A Radical Experiment In Generosity Launches!

Posted by Nipun Mehta on May 14, 2007
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"Imagine walking down the street and a woman comes up to you and says, 'Hello. I have an offering for you.' Puzzled, you look up and in your palm falls a $7500 check. 'Why me?' 'Serendipity,' she says. 'What should I do with it?' 'Whatever you want.' 'How did you decide on $7500?' 'We sat in a circle of silence, wrote down a number on a piece of paper and it averaged out to $7500.' And then she walks away. Now that's a pretty ridiculous story, but that's what has brought us together here. Except that instead of running into this woman on the street, I ran into her on the Internet," I open.

Fifteen of us are sitting in a circle, in a 30-foot diameter yurt in Upper Hudson Valley of New York, at Miriam's Well. None of us knew everyone. We assembled to experiment with a radical, gift-economy approach to philanthropy.

Our experiment is simple -- a buddy picks a Generosity Entreprenuer (GE) and hands him/her $500 to "pay forward". A few of us got together to pick five diverse buddies whom we trust; in turn, they each picked their five GE's whom they trusted to be cultural creatives committed to the spirit of service. Trust driven philanthropy, one can say.

No one knew what to expect. And that was exactly the point.

We start with a circle of sharing -- "What was an experience of generosity that moved you?"

"Yesterday, I was in Manhattan, struggling to put on my cycling shoes right before I took off on my bike. Then, all of a sudden, I feel this chair scooting in behind me. The African American guy -- who was setting up a stall to sell sunglasses -- took the chair he was sitting in, brought it all the way around to give it to me. Sure, it was a small thing but here I was in the middle of all this big buildings and offices and larger than life corporate logos, and an everyday Joe goes out of their way to help a stranger. I was so touched," Silas opens. "In a brief conversation afterwards, he tells me, 'You know, I don't have much but I have my freedom.' That is perhaps it. Things we own end up owning us and here was a man who chose to be free. And that freedom perhaps led him to care for a stranger. It was small but deeply generous."

Next in the circle was Adam, a professional soccer player turned Hollywood actor. "One time I was on the streets with a soccer ball, just kicking it around. A homeless guys sees it and joins in; from a distance, a 6 year old blond girl comes out of her house, another student comes in. No words are said but we're all coming together just kicking a soccer ball. More people start coming in, and it this spontaneous community."

Such stories can really shift the ambience of a room. Or a yurt. :)

"I'm not really sure why I'm here," a woman says with a perplexed look. She had brought her adorable few month old son (who loved to hear his mumbles amplied over the mic!). "But I think being a mom has been my powerful experience of generosity."

It's a very diverse circle of fifteen people. An editor of a local magazine, a Native American practicioner, a former news-show producer, a Zen-Buddhist chaplain, a MD who's been studying brain waves for years, a Columbia business school student (who was to attend his graduation ceremony the next day!), a retired woman from Slovakia.

Carl, a serial entrepreneur, adds a counter perspective of big-time generosity. "Sometimes generosity can be big acts, too. I once got a six-figure check as a gift to start a business I really cared about. If my business made it, I could pay him back and otherwise, he would write it off as a bad debt. It was to inspire me to do something that had meaning for me, and that was very generous."

Stories around the circle seem to keep getting more and more powerful. Or perhaps it is the ambience getting richer. Many teared as they heard deeply personal stories, often decades old -- like Jenny's story of sitting next to a Holocaust survivor on a bus ride when she was 19 and falling asleep on his left shoulder, or Don's story of his grad school advisor giving him a year off to study meditation or Birju's story of random "coolies" helping with him with the luggage at a train station in South India.

It's so much more powerful to be introduced to people in a space of generosity, instead of the usual, "Hi, my name is Joe and I work for Joey Incorporated". We all felt like old friends.

After an hour of creating a field of stories and experiences, the "buddies" initiate the next part of the evening of making offerings.

"Adam, you are my Generosity Entreprenuer. This is an offering from me to Pay Forward. Thank you for being who you are and for your endless creativity in the world," Silas sincerely opens. It's a big deal for Silas to give $500, considering that he is barely making a living himself. He hands him a scroll that reads:

It's an honor to have you as a Generosity Entrepreneur. As an underground agent of the "gift economy", you are requested to "pay forward" this offering in the spirit of selfless service. While your offering comes from an anonymous donor, it is given in the spirit of deep trust. Thank you for your participation in this experiment of radical generosity.

Carl goes next: "Robert, as soon as I heard of this experiment two days ago, I thought, 'Ah, I know just the right guy!' You are my Generosity Entreprenuer." The only curve ball here was that Robert had no idea that he was going to receive an offering! He just filled up with tears. Here is a heavy-built guy who, twenty minutes ago, had shared his most powerful generosity experience as having received a Native American warrior's chest of bones. In short sentences, he says, "I am touched. This is so special. I feel honored."

Jason, Susan and Birju are the next three to receive their GE scrolls. By the end of it, the money is almost immaterial; there is strong, palpable sense of "love" in the room.

