Monday, August 18, 2014

Leading a Generous Life

Good morning.  Today, we’re discussing generosity – about being kind and understanding and willing to give things that have value.  I will share how my life has been enriched by community service and philanthropic giving to others, and how you may foster a culture of generosity in your own life, in your home, and in your communities.  I hope that my experiences are thought provoking for you and that you walk away from this talk with compelling reasons to become more generous and some tangible action steps of how to do so.

So, my backstory:  I grew up in Owensboro, Kentucky, and I am descended from very prolific Catholic farm folk.  My mom’s parents ran a farm and, as you might imagine, my grandparents made good use of their progeny as labor.  My mom and her siblings fed the cows before catching the bus to school, planted rows of crops before starting their homework.  Years later, we grandkids snapped beans, shucked corn, canned tomatoes, and did whatever was needed to make the farm run smoothly.  The motto “see a need, fill a need” definitely fits farm life; running a successful family farm is an impressive amount of work and every person had a designated role and each person contributed to the best of their ability.  

I want to be clear.  My grandparents were rich in land, hope, faith, and children, but not in cash.  Although their family was 12 people strong, they lived in a two bedroom farmhouse with no indoor plumbing.  Even so, my grandparents made the financial sacrifice to tithe regularly and send each of their children to Catholic schools from kindergarten through high school.  They also regularly volunteered with their parish as lay leadership and with the St. Vincent de Paul, an organization that strives to help those in poverty. 

Despite many clear indicators that my grandparents might be poor and needy themselves, they chose a more positive outlook and recognized that many folks in their community were much needier than they.  In their early 80’s, my grandparents “slowed down” their farm obligations and increased their community service.  They volunteered at St. Vincent de Paul every day of the week for multiple years.  These acts of service were extensions of their faith but also were methods to deepen their faith.  My grandparents were exceptional role models for sacrifice, continuous service to others, and walking the walk of care and compassion.   

Being surrounded and supported was the standard with my extended family.  When both my parents lost their blue-collar jobs, and we children moved onto the free-lunch rolls at school, my extended family came together and brainstormed ways to support us.  They hired my mom to care for their children during the day and after-school.  They supplied gifts for birthdays and Christmas.  They lent money to cover the monthly mortgage payments.  Collectively they did whatever it took to ensure that my family weathered the financial storm of unemployment for multiple years.  Thinking back, I am simply astounded by my extended family’s unquestioning generosity, by their desire to do best by us. 

I was raised in this environment: where having less was the norm, looking out for others and pitching in to help were expected, and generosity was the standard. 

My mom was instrumental in fostering a sense of giving in her children.  According to the Corporation of National and Community Service, “a youth in a family where at least one parent volunteers is two times more likely to volunteer herself and is three times as likely to become a regular volunteer.”  It should not be a surprise that we became huge advocates of community service, because my mom modeled this behavior and she continuously made opportunities for our family to volunteer together.

Of course, my family spent many hours working at my grandparents’ farm, and I had family chores at our house as well.  But we did more than service to family; we broadened our service to include service to school and service to our local community.  Service became our family tradition.  For five years, my mom, my siblings, and I designed scary spaces, donned costumes, and transformed a full wing of our elementary school into a Haunted House.  We made and served elaborate Thanksgiving dinners at the local homeless shelter for six years.  We had a winter tradition too.  For 8 years, we helped make and deliver food baskets to benefit needy families in my high school.  Once I graduated high school, I was entrusted to make deliveries of the food baskets on my own.  I cannot express how powerful an experience that was – bringing a food basket, which represented the overwhelming care and generosity of an entire school, and personally handing it to someone who needed it.  The immense gratitude they had, the immense gratitude I had – I still tear up when thinking about it. 

Doing these service projects as a family was an easy win.  We had so much to be grateful for and we were eager to share our good fortune with others.  Also, it was incredibly heartening to give to others, to lift others up as we lifted ourselves up as well, and to do this service together.  I know that I found it inspiring to be part of something bigger than myself, bigger than my family.  There’s nothing more powerful to a teenager than looking outside of herself and making a difference in the community.  Working together as a family and serving others are some of my fondest childhood memories.

