 1960s in this country were times of very real need. But, in Columbus, Ohio I neither heard nor saw any of it. Neither did I know about the poverty of Appalachia or the civil rights marches in the South. Looking back, the well-off people in that little Midwestern world seemed by and large quite oblivious to a larger world  of human need. I don’t remember any of the adults in my world discussing philanthropy as it related to local or distant causes or social needs. My parents were kind, compassionate, well-educated, well-meaning people whom I dearly loved. But they had not been raised in families noted for their generosity. The “generosity gene” had apparently passed them by. For some reason that still remains mysterious to me, I was always distressed by this, even somewhat embarrassed.

For as long as I can remember, I have loved the ritual of gift giving, giving things away, and working toward opening up possibilities where none seemed to exist. In my career, I have always been drawn to philanthropists guided by extraordinarily generous hearts who have stepped forward in remarkable ways to make a difference in the world.

I started my professional life as an art historian, quickly moving into a career in museums as a curator, deputy director, and director. The artistic missions and the programs that supported them mattered deeply to me. But, increasingly, the relationships with generous champions who were galvanized by the museums’ work were what both fascinated and fulfilled me. In leadership positions at Bennington College and later at the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, what moved me most was helping to create cultures of generosity. Now, as a consultant to nonprofits, I have the luxury of working with those organizations whose missions wrap around my heart. Additionally, my service on ten nonprofit boards and my role as co-founder of a charitable fund for women with cancer who are living in poverty have dramatically deepened my connections to multitudes of generous individuals who are eager to make a difference. While I don’t pretend to be an expert in the field of generosity, I have certainly been an observer with a very good front-row seat.

In the final days of creating this book, I was in New York City for a day of meetings. On the subway downtown, a man who was clearly in serious need stepped into the car and asked everyone to listen to him. He told us that he was a military veteran who now lives in the New York City shelters. He has no money and is hungry. He implored my fellow passengers for help, adding, poignantly, “Don’t be embarrassed to help me.”

To my surprise, five or six people immediately reached for their wallets or purses. One woman gave him her full bag of groceries that she had just bought. The lessons of writing this book are in my bones now, so I did not hesitate for a moment as I reached into my purse to see what I could off er. It wasn’t much. As I placed a modest handful of quarters in his bag, I told him I was sorry I couldn’t do more.

He looked deep into my eyes with tremendous concentration and sweetness and said, “It is not how much you give me. It is that you opened your heart to me.”

There it was. All the beautiful reading and research for a book on generosity now lived in the eyes and words of one man I will never forget.

The “Lightning-Bolt Moment”

Time after time, I hear that the desire to act generously has arrived in someone’s life as an uninvited guest, unexpectedly, like a lightning bolt, in a mere moment. A gesture, a news story, a quotation in a book, a passing remark can change everything. For many, that moment is enough for generosity to move into their hearts and minds and become central to their lives. This book is my offering of such moments.

You will read about Sasha Dichter’s train ride home from an ordinary workday and his encounter with a fellow passenger that changed his life. Betty Londergan went to the movies and emerged a philanthropist with a revolutionary daily practice. Rising-star chef Narayan Krishnan stepped out of a hotel onto a street in India—and what he saw turned his life upside down and propelled him toward a calling of nearly unimaginable service. Fifteen such stories about what I call “generosity heroes,” none of whom are famous and only one of whom is wealthy, invite you to become inspired.

You will read the classic poetry of Shakespeare, Hafiz, and Emily Dickinson, George Eliot, and the modern voices of Wendell Berry, Sharon Olds, A.R. Ammons, Naomi Shibab Nye, Donald Justice, and many others.

You will read flashes of insight into the heart of generosity from voices across centuries and continents: Winston Churchill, Mother Teresa, Maya Angelou, Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., John Steinbeck, James Joyce, Leo Tolstoy, Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, Goethe, Seneca, Albert Schweitzer, and Anne Frank—to name only a few of more than a hundred collected here.

As your read, I invite you to open your heart to the power of your own innate generosity, your desire to make a diff erence in the world, to help make someone’s day a little brighter or their world a bit more secure. Let the words wash over you, and savor the sensations that the memories, dreams, and aspirations evoke. My hope is that this book kindles a spark in your heart that moves you into the sunshine of a more generous life. And if your life is more generous, we all prosper.

That is one of generosity’s most wonderful qualities: It is utterly contagious.

How to cite this document:
© Barbara Bonner, Inspiring Generosity (Wisdom Publications, 2014)

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