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The Gift of Giving part 1
by Rob Fletcher

Vincent Van Gogh said, “How can I be useful, of what service can I be? There is something inside me, what can it be?” There are 1.5 million charitable organizations in the US; there are 86,400 seconds in a day, and an infinite number of possible answers if we ask ourselves Van Gogh’s beautiful question. How best can we serve? What can we give?

When contemplating giving, it’s helpful to expand the horizons of what we may imagine giving to mean. Of course it includes formal giving, whether volunteering or philanthropy. But it also includes the countless opportunities each day (Hence the 86,400 seconds in a day statistic) we have to give informally to the people we know around us, give to ourselves and of ourselves, and to people and things in the larger world that we don’t know. We each have unique gifts and myriad opportunities to use and give them. The field of Emotional Intelligence tells us that emotions are contagious, so even each emotion we feel and express is a form of a gift. Giving is something we can do every day.

The Growing Orbit of Giving

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke said, “I live my life in growing orbits.” The first orbit starts with the self. The next orbit might be those small generosities, the daily giving you can do for those around you.

What can you give to your co-workers, your family? What would they most appreciate? Your time? What’s the quality of your time – would they wish to see you relaxed, healthy and content and share that moment with you – then it may help you to give to yourself – whether it’s exercise, quiet time, time spent with friends and your community, whatever refreshes your batteries, in order to give what people would most like from you

The next orbit may be to help strangers, people you don’t know, to find a way to make even that connection feel like home. Pema Chodron recommends starting with what’s easiest, then moving incrementally to what’s harder. Ideally giving is for both you and the world. If it’s just one of those, then you’re missing something valuable.

The Joy of Giving

In a sense, giving is the best way to experience the feeling of contentment. It’s a way of saying to yourself, “I have more than I need to be happy.” It’s a way of practicing the concept of abundance. Imagine your day, your workplace as a banquet or a pot-luck dinner, filled with wonderful and perhaps not-so wonderful things. The question is – what do you have to offer? You know you’re going to enjoy many different dishes. What would you like to bring to the feast? No matter the individual quality of the contribution, the sum of the whole at a pot-luck is almost always a happy, spirited affair.

My coaching clients tell me of worrying about not being good enough. A frequent challenge teams face is a feeling of unspoken internal competition, an unconscious measuring and competing against people on the same team. The joy of giving is one of the surest methods of overcoming these traps. Even if on the face of it you don’t yet believe “I have something to give,” know that there’s a wiser part of you, sometimes difficult to access, who knows this to be true. And nothing will help you to believe something quicker than acting like you already believe it. For example, volunteering for Hospice has proven for many people to be an effective way of dealing with their personal grief over losing a loved one, either literally through a death or metaphorically with a relationship ending.

How can you most joyfully give? Look at what you’re drawn to. Would you prefer to give your energy, your monetary wealth or a combination of the two? Do you prefer formal volunteering and philanthropy or every day ‘guerilla’ giving? Do you prefer to give in a strategic way for maximum positive impact and social change? Or do you prefer to give in a way in which you have the most connection, can see and be part of the positive change?

If you’re in a place where the giving pains you – something about it is forced, or you know you’ll be too worried about the money you pass along, or already feel the emptiness before you’ve given, you may not be ready to give. In this case, the best option may be to spend some time looking at what you need in your life that you’re not getting in as compassionate a way as possible. But if you’re even wavering a little bit, ponder what Peyton Conway March says, “There is a wonderful mythical law of nature that the three things we crave most in life – the happiness, freedom, and peace of mind – are always attained by giving them to someone else.” Give giving a try in small ways – it’s the small daily gifts that make all the difference.

Giving to Yourself

What small graces can you allow yourself today? Each small gift you give yourself has the seed to be a larger gift to those around you. When Walt Whitman spoke of being alone out on the road, he remembered all those he knew and said, “I am filled with them and will fill them in return.”

