Today in the U.S. is Thanksgiving, a huge holiday that the fortunate will spend with people they love and who have welcomed them into their homes with food and drink and kindness.
We are in suburban Maryland, just outside D.C., with a dear friend and her husband, a fellow journalist who stood in Toronto in September 2011 as our official wedding witness. We’ve visited them many times, but this year were grateful she was able to also welcome a younger friend of ours, a freelancer in D.C. whose mother died a few years ago and whose father lives far away.
We were also grateful recently in Ontario when our friends there welcomed my former sister-in-law to stay the night and dine with us — we live in a one-bedroom apartment, so we can welcome at most two people, (if Jose sleeps on the floor and I get the sofa and the couple get our bed.)
When people have room to spare, (and we always bring gifts and wine and pay for groceries and write thank-you notes!) it’s a blessing.
The opening of one’s home, heart and table are great gifts.
I’ve recently begun following a smart, tough Christian writer and pastor named John Pavlovitz, and his new book, A Bigger Table, brings the same spirit of generosity and openness in a time of deep and bitter social and political division.
I haven’t yet read his book, but I follow him on Twitter and like his voice and his point of view.
Wherever you are today, I hope you’re safe, solvent, healthy, well-loved and well-fed!
I met her for the first time, in March 2014, in the Atlanta airport, when we joined a multi-national, intergenerational, multi-media team heading to rural Nicaragua, to the poorest part of the second-poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. We were going there to help tell stories about their work for WaterAid, a global charity whose sole North American project is in Nicaragua.
Neither of us had ever been there or worked together.
We hit it off immediately, which was lucky, since we spent 12-hour days for the next week working in 95-degree heat and traveling in a cramped van we often had to start with a good hard shove.
She was fun, down-to-earth and someone whose passion for giving back really inspired me, and still does.
As she writes: “A small contribution can make a big difference in someone’s life.”
I read her book carefully and dog-eared dozens of pages in it. It offers six different “giving models”, from everyday acts of kindness, taking action on your passion to giving as a business model. “People often don’t know where or how to give.”
Yes, we all know the big charities, the ones with big advertising budgets…but where does our money go?
Is it being used in ways we respect?
Jen urges you to consider getting the most our of your giving by considering choice, connection and impact. (Do you all know about Guidestar? It is an extensive online database with every possible bit of information about a charity you might be giving to. Check it out first!)
Here’s my Q and A with her:
What’s your goal with this book?
My main goal with the book is to inspire people to think about giving in a different way. I hope it empowers people to recognize their own meaningful ways to give on a regular basis.
Tell us a bit about your past:
I was born and raised in Massachusetts. I went to college at Syracuse University and graduated with a dual degree in Advertising and Psychology. Those majors blended my love for writing, creativity and fascination of human behavior.
I lived in Denver for a short period after graduating college and driving the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile for a summer. Made my way to Maine in 2000 and haven’t had the desire to live anywhere else since! (though I do love to travel!) Was there any emphasis in your family of origin on giving?
Not necessarily. I saw my parents donate money to nonprofits here and there, but there wasn’t a big emphasis on giving or volunteering. I did volunteer a lot while in school. I was always helping out with class events, the yearbook, etc. My parents encouraged me to get involved.
“There are so many more ways to give than just blindly sending a check in the mail”
What prompted you to start giving…was there a precipitating event?
I started working in the nonprofit sector in 2005 because I was looking for more meaning in my work. I guess you could say I’ve always had the pull to give more but didn’t know what to do with it. That’s where I realized that there were so many more ways to give than just blindly sending a check in the mail. I also saw that many people didn’t quite know how to give in the most meaningful way. I would (and still do in my current position) re-direct people and educate them on how they could best help our mission. What sort of reaction did you get when you told people you were making a public commitment on your blog about giving?
People were supportive, of course. But most encouraged me and didn’t necessarily join me. I did it, of course, to show my process and share what I learned. Hopefully it inspired others along the way. It was a great experience
Do your friends and family have the same passion for this as you?
Yes and no. I do have some very inspiring and giving friends who are featured in the book or on my blog. Others are simply soaking it in, which is great too. I’ve met so many passionate people through writing this book. It’s been amazing!
