In Chapter 2 I addressed the ways that selfishness can get mixed up with generosity, leading to conflicts and dilemmas and quite possibly resulting in more harm than good. There’s no question that we can easily become phony or self-righteous if we’re not approaching generosity from a place of integrity. An “It’s about them; it’s not about me” mentality makes all the difference between pretense and productivity.
But even though doing good for others, rather than feeling good ourselves, should be our principal objective, there’s nothing wrong with feeling good or getting certain other benefits from our generosity as a secondary effect. In fact, it’s normal and proper for someone on the giving side of the generosity transaction to receive an ROI for himself. So much advantage comes out of generosity that you can’t restrict it to the intended recipient—you’ve got to expect some blowback of goodness for yourself!
Generosity has a transforming effect for both individuals and organizations that give.
Our own generosity changes us in so many ways. To start with, it changes how we view ourselves. We may approach generosity in the first place with an arrogant, superior attitude. (How many missionaries and philanthropists have been—often rightly—accused of that?) Kevin McCollum, executive director of Light Bearers, described the situation this way: “There is a high table and a low table. Folks with the money sit at the high table, and those asking for the funds sit at the low table. This can create bad psyches on both sides, arrogance at the high table and despair at the low one.” Fortunately, our pride has a way of getting burned away when we spend time in the crucible of generosity. Working with others who are broken, we recognize our own brokenness. We finally realize that generosity isn’t about getting a lift over others but rather about lifting others up.
In this process, generosity changes what we prize. Whether you chalk it up to survival of the fittest or our sinful nature, we all have a tendency toward self-preservation and self-absorption. Among other things, this means we get tight fisted. But as we engage in generosity works, our valuation of money inverts as we see some of the luxuries that once enticed us as so much foolish fantasy compared to the all-too-real needs others have. We appreciate better what we’ve got. We shed our entitlement mentality. We foreswear our allegiance to the idol Money. Our clenched fists turn into open hands.
Peter Greer of HOPE International says, “When you capture enough of the American dream, you sit back and ask the deeper questions of life, like what brings meaning and fulfillment? God made us to be givers, and it creates joy.”
Generosity also changes how we see others. We see them as our fellow humans, who though hurting or in need, are not inferior to us. In fact, there is a common thread among all people, whether we are giving or receiving generosity—and that is our humanity. And humanity has always implied, and will always imply, imperfection and fragility. We all need help; we can’t make it on our own completely. Generosity bridges our isolation and brings us into community, just as Dave and Mel have found a new, loving community in North India. We all sit at one table.
The changes for individuals are particularly dramatic when we don’t just give away money but rather give of ourselves, getting personally involved in the lives of the people we are trying to serve. We volunteer to help others, but in the process we wind up helping ourselves. In her book Giving 2.0, philanthropy strategist Laura Arrillaga-Andreesen cites two studies showing that people who volunteer are healthier and happier than those who don’t. Our problems are put in perspective and we’re more fulfilled through working with other people.
For some individuals, generosity can in fact be downright redemptive. An extraordinary leader and friend comes to mind. Catherine Rohr, started a program called Prison Entrepreneurship in the Texas corrections system, teaching inmates basic business skills. In five years, five hundred convicts graduated from the program, sixty of whom started their own businesses when they got out. The recidivism rate among the program graduates was one-quarter that of the general prison population. These were lives being turned around.
But then came the time when Catherine herself found some kind of redemption through generosity.
She committed some moral transgressions, and when the news of this came out, it resulted in her getting barred from the Texas correctional system. The scandal made the news and was profoundly humiliating to Catherine. In speaking to groups about her work before then, she would sometimes try to spark empathy for prisoners by rhetorically asking, “What would it be like if you were known for the worst thing you ever did in your life?” With the scandal, now she felt outed and branded by her own worst failure. What was left for her?
She started over again. She went to New York and founded a new organization called Defy Ventures, a year-long program that teaches ex-cons how to start their own businesses. She understands her clients better now, and they accept her better too. Defy Ventures is enabling her to defy the power of her past mistakes to determine her future.
Just like individuals, organizations also go through generosity-induced transformation. They receive an ROI on their giving too.
In the case of nonprofits, generosity is their raison d’être. Generosity is, or ought to be, the dominant gene in their DNA strand. Being involved with the people they are helping keeps them hewing closely to their mission.
Similarly, in the special case of those nonprofits called churches, generosity keeps them well rounded and well grounded. Like the two beams of the cross, they don’t operate just in the vertical dimension of worship and obedience to God but also in the horizontal dimension of loving and serving people. My pastor friend Jim Hall pointed out to me that the Christian church’s founder Himself created these two axes to focus the church’s attention (Matthew 22:37-38). This is what matters:
• First Commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”
• Second Commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus modeled the pattern by living and ministering among the poor. (In fact, He was one of them.) After He left the scene, deacons were quickly appointed alongside the apostles to oversee a feeding program for poor widows. The apostle Paul later collected funds among the Gentile churches of the Mediterranean for famine victims in Judea—an early example of a “cause.” And it was in this context that he said, “Whoever sows generously will also reap generously” (2 Corinthians 9:6), as clear an affirmation as you could wish for the blowback of goodness in the business of generosity.
The Christian church from the very beginning has been involved in practical service. To the extent that it is recovering this vision in the new era of generosity, while holding on to the Jesus orientation that makes its contribution to the needs of the world unique, the church is becoming more like what it has always been meant to be. Service to others is in fact an imperative for all churches, large and small, liturgical and casual, wealthy and poor, urban and rural, contemporary and traditional. And with the clamor for generosity that’s getting noisier by the day in our society, it’s no wonder that growing churches today are ones that are serving with passion, innovation, and effectiveness in Jesus’ name.
Like churches and other nonprofits, for-profit companies also see some measure of transformation coming out of their generosity efforts. If their corporate giving programs are seen in the community, they make good neighbors. If their cause marketing really makes sense as marketing, they earn favorable publicity, attract top talent, and score new sales. If their sustainability measures are successful, they conserve resources and set themselves up for long-term profitability. If they are fully integrated and organic in generosity, then they will become a good place to work.
But beyond all that, getting involved in social work alongside moneymaking has a way of changing a company’s culture. The work seems to matter more, motivating employees. The attitude of service spreads to internal customers as well as external ones. The hard edge of business gets worn away and its impersonal nature becomes humanized.
Every organization ought to hold within its conscience the weight of using its footprint and leverage and brand to bring redemption and transformation. That might feel like a stretch to some, but it really isn’t. It’s simply the way of the business of generosity.