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Happy Generosity Day 2013!

I’m not one of those people who hates Valentine’s Day because it’s been overcommercialized. Maybe it’s because, in my house, we keep it very simple. We do not exchange anything store-bought. Instead, we make little cards for one another and have a special dessert in the evening.

For my family, it’s become a sweet, little celebration, and I’ve been pretty content with it. Until I heard about Generosity Day. More specifically, until I saw this video. (Note: The link at the end is outdated; for more information on Generosity Day 2013, click here.) 

After watching the video, I started poking around to see what Generosity Day was all about. I learned that the whole idea came from Sasha Dichter, Chief Innovation Officer with the Acumen Fund (read our recent interview with Sasha). In 2009, after refusing to give money to a homeless person on the train, Sasha realized that he had a habit of saying “no” to people. So he decided to conduct a personal generosity experiment. For 30 days, Sasha vowed to say “yes” to every request made of him—from “every beggar on the street, every musician, every nonprofit.”

He realized that he had always been hiding behind doing what was smart (writing a check to a homeless shelter, for example, rather than giving money out on the street) than what was right. He also realized that saying “yes” requires repetition and practice. And, as Sasha practiced saying yes every day, he began to feel like a generous person. A couple of years later, Sasha mentioned his generosity experiment to a fellow panelist at Social Media week in 2011, and Generosity Day was born. Sasha wrote the following on his blog:

“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.” 

The goal of Generosity Day 2013 is a simple one. Instead of encouraging everyone to say “yes” to every request that day (although you’re welcome to try this!), the organizers are encouraging every person to commit to a simple act of kindness. The goal is to encourage 1 million acts of kindness this Valentine’s Day.

My initial reaction to the idea of Generosity Day was positive—I love the idea of transforming Valentine’s Day into a celebration that is accessible to everyone, regardless of whether you’re in a relationship or not. And I really like the idea of personally extending the holiday to include people outside of my immediate family. But I also felt a little scared. A few years ago, I had actually conducted my own generosity experiment. 

I had read 29 Gifts: How a Month of Giving Can Change Your Life by Cami Walker. In the book, Cami writes about how, just a month after her wedding, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. As a result, she became bitter, isolated, and addicted to pain medication. In need of help, Cami turned to a South African healer, who instructed her to give away something every day for 29 days. Cami takes the advice, and her life is transformed.

There was one quote in the book that I found particularly inspiring. The South African healer tells Cami that: “By giving, you are focusing on what you have to offer others, inviting new abundance into your life. Giving of any kind is taking a positive action that begins the process of change. It will shift your energy for life.” With three kids under the age of 5, I felt like I needed a shift in energy. I decided to give a gift every day for 29 days.

My generosity experiment was a complete failure. The first day, I gave a woman standing outside a restaurant a gift card to the restaurant. The woman thought I was trying to scam her somehow, so it ended up being an awkward exchange. The second day, I bought a pie for a neighbor I didn’t know very well. I spent so much time worrying about what my neighbor would think about this unexpected gift that I didn’t enjoy the giving at all. In fact, when I handed her the pie, I found myself lying and saying we just happened to have an extra rather than admitting that I had specifically bought it for her. The third day, I halfheartedly donated money to a charity. The fourth day, I quit and felt awful. 

The truth is that I am very comfortable being generous when the giving is in my comfort zone. I will always volunteer to help a relative or friend. I’m a room parent and a Girl Scout leader. I’m not afraid of giving my time and energy and, when my tight budget allows it, money as well. But when it involves reaching out to a stranger or even an acquaintance, I start feeling very vulnerable. Is this person going to want my gift? What will they think my motives are?

Most of us feel the impulse to be generous several times throughout our days. But this impulse often gets drowned out by these feelings of vulnerability. Since my disastrous generosity experiment, I have learned much more about vulnerability from Brené Brown, the author of Daring Greatly. Brown writes that the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is a measure of our fear and disconnection. She also writes that:

“Vulnerability is the core of all emotions and feelings. To feel is to be vulnerable. To believe vulnerability is weakness is to believe that feeling is weakness. To foreclose on our emotional life out of a fear that the costs will be too high is to walk away from the very thing that gives purpose and meaning to living.”

For me, Generosity Day is a chance to face my fears and try again. In fact, I decided to start a bit early and gave my first gift yesterday. I had concert tickets to see Mumford and Sons both nights they’ll be in town, and, originally, I had planned on going to both shows. Then, I remembered a brief conversation with my daughters’ music teacher where he mentioned how much he loves Mumford and Sons. I don’t know this man very well, other than to nod and smile when we see each other. But I decided to offer him my extra tickets and tell him that they’re a gift from me. 

I was nervous that he was going to think I was some crazy parent looking to bump up my kids’ grades (they don’t even get real grades in music, but I still had this irrational fear!). Or that he would think that it was weird that I even remembered this brief exchange in the lunchroom. But I ignored the fears, and offered the tickets. And he was thrilled! And I was thrilled! I felt like someone had just given me free tickets to see my favorite band. 

This Generosity Day, I am going to go out of my way to say “yes” as much as possible and to reach out to as many people as I can.  

What will you do on Generosity Day? You can…

  • Give money to a street musician, a homeless person, your favorite charity
  • Donate old clothes to a Goodwill
  • Leave a $5 tip for a $2 coffee
  • Introduce yourself to someone you see every day but have never spoken to
  • Bring in lunch for your co-workers
  • Give someone a compliment

For a terrific list of kindness ideas, see here.

We would love to hear your personal generosity stories. Please feel free to share your stories and ideas in the comments. We will all feel braver if we know we are not in this alone!

Edna Rienzi is a former lawyer, current mom of three, and volunteer with the Center for a New American Dream.

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