Generosity isn’t just about what you do. It’s about who you are. It’s a quality of personhood.
Usually, we limit it to money, but generosity is more than giving excess money to charity. Generosity is deeper than money and wider than philanthropy. It is more than dropping your loose change in the Salvation Army bucket at Christmas time, sharing your old stuff with those in need, or writing a check to get a tax deduction.
Generosity is an attitude, a lifestyle, a posture of living. Generous people give and share in every currency—wisdom, success, energy, credit, care, time, and yes, money. These are all actions that originate from within, marked by compassion stretching from ourselves out to others.
Generosity not only sees and empathizes with a need, but it also moves to meet the need. It’s not a mechanical transaction but a personal passion and a relational connection. Alan Gotthard, managing director of TriniD Capital told me, “Most people don’t give because of strategy. They give because of relationship.”
But what about on the business and organizational front? Can a business be known for its generosity? Can an enterprise develop a culture of generosity?
Generosity used to be a section of the corporate budget, a greater or lesser piece of the pie depending on the needs of the moment and the generosity of the ones holding the purse strings. It’s radically different now. If generosity was once a piece of the pie, now it’s an ingredient baked into the whole pie.
Generosity has made the shift from a kind-hearted mannerism to a powerful brand that is becoming an influential force in the marketplace and the world.
Why has this happened? I see at least three reasons:
- The rise of the cause-oriented generation. Millennials think about and donate time, money, and experience differently than the previous generation. It is not an add on so to speak, but part of their identity and existence.
- The leveling effect of technological advances. It’s not just the United Way and your local church anymore. Through communications technology and social media publicity, even those engaged in the smallest social good efforts can have a global platform. You can get shares on Facebook, likes on Instagram, retweets on Twitter, even money through Kickstarter. Sharing about good work is incredibly easy. Today, the challenge is not finding but choosing.
- The publicity given generosity by celebrities. Steph Curry posts on Instagram about one of his favorite charities, “Nothing but Net,” to spark malaria awareness. Jennifer Aniston promotes St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. Bill Gates has recast himself as a philanthropist rather than the founder of Microsoft. The list goes on and on.
Generosity has gone from something we hope of companies to something we expect of them. This demands a new business model, a model that says you must make a difference as well as a dollar at the same time. A 2016 study found that 84% of Americans believe that businesses have the responsibility to bring about positive social change.
Accordingly, in 2017, organizations have two options—build a company “with” a cause or build a company that “is” a cause. Both are viable options.
A company with a cause is a company that wants to get passionate about generosity. They can do this quietly (and many do) or loudly as “cause marketing.” This is Aflac selling a plush duck to raise money for research and treatment of childhood cancers. Or Brooks Brothers collecting coats for the homeless. Or Pizza Hut committing to early childhood literacy. This Forbes article, written in December 2015 about cause marketing trends lists more than 10 different companies—from Coca-Cola to Nationwide to Bloomingdale’s—all with creative ways to promote causes.
A company that is a cause is a company that exists solely for the purpose of doing good. TOMS Shoes is the most famous example, but there are lots out there. Joyn is one of my favorites, with their motto of “Fashioning Better Lives.”
And the space between these two is getting slimmer by the day.
In both categories, keep in mind that there has been a shift from corporate philanthropy to cause marketing. It’s no longer just about giving help but is now about doing good and showing good. Marketing has become an essential element in doing good.
The challenge, of course, is often generous people and organizations feel tension with promoting their generosity. Self-promotion should always feel clumsy and cause marketing can feel a bit slippery.
But it can be done well. Here are three tips.
- Bake generosity into your DNA. It must be part of your culture, not just an “add on” to promote yourself. Offer staff volunteer time off as well as vacation time connected to purposeful exploration. Promote non-profits you support internally by posting their pictures, bringing them to staff meetings, etc.
- Tie your generosity as closely as possible to your core business. This is what Ebay tries to do. If you’re in the marketing world, offer marketing consulting and services to non-profits you care for. If in sports apparel, donate to low-income schools or overseas needs.
- Practice generosity internally. It is often common for a company to be very generous externally but come up short with their own employees and families. Make sure all the effort doesn’t escape your own team.
Let’s face it: generosity is cool right now, and (hopefully) it’s not going away anytime soon. Shifts will continue in the look of generosity, but generosity will continue. And that’s a good thing. We didn’t start generosity and we won’t end it. But when we become generous, the future is marked by that generosity.
Want to hear more of my thoughts on this? Check out my book, The Business of Generosity.
Steve is an organizational strategist, social innovator, pragmatic theologian, executive coach, and mentor. Over the past 25 years Steve has helped hundreds of organizations launch and scale, while authoring over 15 books aimed at showing business people how to flourish in their life and work.