“It’s often those who have the least that give the biggest percentage of their income”
In your experience, has the recession affected Americans’ willingness or ability to give — either time or money?
I believe giving has gone down a bit, as has funding for nonprofits. People still give though. And it’s often those who has the least that give the biggest percentage of their income.
What was the most difficult/challenging part of writing the book?
Finding the time to put it all together! I had so many thoughts, ideas, interviews, stories, research, etc to weave together while going on with regular life as a mom, writer and entrepreneur. I also went through a divorce during the process. I would just find ways to disappear for a few days to concentrate only on the book. It’s was a challenging process but I can’t wait to do it again. The most fun?
Seeing the final product! It honestly didn’t seem real until I could hold the book in my hands. What an amazing feeling.
How does it feel to become an author?
Indescribable. I accomplished a major life goal when I signed my book contract. I am proud to have a published book before I turn 40. It’s about the only thing that has left me speechless!
I know one reason travel moves me emotionally, and why I so enjoy it, is that — 99 percent of the time — it has rewarded my (cautious) trust in the kindness of strangers with what I hoped for. Not robbery or rape or someone out to do me harm, but someone funny and generous and smart who is willing to open their heart and home to me.
Ironically, I’ve only become a crime victim — twice in Canadian cities (break-in, assault) and twice here in suburban New York (auto theft, fraud) — when supposedly safely “at home.”
Many people fear venturing beyond their safe and familiar world, certain that terror and mayhem will ensue.
Not for me and not for my mother, who traveled the world alone in her 40s.
Not for the many women I know who have ventured forth to places like Uganda and Haiti and Nicaragua, alone or with company, for work or for pleasure.
Not for for my many colleagues, male and female, working worldwide in journalism, who often have to rely on local interpreters and fixers and drivers, any one of whom might, in fact, prove to be a kidnaper. Using your smarts, network and instincts, you learn to be discerning.
Not for my young friend, 22-year-old recent Harvard graduate Devi Lockwood, now traveling the globe alone on a post-grad fellowship studying climate change, spending her year surrounded by strangers very, very far away from her Connecticut home; her blog is here.
Here’s a tiny excerpt from her journey:
Sharon retrieves an orange, plastic dreidel from the inside the pocket of her sweater. “With a dreidel, like in life, you have no control. You have to enter into the mystery and take your chances.”
I can’t help but smile at the gesture, the tears of upstairs now dried on my cheeks. Sharon closes her eyes for a moment to bless the object before she passes it into my hands. It is small but larger than itself. She could not have known that orange is my favorite color. I press the object into my own pocket.
It takes an interesting blend of courage, resilience, stamina, self-confidence, and the humility to know and respect local customs of dress and behavior to trust yourself amongst strangers. You need self-reliance and gumption. You need to know how to read a map, (apps don’t always do the trick), and manage in metric and Celsius and other languages.
And — of course — you don’t have to any sort of exotic foreign travel to have this experience. Try a neighborhood in your city you’ve never visited!
I’m in awe at my freshmen writing students’ bravery as so many of them have come from very distant parts of the world, and the U.S., to live, work and study among strangers. I’ve had students from Rome, France, Guam, Hawaii, Mississippi; Canadian college students, in distinct contrast, tend to attend their local universities (partly because there are many fewer of them to choose from and the quality is generally very high.)
You need, in my favorite French verb, to se debrouiller — figure shit out.
My blog posts about how to travel alone as a woman continue to be my best-read.
I’ve finally realized why this sort of unexpected kindness matters so much to me and why it touches me so deeply. Sometimes I’m so thankful it seems overdone, but it’s heartfelt.
I come from a family with plenty of money but one with little time or aptitude for emotional attentiveness. I left my mother’s care at 14 and my father’s home at 19, so have long been accustomed to fending for myself.
As an only child for decades, (step-siblings came later), I simply had to rely on the kindness of strangers in many instances because my own family was nowhere to be found — off traveling the world, long before the Internet or cell phones. Even when they lived nearby, I couldn’t rely on them for emotional or financial support and never, once, had the option of “moving home” back into their houses.
