Why Giving Well is Living Well

 

Shortbread Christmas cookies for cups

Several years ago, before I shifted from being an employee to focusing on my writing, I was a development officer, also known as a fundraiser. One of the most fulfilling parts of the job was getting to know my donors—not their capacity for giving, because I quickly learned that most people want to give, to be a blessing—but learning why giving back was important to them.

These were generous people and it was an honor to get to know them and their families. I loved hearing their stories because I realized that few of the benefactors that I met came from enormous wealth; it was just that they had an enormous inclination to share their blessings with others. And the gifts were not always monetary, some gave time, some gave lectures or internship advice, others hosted events. Part of being creative about giving is recognizing that it is not always necessary to write a check to serve others. If you can, that is great, but all of us have some unique gift we can share with the world.

Some people consider fundraising it to be primarily a sales job—I did not approach it that way. I was often told, “I could never ask people to give me money.” I never viewed it as asking them to give the money to me; it was clearly going for a bigger cause. It took time and many conversations, but I got to know them, they invited me into their lives and homes, and I still stay in touch with many of them years after I left that position. Because they opened up to me, and I shared parts of my story with them too, I never felt like I was asking a stranger; that would have been awkward. Making an ask was only a part of the overall relationship that developed. I met some of the most creative, interesting, and giving people, and in the end, it was all about relationships.

Every person has their own reason for giving, whether they gift their time, talent or treasure. What I never heard was “I give because I want my name plastered all over the place, ” or “Now, can you make sure that everyone knows I did this big thing, made this gift? Because that is why I do this.” Did I thank them and was the recognition sometimes public? Of course—saying thank you is one of the first things we teach children. The other behavior we teach is how to share, perhaps to let a friend or sibling play with a favorite toy. My granddaughter is at the age where she is learning to say “Thank you.” Sometimes it takes a gentle reminder; sometimes she knows to say it on her own. We start this when they are young because we believe that part of being an adult is this world means knowing that we are here to help each other get through life, in the best way we know how, so we share what we have, and when someone shares something with us, we say “Thank you” to express our gratitude.

We give or share because there is something about giving that expands our lives, helps others and touches us in a personal way. We also give because we have been blessed or are equipped to help another person. We see a need, and something inside lights the spark that illuminates a life. We each have our own reasons, but every reason is valid and important. Gratitude can birth more giving, as one who receives kindness decides to pay it forward in some small or large way.

I have been mulling over this idea of giving over the last few months. As a writer, I have a flexible schedule that gives me the freedom to schedule my time so that I can show up for a fundraising event, or raid my cupboards to see if I have something that can be donated and used by others. By supporting an event I don’t mean buying an expensive table at a gala, although that is one way. It can mean buying the five-dollar ticket to a fundraiser, or showing up for a charity walk; there are innumerable ways to get involved. I want to make good use of my time while staying committed to my writing, projects, and family.

Some of my concern for how I should be giving back is driven by the outcome of the U.S. presidential election. I have seen so many people disheartened by the outcome, while others are elated, and I am concerned that part of the call is for me to find ways to engage with a community in a way that makes it better. I am exploring how to do this; I am evaluating my giving practice (time, skills, or money) to make sure I am supporting the programs that matter most to me, the ones that provide help or assistance in areas that align with my values.

December can be a hectic month, full of trips to the mall or online journeys to make certain that everyone on the giving list gets the gift of their dreams. I, like many others, have a small list of people for whom I buy presents and I delight in finding just the right item. However, for the next few weeks, I wish to create a better life by finding ways to give not just to my inner circle, but I want to expand that circle in some way so that I am fulfilling one of the most important roles for which I was sent here—to bless others, to see their needs and not look away, to use my gifts to improve the lives of other people, to encourage, to cheer up, make laugh, or to listen. Many of these gifts don’t have a price tag, and I know that I need to give them more freely.

Giving has become more of an imperative for me because I am alarmed by some of the negativity that I see in the world, and I know that if my reaction is to completely detach from the sources of it, and the people who perpetuate it, I will become diminished, small, angry and suspicious of those around me. It’s selfish, but I hope that by engaging in positive efforts to change the world for the better, I will create the kind of world that I want to live in, and is welcoming to those who also want a more just, kinder, safer world. I want to live a good life. Don’t we all?

One of the ways I think I can do this, live a good life, is by becoming more intentional in my giving, more active in my sharing. I was reading the writing of Henri J. M. Nouwen, a spiritual guide and teacher. He came from a Christian context, but I think his words might apply more broadly; I don’t think they are necessarily limited by a particular faith tradition. I would like to share a bit of what he wrote:

All Christian action—whether it is visiting the sick, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, or working for a more just and peaceful society—is a manifestation of the human solidarity revealed to us…It is not a nervous effort to bring divided people together, but a celebration of an already established unity.

That is where I want to come from—the vision that there is already an established unity, a desire for peace and generosity present in the world, and that my role is to tap into that through my own action and behavior. It is not to ignore the forces that are grasping and divisive in the world, but rather to understand my role and responsibility in moving closer to the unity that is already there. That vision will drive my giving and is fueled by my gratitude, and I hope it will improve the communities I live in. In December, as I think about giving and receiving gifts, I want to give equal time to sharing gifts that cannot be presented in a wrapped box topped with a bow. Just as I used to talk to others about how to connect their values with opportunities to give, I am going to look at the world around me, figure out where my gifts align with a need, and do more towards using them to support others.

 

Photo by Natasha Breen

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