We tend to think that generosity is all about money. We hear “giving” and we think about a cash gift or perhaps some other material transfer, such as in-kind donations. We think about tithing, about foundation grants, about microlending, about child sponsorship checks, about pallets of relief supplies paid for by $10 texts to the Red Cross. And generosity does include all of that. But the truth is, generosity is deeper than money and wider than philanthropy. It is more than just writing a check or dropping your loose change in a can called Help. It isn’t best measured in transactions completed or numbers reached.
Just as there are many economic currencies around the world—dollars and dinars, pounds and peso, yens and yuans—so there are many “currencies” of generosity. What are they? Well, there is the currency of giving one’s time. The currency of physical energy. The currency of wisdom sharing. And that’s not all. How about the currency of listening? The currency of empathy for those in pain? The currency of willingness to share one’s connections and network with another?
The borders of generosity extend way beyond the confined precincts of money. One thing this means—and be thankful for it—is that generosity isn’t only for the rich.
In my view, generosity has for tool long been too narrowly branded as referring to wealthy people giving away fractions of their fortunes. We may not have much money, but we can volunteer to teach literacy to immigrants or swing a hammer for Habitat for Humanity. We may not have much money, but we can seed a reclaimed prairie, distribute blankets to the shivering homeless, or drive the elderly to doctor appointments. As my good friend Mike Rusch of Pure Charity recently reminded me, “It is the requirement of everyone to participate in some way.”
Linguistic historians tell us that the word generosity has evolved from meaning “of noble birth” to referring to a nobility of spirit revealed in open-handedness toward others. Generosity is not a case of noblesse oblige but a democratic potential open to us all.
Generosity conceived only in terms of excess funds given away by the affluent, then, is too limited. It’s also dangerous. And it’s one reason why the word charity has acquired a distasteful flavor in the mouths of many people. Social entrepreneur Muhammad Yunus describes charity this way in Banker to the Poor:
When we want to help the poor, we usually offer them charity. Most often we use charity to avoid recognizing the problem and finding the solution for it. Charity becomes a way to shrug off our responsibility. But charity is no solution to poverty. … Charity allows us to go ahead with our own lives without worrying about the lives of the poor. Charity appeases our consciences.
Generosity isn’t just about giving away a portion of our cash. “It’s about an attitude, a lifestyle, a posture of living,” Greg Spencer of The Paradigm Project told me. It is something that both originates organically and permeates every facet of our life.
Another friend, social entrepreneur Jeff Shinabarger, goes so far as to say, “Money is the last part of generosity. If you had no money, you could still be known and branded as a generous person.”
But there’s a big nevertheless that goes with all this.
Although generosity is more than financial, nevertheless there is a good reason why we usually link generosity with money in our thinking. Many times, it’s money that creates possibilities for other things to happen. For example, if we’ve got cash in our wallet, it gives us the opportunity to buy a meal for a hungry person we meet on the street. A company that’s turning a profit is more apt to spend money on its own people and causes that come its way. A church that’s in the black at the end of its fiscal year has a greater chance to direct extra support to its missions.
We would be unrealistic to think money isn’t a very important form of currency. But we’d be myopic to think that the only currency of generosity is money.