We organically broke into some random, small-group brainstorming. "So are there any rules?" No real rules, per se, but seven guidelines -- which we made up two hours before everyone arrived! -- were listed on their scroll to frame a loose context:

  • Be volunteer run; no one is paid for anything.
  • Don't ask; serve with what is given.
  • Focus on small acts; be the change you wish to see.
  • Serve strangers; consider everyone your family.
  • Don't involve institutions; deepen person-to-person relationships.
  • Expect nothing in return; be selfless.

"What about a time frame?" "Let's say we reconvene in three weeks?" "Well, I've got this idea that might take a bit longer." "Oh yeah, what's that?" "I was thinking that everyday at 8AM, at the same coffee shop, I'm gonna pay coffee for the first person in line. A dollar a day, and I could do it for 500 days in a row." "Wow. Imagine the stories." "And imagine the word of mouth. Everyone will be talking about it." "hahahah, they'll be lining up for their free coffee." "I bet the coffee shop owner will start doing it for free half way through the 500 days." "Wonderful idea!"

Earlier, another idea was suggested -- "I've always had this idea of pass-the-buck. Put a dollar in an envelope that reads, 'Either spend the money to do something good or put it your own dollar and pass it forward.'" Some GE's were soaking it all in. "This feels so sacred. I'm supposed to inherit some money shortly, but this $500 feels way more valuable than all of that. I need to think about this." "I don't even know how to express myself right now. It'll take a couple days to sink in." "They don't teach you how to do this at a business school!"

It's one of those settings where everyone gets jazzed about giving. And there's an emergent sense of a spontaneous community. We all feel like best friends, although we're largely meeting folks for the first time.

The vision of the experiment is that as the GE's give away their $500, all their stories, photos and videos would be available online for public use, and perhaps the onlookers would be inspired to engage (money, time, blessings :)) and perhaps these GE's can keep the ripple going by picking the next Generosity Entreprenuer. And perhaps we can create such ripples in different geographical locations, and loosely connect them virtually. Like all experiment, there are many unknowns, but if the best-case scenario, it could ignite a trust-driven web of giving. Perhaps. :)

As hard as it is to end such gatherings, we huddle for some group photos. We end with a powerful 'Drum Major Instinct' audio excerpt by Martin Luther King, Jr.:

"Oh, I see, you want to be first. You want to be great. You want to be important. You want to be significant. Well, you ought to be. If you're going to be my disciple, you must be." But he reordered priorities. And he said, "Yes, don't give up this instinct. It's a good instinct if you use it right. It's a good instinct if you don't distort it and pervert it. Don't give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be first in love. I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. That is what I want you to do."

We end with a few minutes of powerful silence. It's hard for anyone to leave, but some folks had to drive another 2 hours and it was 10:30PM. :)

"You know, I emailed our donor friend with the invitation to this event. With tears in her eyes, she wrote back a long note while traveling in Panama. She said, 'An apple seed already contains the entire potential of the whole tree, designed and inherent within the consciousness of the seed itself. Could not the consciousness of this gift have been already contained in the spirit of these $7500 that came through? I am blessed. We are blessed.' I thank you, for the honoring the gift of our invisible friend," I conclude.

By the time I check my email, Birju's roommate already wrote saying that his roomie was "pretty stoked"; Jenny wrote with a thanks for "helping me stay courageous and open-hearted"; Carl even wrote an entry on his blog:

I went to a most interesting gathering last night [...] in what I think of as the "Gandhian capitalism" movement. The basic notion is -- don't do it for money. Do it out of love. Do it in service. Do it for free.

The exercise in "generosity entrepreneurship" that I was privy to last night is intrinsically humble, and the commitment on the part of all participants was to hold it in that spirit. Yet we all know, as well, that the Internet has miraculous qualities. Who knows? This humble experiment could catch a spark and end up being broadly inspirational. [...]

"Gandhian capitalism" isn't about transforming our economic system. It's about a revolution of the heart. Or, more rightly put: it's about a revelation of the heart.

Of course, any story of generosity never truly ends. And this is no exception.

Five of us remaining head to dinner at the only-diner-open-after-10PM in Saugerties. Still radiating the gift-economy spirit of the evening, Susan says, "You know, I've got this small stash of cash that people have given me over the years; you know couple of bucks here, couple of bucks there, and a hundred dollar bill that I found. It's not much -- about $230 -- but it's got soooo much goodwill. And energy. That's the real currency. I should give it away sometime." Inspired by Susan, Sarah adds in her own five hundred cents: "Actually, I have this $5 bill that I'd like to add to that pot. It was my husband's first pay-check, back in the 50s!"

The next morning as Silas -- one of the coordinators of this experiment -- departed Miriam's Well, Susan paused their board meeting, and with tears down her eyes, surprised Silas with those $230 from her Tibetan sachet bag. Completely awestruck, Silas was speechless (and sweating!). To be honest, all of us were speechless by Susan's over-the-top offering. In the car ride to the train station, a stunned Silas remarked: "What I'm experiencing right now, this cuts deep. It's not adrenaline; it's so much deeper."

To think that the acts of generosity haven't even started!

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