There is interesting psychology here too.  If a person self-identifies as “generous,” then she begins choosing and taking more generous actions, which reinforces her self-perception as a generous person.  Additionally, she is more likely to be generous if she knows the people around her are also giving of their time or money.  In other words, thinking about times when she’s helped others and having a peer group of visible and vocal volunteers both increase her likelihood to take generous actions.  So, hold yourself to a higher generous standard and share that in your network.  Families, friends, schools, faith organizations, youth groups, sports teams – each has the opportunity to establish a generous standard within that group and, thereby, help develop empathy and generosity in others. 

Volunteering has significant positive health benefits as well.  Volunteers have improved physical and mental health, higher levels of happiness, greater life satisfaction, lower rates of depression, lower rates of heart disease, and they generally live longer.  Giving promotes cooperation, social connection, and gratitude. 

I have experienced additional benefits in my 30 years of volunteering.  I knew a much more diverse population of folks as a result of community service, which increased my understanding of other people, religions, cultures, and backgrounds.  I gained an appreciation for complexity and difference.  Older adults actively reached out to mentor the teenage me and include me in decision making.  I made many wonderful and lasting friendships.  I pieced together a network of contacts in a new city.  I developed substantial leadership and executive functioning skills; I practiced time management, listening, written and oral communication, planning, delegating, compromise, patience, self-control, and public speaking.  I helped build houses.  I sampled teaching and tutoring before choosing it as a career.  I learned how to fundraise.  And I developed an unshakeable belief that my individual actions had great impact. 

When I was 16, I became active in the Democratic Party and I participated in voter registration and get out the vote campaigns; I also actively canvassed for a gubernatorial candidate.  I was thrilled when he was elected to office and then supremely honored when I was invited to his inauguration.  I was too young to vote for him, but through service I was able to make a difference in my community and an impact on a state-wide level.  I’m still amazed by some of the life experiences I’ve had as a result of volunteering.

Now, did my mom plan to turn her children into avid volunteers?  According to the research, she took all the right steps:  she made service a family expectation, let the kids see the results of their efforts, gave each person a voice in choosing how to help, and established a tradition.  Honestly, I doubt my mom had this strategic process in mind; instead, she modeled the exact same behaviors and concern for others that her parents modeled for her and, as a result, she fostered generosity and compassion in her children.

I, on the other hand, do have a strategic plan and I am determined to turn my own daughters into empathetic community service gals.  My eldest daughter Raina started joining me at the Saint Louis Area FoodBank when she turned five and we volunteer there regularly.  She really liked it at first – she was doing something special with me and my sister, Samantha – but after a few years her enthusiasm lagged a bit.  Rather than quit, I pulled out our family’s standard lines of “Mandatory fun!” and “Gratitude, not Attitude!” which got us through the door a few times.  I invited her friends to come with us.  I organized our Girl Scout Troop to go. 

At this point, Raina has volunteered at the FoodBank often enough that she is an expert; she understands the place, she feels real control over the process, and she can train someone in the ropes.  Last week, Raina told me, “Mom, I really love coming here” – service and helping others had become a source of joy for her.  My other daughter, Lola, turned five this February, and she had her first FoodBank experience over Spring Break.  Lola was so enthusiastic to finally get to join the Mommy-Samantha-Raina bonding experience and she listened actively as Raina took on the leadership role and explained the process of volunteering to her. 

I’m laying the groundwork: by showing that this problem bothers me so much that I’m willing to do something about it – not once, but on a regular basis.  I’m showing that when many people work together big results occur, and, most importantly, that in this family we care for others and we do community service.  It’s a tradition of how we spend our time, it’s a demonstration of our values, and it is a defining characteristic of what it means to be in our family. 

Now, it should come as no surprise to you that, as a child, I had little experience with money, except to know that it was important and my family did not have much of it.  If you have less, do you appreciate what you have more?  If you have more, is it harder to appreciate the bounty you do have?  I honestly don’t know.  What I do know is that my family struggled to get by but we did get by; I learned that life is pretty happy with less – that having something just because it’s the coolest, newest, whatever in the end is rather meaningless; and no matter what your financial situation you always have something to give – whether that’s time, talent, or treasure. 

Those life lessons stuck.  I am extraordinarily lucky to be in a place of financial security now; it is my responsibility and my privilege to help others. 