So I discovered that people I had never met before could overwhelm me with their kindness and generosity.
— Gudrun, the wife of a sporting goods executive living in Barcelona, who was then a stringer for Reuters. She welcomed me into her home, left me alone while they went out to dinner, and immediately trusted me. As I did with them. She later let me stay again and even lent me her weekend home.
— Tala, who, hearing we were planning to visit Paris at Christmas, immediately offered us her apartment there.
— Gillian, who invited me to her suburban home there and cooked a lovely meal.
— The young Portuguese couple I met on a train as they headed home to Lisbon to marry. They invited me into their apartment for that week and I ended up becoming their wedding photographer.
It’s instructive to see, also, how sometimes the people with the least to offer materially are so open.
When I visited Nicaragua for work in March 2014 with WaterAid, the second-poorest Western Hemisphere nation after Haiti, I was struck by how genuinely welcoming people were. Yes, we were introduced by locals they know and respect, but I expected little beyond civility. Warmth and genuine connection were a joy, whether in Miskitu through a translator or Spanish, which I speak.
I sat one afternoon, lazing in the blistering heat on a shady verandah chatting with a woman. Marly, a little girl of five, came and sat with me, and let me braid her hair, a sort of easy intimacy I can’t imagine any American child allowing with a stranger, or their fearful parents allowing.
Here’s a sobering/sad New York Times story about Lenore Skenazy, a former colleague of mine at the New York Daily News, who has become (!?) an expert in telling terrified Americans that it’s OK to let their children play outside alone:
A second result is the Free Range Kids Project and a 13-part series, starting Thursday on Discovery Life Channel, called “World’s Worst Mom.” In it, Ms. Skenazy intervenes to rescue bubble-wrapped kids from their overprotective parents by guiding the children safely through a sequence of once-forbidden activities and showing their anxious parents how well the children perform and how proud they are of what they accomplished.
The term “helicopter parents” applies to far more than those who hover relentlessly over their children’s academic and musical development. As depicted in the first episode of the series, it applies to 10-year-old Sam’s very loving mother who wouldn’t let him ride a bike (“she’s afraid I’ll fall and get hurt”), cut up his own meat (“Mom thinks I’ll cut my fingers off”), or play “rough sports” like skating. The plea from a stressed-out, thwarted Sam: “I just want to do things by myself.”
In an interview, Ms. Skenazy said, “Having been brainwashed by all the stories we hear, there’s a prevailing fear that any time you’re not directly supervising your child, you’re putting the child in danger.” The widespread publicity now given to crimes has created an exaggerated fear of the dangers children face if left to navigate and play on their own.
I’m simply sad for these children and the cringing, world-fearing adults they might become.
How will they successfully navigate the many steps toward full economic and emotional independence?
The only way to discover the potential kindness of strangers is to allow for its very real possibility.
“When people are self-employed, you absolutely need to think of how you’re spending your time,” says executive coach Mike Woodward. “That said, charging for the occasional mentoring service is a slippery slope. It’s one thing to brand yourself as a consultant if that’s what you want to do, but monetizing mentoring could become a distraction from your own career goals.”
But call the concept “consulting” and all of a sudden it makes sense to charge.
‘It’s one thing to brand yourself as a consultant if that’s what you want to do, but monetizing mentoring could become a distraction from your own career goals.’
– Mike Woodward
The eponymous creator of Anne Chertoff Media, a boutique marketing agency that caters to the wedding industry, found a similar niche.
“I honestly got annoyed with people taking me to lunch and thinking that the cost of a meal could equal my contacts, expertise and advice, so I created a service called ‘Pick My Brain’ on my website. For $500, I give 90 or so minutes of whatever advice the customer needs,” she explains.
We’ve got two competing impulses — the urge to be generous and helpful to others, which reflects our better nature and realizes that other have done this for us, likely, along our own path.
But in an era of $4.05 (yes, here in NY) gallon gasoline, when my weekly grocery bill has literally doubled in the past few years — and when my industry is offering pennies on the dollar for the most skilled among us, what’s the upside?
Time is money! You take up my time, without payment in any form, you’ve cost me income.
