Generosity is arguably a human trait that comes naturally. However, to truly realize your generosity potential, it needs to be continually exercised and strengthened. Generosity involves sharing our time, our treasure, our possessions and our passions. Developing a practice of generosity makes it easier to give, creates flexibility and develops creativity. Just as strengthening your physical muscles has many benefits, strengthening your generosity muscles will benefit your life in a multitude of ways — connectivity, purpose, positive energy and more. When we give, we are less isolated, more connected to communities and issues greater then ourselves. Giving can truly result in greater joy and a life full of meaning.
Barriers: Generosity does not always come easily and there are many real barriers. In a culture enamored with celebrity and great wealth, many people believe that their time and charity is too small to make a difference. This can lead to a feeling of isolation and hopelessness. But truly, every bit of generosity makes a difference, and small sums add up to a greater whole. In both of his elections, President Barak Obama raised his impressive war chest not only from mega-gifts, but also from hundreds of thousands of smaller gifts from around the country.
Another barrier is information overload. With the explosion of technology, we are receiving an avalanche of solicitations from every possible avenue. The sheer volume of requests from so many charities can make us feel overwhelmed and we may tune out.
There are several tools and techniques that can break down these barriers to help you actively build a practice of generosity that will expand your world.
Stretch: One technique is to give a small amount to every request that comes directly from someone you have a relationship with. This takes away the anguish of deciding what is worthy cause and what is not, and weeds through the piles of requests. If someone you know decides that a particular cause or illness or social crisis is worthy of their time to run, swim, bike or call, just make a small donation to everyone. The amount can be modest and will not break your budget. You can opt out of any further correspondence from a charity so that your generosity does not backfire and result in even greater requests. As you build your generosity practice, you will begin to educate yourself about the many issues and organizations. This can help to alleviate information overload as well.
Bend: Another technique is to mark every special occasion as an opportunity for generosity. Whether it is a birthday, a wedding or the loss of a loved one, including generosity as part of the experience adds greater meaning and helps to mark the occasion. It is an easy way to honor someone’s passions and connect to something beyond your self and your own experience. When planning a special event, a donation could be an essential part of the celebration and even part of the budgeting process. Giving to others as an essential part of every special event can be an expression of the shared passions of those involved.
Flex: Another tool is to have a little stash of money that you can give spontaneously, emotionally and impulsively. It could be a bag of change that you keep in your car or some bills ready in your wallet. You can keep a few cans of produce on hand so that you can easily respond to boxes collecting for a food pantry. Maybe it is the kids sitting outside of the supermarket raising money for a particular illness or a bell ringer at the holidays. Prepare for these moments of spontaneity to make the most of them.
Rotate: Donating and/or recycling your possessions are easy ways to engage children in expressing their generosity. As they naturally grow out of their things, consider working with them to find an engaging way to donate their old cloths or toys. Let them explore the possibilities and decide — kids in a homeless shelter, the charity clothing box at a place of worship, the donation box at the town dump. This provides a natural cycle for talking about those in need, both in their own communities and beyond.
Exercising the generosity muscle on a regular basis can only make it stronger. The actual act of giving builds knowledge and confidence — and yes, joy.
Rachel Sagan is executive director of the Acton-Boxborough United Way, serves on several boards at Brandeis University and is an adviser to foundations.