Because we’re logical Type A folks, my husband Eric and I made a list -- we ordered everything money-related in terms of importance to us and our values.  As a result, we now have a philanthropy budget, because our initial monetary giving wasn’t very organized, strategic, or sizeable.  Organizations like the United Way asked for money and we generally gave something, but we never gave that much to any one organization and we really didn’t give much at all considering our collective capacity.  All of our giving was reactionary; it was just a quick brush-off response rather than a thoughtful response to our priorities and values.  And Eric and I are in a place of great economic and societal privilege – we owe more to our community than to brush off its needs. 

So we changed our mindset, and decided to be intentional, thoughtful, and strategic with our donations.  We asked ourselves some questions.  What do we really value?  What are we grateful for?  Where can we create positive change?  What is needed?  What should we invest in? 

To help switch from reactionary to thoughtful giving, our family started keeping a gratitude journal, which helped us in three ways.  First, it helped distinguish between needs and wants.  Did anyone at any time say “I’m grateful for TV or cell phones or a particular toy!”  No.  We were grateful for bigger things: security, family, love, education, opportunities, food, clean water.  Second, it honed our thinking.  While we were grateful for many things as a family, we were exceptionally grateful for a select few.  Those were the areas we targeted for strategic and thoughtful service and philanthropy.  Third, it reminded us of what is important, of how lucky we are to have so much, it grounded us in our values, and it compelled us to share that with others.

So we created our list from there – poverty relief, education, and the Ethical Society – and we increased our giving from essentially nothing to a traditional tithe of 10% of our income. 

Our first area of philanthropic concentration is the Ethical Society of Saint Louis.  Eric and I are so grateful that this place exists.  It’s a place for us to fit in, for us to raise our kids, for us to create a positive impact.  It supports causes we believe are important and it avoids the dogma that makes us uncomfortable.  This place and this community help us to be better people and that is incredibly valuable to us.  Contributing to the Ethical Society is an investment in our family, in our character development, in our capacity to grow, in our relationships with others.

Eric and I also tremendously value education.  We recognize that our college degrees set us up for lifelong financial success and security, and we want that for others.  But how?  And for whom?  We decided to focus that attention to our five nieces and nephews who might not be able to afford college otherwise.  We set up college funds for each and we contribute monthly to them.  Compound interest is a wonderful thing, so our modest gifts now will grow to large amounts over time.  These funds won’t cover the full cost of college, but they will help offset some of the burden for five people we care about deeply.

And we looked globally.  All the research indicates that financial security for families and educating girls are linked.  If there’s not enough money in the family, then girls are kept home – to collect water, care for younger siblings – and then are married off, where they start families at a young age and start the cycle again.  Breaking that cycle is essential to combat poverty, and we’re targeting it through Heifer International. 

This is how it works.  We purchase an animal, like a goat or a cow, and then Heifer gives that animal to a needy family and teaches how to care for it.  The family raises the animals and then profits from the labor or protein produced.  The families have a singular requirement: once the animal reproduces, the family must “pass on the gift” and give a female animal and some training to another family in their community.  I love this benevolent model.  The families work hard to emerge from poverty and they share their bounty with others; together, entire communities work hard, improve their situations, and create a sustainable economy.  A small act of generosity on our parts here will pass from family to family there over many years; according to Heifer International, the original monetary donation causes a chain that passes along to 9 families!  Each one of us is a philanthropist then, and the culture of giving grows. 

These small and mid-size gifts matter and cause great change.  Consistent donations allow non-profits to plan and create a reliable budget, to start or continue programs, to grow in impact.  Small, consistent donations are the life-blood of non-profits world-wide, and they have a measurable impact in their communities.  For instance, in 1938, the March of Dimes began its fundraising fight against polio.  In its first year, it raised $1.8 million, $238,000 of which were 10 cent contributions.  By 1959, this model had raised $622 million, which was enough to fund Jonas Salk’s vaccine and eradicate the disease nation-wide.  This mind-boggling achievement occurred as a result of small, steady donations from folks of all walks of life.

