The Case for Microgenerosity

The case for microgenerosity

In a recent post, I talked about the three uses of money: Give, save, spend.

Ever dollar of income that you successfully shield from the tax man is destined for one of these uses. And in the long run, saving is just a temporary thing. Every dollar you save is destines to either be given or spent.

So one way of looking at it is that generosity constitutes half the available uses of money. Most people never think about it that way. Giving is more important than you think it is.

With that in mind, it’s worth taking some time to talk about the practice of generosity. Last time I covered the concept of increasing your standard of giving before your standard of living when your pay increases. I suggested you make a list of people and causes to give to and set up automated donations.

Today, I’m going to argue for a different path.

The Generosity Fund

Every now and then I like to re-read good books. Sometimes re-reading a good book is a better use of your time than reading a new book that turns out to be sub-par.

In this case, the book I just finished re-reading is All the Money in the World by Laura Vanderkam. I’ll be honest, the first time I read it, it doesn’t look like I took any notes on the chapter about giving. This time I took a bunch.

This is one of the reasons you should re-read good books. At different times in your life you’re ready to receive different messages.

Probably the biggest idea that stood out to me was her concept of “philanthropy fun money.” The idea is that 80% of your giving can be the automated variety, but hold 20% back to have fun with. Not to have fun spending, but to have fun giving.

What a beautiful concept.

I also love the term “random acts of microphilanthopy” that she uses, though I prefer the term “generosity” over “philanthropy.”

Here are some examples she gives:

  • Leave a ridiculously large tip
  • Donate crayons to a kindergarten or Sunday school class
  • Pay for a babysitter for a young couple (or offer to babysit for free)
  • Give great gifts (think how you might delight another person)
  • Pay the bus fare for someone whose pass expired
  • Take the office intern to lunch
  • Leave a gift card on someone’s doorstep
  • Donate $20 to the first charity request you see on social media
  • Buy an umbrella for someone caught in the rain
  • Pay the toll for the person behind you on the highway.

Increased Frequency (and Pleasure) of Giving

When you sporadically give small amounts, it means that you end up giving more often.

Chances are that this will both make you happier and make you feel more generous.

Some people feel weird at the thought of doing good for “selfish” reasons. Apparently good deeds don’t count unless they represent a great sacrifice and you do them with a grimace.

I think there’s a kernel of truth to that image. When someone has been stuck in Ebeneezer Scrooge levels of greed for years, then yes, I might expect some level of pain involved in their first good deed (although it’s worth noting that this didn’t happen for Scrooge).

But I hope that people quickly graduate from that level. The highest level of being is one where you take delight in what is right. You’ve re-oriented yourself from desiring bad things and have learned to take pleasure in good things.

In this case, you can actually use “if it feels good, do it” as a moral compass (but only to the extent that your pleasure aligns with that which is good).

For the religious among us who might still be struggling with this idea, I highly recommend the C.S. Lewis essay The Weight of Glory.

Feeling More Connected

Human beings are social creatures.

There’s really no way around this. Even someone like myself, one of the most introverted people you’ll ever meet, needs human connection.

Unfortunately, the modern world is conspiring to remove human connection from our lives. First digital communication. Then COVID.

I’m not sure how many people even know how to talk to strangers anymore.

Microgenerosity helps connect you with your fellow humans in a profound and powerful way.

Not Overdoing It

One of the dangers of generosity is the risk of helping someone who should be helping themselves.

I can’t emphasize enough how dangerous this is.

Human beings grow by facing challenges head on. By working through things. By acting courageously. When you step in and do everything for them, you aren’t helping, you’re hurting.

One obvious example of this is the concept of Economic Outpatient Care, a term coined by the authors of The Millionaire Next Door. It refers to wealthy parents who subsidize the lifestyle of their children.

Of course, these kids don’t ever become as successful as mom and dad, because they feel entitled to the luxuries that mom and dad enjoy, but never needed to learn the work ethic it takes to earn that level of wealth.

So how do you be generous in a way that helps but doesn’t hurt? I don’t have all the answers, but one approach seems to be to give in small amounts. You might view your gift as being “too small to make a difference,” when really it’s enough to bless someone without causing problems.

Fighting the Urge to Get Egotistical

One of the reasons why we’re drawn to gift giving is the opportunity to win glory. Earlier I stated that you shouldn’t worry about deriving pleasure from giving. But you should worry about gaining glory.

This one really is a motivation to be fought.

We don’t give to have buildings named after ourselves. We don’t give so that when someone gives a joyfully tearful account of how their life turned around, they mention us as the linchpin. The reason we give is to bless other people.

The less glory we get, the better.

My First Experiences With Microgenerosity

The first form of microgenerosity I engaged in was an early form of crowdfunding. I don’t think the term existed at the time, but my college church intuitively grasped the concept.

There were several spontaneous crowd funding efforts that sprang up to meet the needs of various members of the church. I want to say this happened about 7 or 8 times in total, but there were three instances that I remember vividly.

In one case our worship leader had her guitar stolen out of her car. We raised money to buy her a new one.

There was another instance where a student was using an ancient desktop computer that wasn’t up to the task of letting him access his online classes. So we bought him a nice laptop.

We had one young lady who we joked was our official church photographer, because she was always taking pictures at events and random gatherings. But her camera was getting old. So we bought her a new one.

The reason why I remember these three so vividly is because they were the ones I was most involved with. Some of the other ones wrapped up before I even heard about them and had a chance to give.

I remember when we bought the laptop, me and another guy were making calls to church members to ask for donations. We got off the phone at the same time and announced that we had just landed the last donation that we would need. Then, realizing we had exceeded our fundraising goal, we decided to buy a laptop case as well.

Receiving Microgenerosity

Giving and receiving are intimately connected. Many people talk about the virtue of giving, but ignore the virtue of receiving.

And unfortunately, many people are poor receivers.

Here’s my advice to you: If you become the target of a random act of microgenerosity, receive it with a smile and a sincere “thank you.” This is winsome and attractive. Don’t reject the gift. Don’t bluster. Please don’t promise to pay the other person back. Just receive.

The act of receiving is the noble act of allowing someone else to be generous.

Don’t you dare deny someone the pleasure and blessing of generosity.

Final Thoughts

The good news of microgenerosity is that you don’t need to be able to give large sums to be generous. You can be generous right now with what you have.

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