The Wisdom Blog: Classic & Contemporary Buddhism

Two stories of generosity

by Barbara Bonner
January 15, 2015
Thu, 01/15/2015 - 10:52 -- Barbara Bonner

These are two excerpts from Barbara Bonner’s book Inspiring Generosity.

The Story of Sasha Dichter

There was nothing particularly different about that day. Sasha Dichter was on the S train as usual, heading home from his job in Manhattan as Chief Innovation Officer at the Acumen Fund. As often happens on the MTA, a beggar was asking for money, which he said would be used to purchase food and supplies for the homeless. And, also as usual, everyone was saying no, including Sasha.

But then, it happened: Sasha was struck by a generosity lightning bolt. In a flash, he realized he’d made the wrong choice. In that moment, something in his heart opened to the idea of doing things differently. “I wanted to stop saying no,” he recalls. “I needed to break this habit. I decided I was hiding behind doing what is ‘smart.’”

Sasha’s professional world involves designing and financing massive projects to help people in the world’s poorest areas. His work is at the intersection of philanthropy and business, in search of global solutions for some of our most intransigent problems related to poverty. And yet he had just discovered that he was not personally generous. The realization jolted him into a new awareness: “‘No’ can become who you are,” he says. “I needed a new habit and a new reflex.”

On the spot, he decided that for the next month he would answer only “yes” to any and all requests for money. Beggars, nonprofits, street musicians, mail solicitations— they would all get a “yes.” It was December, so he got a lot of practice addressing the endless stream of year-end appeals in his mailbox. Friends warned Sasha to be cautious, to consider if giving to an organization might be wiser than giving money to a stranger who might use it on drugs or alcohol. But for this month, he resisted employing the careful scrutiny so essential to his professional life. “What was smart was keeping me from doing what was right,” he says.

We can’t always know or count on the results of our generosity. From his work, Sasha had learned that “the smartest philanthropists lead with generosity,” and, in fact, philanthropy itself “is about risk-taking—risks that others won’t take.” Generosity also requires practice, he observed, as the month progressed—and he “started to feel like a generous person.” We may have innate capacities for generosity, but they need to be exercised. Sasha soon learned that his experiment was never really about donating money. What he was giving himself was “a chance to test what it felt like to live with a totally different orientation. It was a commitment to take a door that was too closed for my taste, and open it wide.”

In my own work with generous people, Sasha’s words are borne out over and over again. All of them have had a moment when they have decided to step into a more generous life. Then they have exercised that muscle in a repetitive practice, until the generous act becomes second nature. The effect of the exercise gives every appearance of an “unlocking” of an innate generosity that has been waiting to take shape. Beyond the lessons of philanthropy, Sasha saw just how deeply “people are hungering for something more in their lives—more connection and more meaning.” Generosity is a beautiful choice on that path.

Since that moment on the S train, Sasha has fully embraced his “new habit” of giving. His daily blog that started as a wonderful account of his month of giving now offers his ongoing reflections on generosity in its many manifestations in the larger world. His TED talk on the experiment is one of the most popular in the series. One of Sasha’s recent projects has been a well-orchestrated media effort to transform Valentine’s Day into “Generosity Day.”

The Story of Mary Donnelly

On Block Island, 13 miles off Rhode Island’s mainland, Mary Donnelly, an 83-year-old mother of seven and grandmother of six, is something of a legend. The Mary D. Fund, which she established in 1979, has helped close to a third of islanders with basic needs like rent, medical bills, and mortgage payments.

The longest-working employee of the state of Rhode Island, Mary has been the public-health nurse on this doctorless island for 55 years. In a place where house calls are still a routine manner of health-care delivery, she attends to the medical needs of a year-round population of more than a thousand. Her job allows her to see close up the sometimes crippling financial needs of residents whose income drops off dramatically when the wealthy second-homeowners and vacationers depart after Labor Day. As unemployment can climb upward of 27 percent in the winter months, and essential fuel, medical, and electric bills go unpaid, many of Block Island’s year-round residents have come to rely on the generosity of the Mary D. Fund.

Supported entirely by contributions from individuals who hear about her work, and by the annual Mary D. Ball in the summer, the Mary D. Fund gives away about $50,000 a year in small, individual gifts. Mary oversees all requests and interviews applicants herself. She has only two stipulations: recipients must be year-round residents, and Mary must pay the bills herself, helping recipients avoid the temptation of what she calls “the Poor People’s Pub.”

In deciding which requests to grant, Mary says, “I work with my heart instead of my head.” Running her fund in this way over the years, she has helped 30 percent of Block Islanders pay medical, rent, mortgage, utility, and tuition bills; waterproof their basements after hurricanes; and buy ferry tickets to travel to the mainland for therapy—to name only a few in a long list of pressing needs. In some cases, Mary pays for financial counseling so applicants can learn to manage their money better.

When Mary talks about the needs of her neighbors, she says that taking the time to listen to them is one of the biggest gifts she can give—or that any of us can give. When applauded for her tireless work over many decades, Mary echoes the sentiments of the other generosity heroes in this book: “I am an ordinary person who has been gifted with this.”

A young woman who grew up on Block Island and has known Mary (or, as she calls her, “Mary Mom”) all her life sums up the heart and soul of Mary’s unique gifts: “The most amazing thing I have learned from her is that helping your community, helping a neighbor, caring for a fellow human, is just what you do.”

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