You have the capacity to make great change in the world.  I encourage you to think about your own volunteerism and philanthropic giving.  If you are participating in reactionary ways rather than thoughtful ones, then you can get more from your giving.  I’m not talking tax deductions or your name on an Annual Fund donor roll; I’m talking personal inspiration.  Giving is more rewarding than receiving, and what we do with the money and time we have is key to personal happiness.  My family is inspired to give more because we are giving thoughtfully; my family has more of a personal connection to our gifts because we are giving thoughtfully.

If you are interested in increasing your service, you have so many options.  You can think about what your passions are and do advocacy work in those areas.  You can research what your community needs and step in to fill that role.  You can ask a friend if you can join him on a service project he already does.  Get together and do service rather than getting together to do coffee!  See what your children are passionate about and volunteer together to target those areas.  You can use resources like or the United Way Volunteer Center to connect your talents and abilities with worthwhile people and organizations. 

If you’re looking for ways to introduce your children to philanthropic giving and the wide variety of needs in this world, I recommend checking out Foundation Beyond  Each fiscal quarter, FBB highlights charities that have measurable evidence of making a positive impact in their service area.  As a family, you select a contribution level (which starts at $5 a month) and then you allocate your donation among the recommended charities.  Talk about the charities with your children and then let them choose the allocation.  Have your kids track the donation’s impact.  Model empathy – let your children see that you value and understand the needs of others – and let them practice it as well.  Start a family gratitude journal.  These conversations and these actions will help broaden your children’s perspectives on the world, foster a sense of agency, and develop a philanthropic mindset of giving.

Once you’ve figured out your own gratitude list, it’s time to determine your generosity goals.  What do you hope to accomplish with your donations of time, effort, and money?  How will you measure success?  How will you stay connected?  Then explore various options out there and choose philanthropic and service paths that suit your income, outlook on life, giving philosophy, and faith.  You will find your right fit, make new friends, have great experiences, and reap the benefits that giving brings.

In the end, a philanthropic gift of time or money is an expression of love.  Whatever you thoughtfully give – no matter its form or size – has significant value that exceeds its monetary amount.  Feeling good about your gifts will help you get more from your giving, and it will inspire you to be a better person. 

I know that money is a touchy thing.  American consumerist culture teaches us that our primary pursuits in life are to get more money so that we can get more things; at least, that’s how it feels to me sometimes.  This model is self-centered and ignores the basic needs of so many in our world community.  I really don’t like it.

My favorite author, Patrick Rothfuss, has this to say on the subject:
“If you have one piece of cake, and you eat it, that’s fine.  If you have two pieces of cake, you should probably share some with a friend.  But maybe not.  Occasionally we could all use two pieces of cake.  But if you have a whole cake and you eat all of it, that’s not very cool.  It’s not just selfish, it’s kinda sick and unhealthy.  And if you already have two cakes and you keep trying to get more cakes so you can eat all the cake yourself … well, that’s really awful.  Some people out there don’t have any cake at all.  Some people don’t even have dinner, let alone dessert.  There are kids out there who are hungry all the time, with no books at all to read, no beds to sleep in, no homes to come home to, no safe places, no sweet dreams. 
That’s why I do all the charity work.  Because the world isn’t as good as I want it to be.  […] And my philosophy is that people are inherently good.  I believe when given the chance, people will happily line up to make the world a better place.  The truth is, you don’t have to be a billionaire to change the world.  The truth is, if you donate 30 bucks, it will change someone’s life.  Forever.” 

My family could have chosen a more self-centered model for our lives; we could have hoarded all of our time, energy, and money over multiple decades and focused it all on us.  But that’s not the environment I was raised in, and it’s not how I want to raise my kids.  It’s not the Ethical humanist way.  I would rather have a culture focused on giving, sharing, helping, and recognizing the worth of others.  Through small daily actions, we’re doing our part to make it happen. 
Thank you.

Three post notes:  First, whatever money you donate today to the Ethical Society, my family, with the help of Thomson Reuters, will double its amount and send to Heifer International.  Please consider giving generously.  Second, on October 5th, at 10 a.m., the Parent Talk discussion will focus on how to do community service as a family, and I encourage all who are interested to come.  Third, if you’re interested in pursuing the ethical questions regarding philanthropy and international poverty, please check out Peter Singer’s book The Life You Can Save.  Kudos to Christine Floss for recommending it to me and implicitly challenging my family to give even more.  It sparked many conversations this week.

Thank you for your time and attention today.