And some skills take decades to hone and sharpen. Anyone who thinks that “picking my brain” will vault them into The New York Times is dreaming; I’ve helped one fellow writer get there because she deserved it.
So I bill my time at $150/hour for consultations and individual counseling. I’m going to raise it in 2015 to $200 an hour.
But…didn’t a lot of people help me? Frankly, not really. A few, yes.
I have mentored many other writers and am, very selectively, still happy to do so.
But when and where and to whom is my choice. In my younger and more idealistic days, I assumed that my generosity would be reciprocated, even thanked. Wrong!
Now I’m too busy funding my own basic needs, and a retirement. I can’t afford to give away hours of my time. It is what it is.
The people I choose to mentor are: bright, highly motivated, say thank you, follow through quickly, and don’t argue endlessly with my advice, (they can ignore it, but arguing feels rude to me.) They do whatever they can in return and, I trust, will share their good fortune with others as well.
Vinay Sridharan must make it through microeconomic theory and the writings of Proust before the end of his senior year at Northwestern in June. But in one course, the final project is far less abstract: give away $50,000.
It is also far more difficult than it may seem.
This course in philanthropy, endowed with a grant from a Texas hedge fund manager, requires students to find and investigate nonprofit organizations and, if they stand up to scrutiny, give them a portion of the five-figure cash pot.
“I didn’t realize they had real money to give,” said Margaret Haywood, the director of work force development at the Inspiration Corporation, a Chicago charity that received $25,000 from the Northwestern students last year.
The workshop — and others like it that have sprung up in the last few years at a dozen universities, including Harvard, Stanford, Princeton and Yale — offers a real-world experience of philanthropy that is rare in the cloistered halls of academia, and which otherwise is reserved for institutions and the affluent.
If you are fortunate enough to have income, and savings, beyond that needed for immediate basics — food, housing, health care, education, transportation, clothing — the question quickly arises:
How much, to whom and when will you give some of it away?
My working trip to Nicaragua in March with WaterAid, (which I blogged about here), introduced me to a terrific woman who is passionate about philanthropy and who blogs about it, Jennifer Iacovelli Barbour. Mother of two small boys, Jen lives in Maine — and the first time we met was in the Atlanta airport enroute to Managua, soon to share a small van in 95 degree heat for 12-hour days for a week. We had a blast!
It was such a tremendous pleasure to spend time with people who care so deeply about the work they are doing, and whose work is changing people’s lives for the better.
The decision-making process should begin with some philosophical questions, said Isabel Miranda, a partner in the Bloomfield, N.J., law firm Pearlman & Miranda. Ms. Miranda, a former bank trust officer, now specializes in helping clients plan their wills, trusts and estates.
“Who do I owe my success to? What values do I want to reflect? How do I want to pay back the organizations I believe in?” she said.
The subject is an interesting one, since not everyone has children to leave their assets to — we don’t and nor are we close to young cousins or nieces or nephews — and we’ll need to make thoughtful decisions about who are the best stewards of our hard-earned dollars.
In my case…I’m still not sure.
One organization I am passionate about, which supports the work of journalists who cover traumatic issues (war, violent crime, health, conflict) and helps them recover afterward is the Dart Center, so they’re on my radar already.
Sorry to say, I doubt my alma mater will get anything, as I found it sadly impersonal and bureaucratic, even if I did get a decent and affordable (Canadian) education.
One charity I now support with my time and skill is the Writers Emergency Assistance Fund, which can grant up to $4,000 within a week to qualified non-fiction writers facing financial crisis. Please donate here!
It profiles Wharton professor Adam Grant, 31, whose compulsive generosity seems a little…weird…to the writer, who is, (I met her, competing on the same story), ferociously ambitious and competitive:
Grant might not seem so different from any number of accessible and devoted professors on any number of campuses, and yet when you witness over time the sheer volume of Grant’s commitments, and the way in which he is able to follow through on all of them, you start to sense that something profoundly different is at work. Helpfulness is Grant’s credo. He is the colleague who is always nominating another for an award or taking the time to offer a thoughtful critique or writing a lengthy letter of recommendation for a student — something he does approximately 100 times a year. His largess extends to people he doesn’t even know. A student at Warwick Business School in England recently wrote to express his admiration and to ask Grant how he manages to publish so often, and in such top-tier journals. Grant did not think, upon reading that e-mail, I cannot possibly answer in full every such query and still publish so often, and in such top-tier journals. Instead, Grant, who often returns home after a day of teaching to an in-box of 200 e-mails, responded, “I’m happy to set up a phone call if you want to discuss!”