Research shows that only two in ten people spend most of a typical day playing to their strengths. Yet Marcus Buckingham points out that research also shows that those lucky people “are significantly more productive, more customer focused, and more likely to stick around than the rest of us.” When you live a strong life, doing what you uniquely enjoy, you experience contentment. And that contentment is a gift to all those around you. This is one reason why people have pets – a cat purring contentment when curled up on a couch is a soothing gift. And when you live your unique life, following the path that was meant only for you, you inspire those near you to do the same, to examine and explore their gifts.

Top 5 Reasons Why People Give
  1. Because they are asked, or presented a giving opportunity
  2. Compassion for those in need
  3. Personally believe in the cause
  4. Affected by the cause
  5. To give back to their community

The Daily Difference

Each moment of each day affords us an opportunity to give – the question is how to take them. Each interaction we have with friends, colleagues, family members, and strangers has the potential for giving. In this case, it’s helpful to get away from the idea of a literal physical gift. Each positive interaction we have, each shared smile or courtesy enriches everyone involved. Loretta Girzartis said, “If someone listens, or stretches out a hand, or whispers a kind word of encouragement, or attempts to understand a lonely person, extraordinary things begin to happen.” And these extraordinary things all come from otherwise ordinary moments on an ordinary day.

What can you give today?
What are three ways to give today, this week?
  • Take one quote from this article and put it in front of you.
  • Write down one way to give something small today to:

1 – Someone you know and like
2 – Yourself
3 – A Stranger
Bonus: 4 – Someone you know and don’t like

This can be an action, a smile, help, a courtesy, or an actual physical gift. Whatever it is, remember the two keys: small and daily.

  • Think of someone you’d like to keep in your thoughts or a place that’s experiencing pain, unrest, or need.

Put some reminder of that person or situation in front of you on your desk – either a photo or a note. Every time you glance at the reminder, pause for a few seconds and bring them to mind, and perhaps sound out a wish that they are happy in this moment, or that their suffering is just a little lighter. It’s a nice way to pause from what you’re working on and refresh.

You may need to move the reminder around periodically in a day to keep noticing it. You can select a new person the next day or keep one around for up to a week.

Another twist on this is to set an alarm on your Outlook or iCal calendar or an actual alarm for a certain time of day – 2 PM for example. When you hear the alarm go off, take a minute to think of that person. Or if you prefer action, call them up or send an email. If it’s a situation, tell someone about it, or send an email.

Charity Begins at Home

Let’s look at the phrase “charity begins at home” in two ways. First, giving to others begins with giving to yourself. You can’t fill anyone’s cup from an empty bottle. Just like the emergency instructions on an airplane, you have to put on your own mask and get oxygen first before assisting others. Some of us are uncomfortable with this concept, worried about appearing selfish. Perhaps a better word to use in this case is ‘self-filled.’ You fill yourself in order to give to others. And that means finding out what you love, what strengthens you, what you do best and putting it into play in your life. This advice is especially helpful for people on the edge of burn-out working in non-profits, where giving is the norm, and resources are perennially scarce. When you have enough you can most articulately, elegantly and effectively give to others.

The 5 Most Generous States
(indexed by socio-economic factors)
  1. New York
  2. District of Columbia
  3. Utah
  4. California
  5. Connecticut

(Source: Center on Wealth and Philanthropy)

Adjusting the Focus on Your Lens

Imagine the focus of your attention throughout any given day as a lens. It’s usually adjusted at a very limited view – immediate concerns, people around you, co-workers, projects, everyday interactions. We find it difficult to get deeper in ourselves and also to see with a wider lens the people we don’t know in our community, and further out – to other countries.

Your giving will be most effective when you give in a way that most uniquely reflects you. What are you interested in? Where do you feel is the most need? There are no rules, there is no guidebook – you have to find your own way in all areas of your life, including giving. When you read the stories of famous people who gave so much, from Ghandi to Mother Theresa to Nelson Mandela, they all found the way to give that suited them.

Whether you are drawn to philanthropy or volunteering or the myriad small daily acts through which you can give, or a combination, consider your unique style – what strengthens you when you contemplate giving, what gets you exhausted just thinking about it when giving? Now you know where to focus your energy. Let’s look at two potential avenues for that giving energy: volunteering and philanthropy.

Click here for Part 2 of this article