Grant suggests we each fall into one of three categories: takers, matchers and givers.
Givers give without expectation of immediate gain; they never seem too busy to help, share credit actively and mentor generously. Matchers go through life with a master chit list in mind, giving when they can see how they will get something of equal value back and to people who they think can help them. And takers seek to come out ahead in every exchange; they manage up and are defensive about their turf. Most people surveyed fall into the matcher category — but givers, Grant says, are overrepresented at both ends of the spectrum of success: they are the doormats who go nowhere or burn out, and they are the stars whose giving motivates them or distinguishes them as leaders…The most successful givers, Grant explains, are those who rate high in concern for others but also in self-interest. And they are strategic in their giving — they give to other givers and matchers, so that their work has the maximum desired effect; they are cautious about giving to takers; they give in ways that reinforce their social ties; and they consolidate their giving into chunks, so that the impact is intense enough to be gratifying.
I find this question of professional generosity interesting — and always have. I’ve been a giver for decades.
Oh, I’ve seen the looks of confusion or bemusement or pity when American colleagues — big-time takers, highly skilled matchers — see me giving away my time, expertise, contacts or skills.
The idea of actually helping a potential competitor best me, at anything, marks me, in zero-sum America, as slow-witted, a rube, someone who simply doesn’t know any better.
The default position, certainly in journalism in New York City, is to stab everyone in the eye who stands in your way and suck up really hard to anyone you think could possibly advance your career.
Trick is — which one is which?
The old farts who used to rule this town journalistically are all desperately trying to re-invent themselves at 55 or 63 or 47, while the 23-year-olds are running the ship. Even A. J. Jacobs, a 38-year-old best-selling author, only half-jokingly, describes himself as “doddering.”
So I make a point of being nice to some people half my age — these days, in my industry, they’re the ones with jobs and work to hand out!
I also give away my time far less often than I used to, I admit. I’ve watched some people I once helped skyrocket to positions of power and acclaim. And, yes, it pisses me off that they’ve never once thought to reciprocate or even drop a “Thanks!” email or note or call.
But that just tells me what sort of selfish ingrates people they are.
In my view, helping someone succeed (intelligently), doesn’t mean choosing a life of ramen and homelessness. It means we both get to celebrate success, maybe not at the same time.
It does mean having the self-confidence you, too, will succeed. So, for me, being helpful is also a powerful measure of confidence in what I can do, and have done. And will still do.
I’ll still extend a helping hand whenever and wherever it feels right.
Because — it feels right. Helping others, judiciously, is the right thing to do.
She was on the ward phone in the hospital in a faraway city where she has been for the past three weeks, now facing bowel surgery.
There isn’t much very comforting or helpful one can do, from a distance, to soothe fear.
I know she likes to listen to music and asked if she had a radio, as she loves listening to classical music on her terrific set at home. She did not.
I picked a store a random, one of a huge national chain of electronics stores, choosing one in a downtown mall. The manager, Dean, quickly got on the phone to help me try to buy a small radio, but the payment — her in Canada, me in the U.S. — wouldn’t go through online.
“Let me make this my Christmas present to you both. I’ll take it over to her tonight. I’ll pay for it myself. Don’t worry,” he said.
A stranger called at random, his father had been ill and now, he said, he knew what this was like and wanted to help.
And he did it, that night, taking a radio he bought and paid for to a stranger’s mother he had never met. He emailed me to tell me he had put in batteries, showed her how to use it and “left her with a big smile.”
So said his email to me, sent three hours after I’d called him, 30 minutes before closing time on a busy Saturday night.
I couldn’t quite believe it. But he did it and my Mom was thrilled.
I am amazed, stunned, deeply grateful for a stranger with so wide and deep a heart.