A few years ago we hosted a pledge dinner to talk about our congregation’s financial needs for the coming year. After a potluck meal, a member of the finance committee suggested we each talk about places we give money and why we chose them.
It was an absolutely fascinating exercise. We heard about the work of local, national, and international charities we had never considered for our own giving. One woman sends a goat each year, paid for by her contribution to Heifer International, to a needy family overseas. Another writes a check to the American Cancer Society in memory of her father annually on his birthday.
Many give to their colleges, the United Way, the Red Cross, and other well-known charities. Still others focus their donations on one cause to which they feel very dedicated — an animal rescue group, a political party, or an environmental organization.
That night, we learned things about people in our congregation that we might not have known otherwise. What we do with our money is a sign of who we are and what we love. Our individual money trails are reflections of our priorities, experiences, hopes, dreams — and wealth. As Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk and author, says, “Abundance is not measured by what flows in, but by what flows over.”
We propose that it's not how much we are each able to give that matters as much as that we give regularly. Even if our contributions some years do not match our patterns in the past, we can continue our commitments and our intention to be connected. Generosity is a spiritual practice that reflects an attitude of heart and mind. Here are some daily ways to give.
- Rabbi David Cooper in his book God Is a Verb. Every morning, put a small bill or coin in a place where you can reach it quickly. Give it away to the first needy person you meet, without stopping to evaluate how the money will be used. This simple practice cultivates the habit of giving without thinking about what you might get back. It reminds you that everything you have is a gift from God to be freely shared.
- Build giving into your daily choices. Have a generosity piggybank in your home. When you resist the impulse to go out for an expensive dinner, put a note in the bank with the amount you have saved by eating at home. Children might choose to forgo buying a new toy and put the equivalent money in the bank. Adults might add up the cost of parking saved by taking public transportation. Periodically empty your generosity bank and have a family council to decide how to distribute it. Be creative in how you fill the bank and how you give its contents away. You can have a lot of fun with this practice.
- Get others to join you in giving. Many businesses have matching donation programs, so before you write a check, see if your company will double your gift. Another way to give is to regularly click on the donation badges at websites in the GreaterGood.com network. As the clicks add up, sponsors associated with these sites pay for food for the hunger, free mammograms, books for literacy programs, food and toys for animal shelters, and other programs. You can make the rounds of the various sites in just a couple minutes a day, but you'll be showing public support for these projects and reinforcing your own intention to be of help in a needy world.
- Collect fundraising letters and newsletters from charities and bookmark organizations' websites. Set aside some time each month to read about the work of these charities before making your contributions. It’s amazing how much you can learn from these reports from the field. We discovered the work of a shelter for homeless seniors in our neighborhood when we read the sponsoring agency’s newsletter. Reading fundraising appeals helps you align your contributions with your vision of a better world. They also give you hope because they come from groups who have found concrete ways to address problems.
- Inspire yourself by reading about giving. In Giving - The Sacred Art: Creating a Lifestyle of Generosity, Lauren Tyler Wright covers the charitable practices recommended by the world's religions. It points out that giving is a blessing for both the giver and the receiver because it creates a connection with the vast expanse of humanity. Giving money is only one means; generosity can also involve caring for the environment, offering love to a homeless animal, sharing your possessions, forgiving and being patient with others, providing hospitality, and other acts.
- Rambam's Ladder: A Meditation on Generosity and Why It Is Necessary to Give by Julie Salamon explores the provocative question, Why are people good? It begins with a treatise written in the 12th century by Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (known as Rambam) and then provides contemporary illustrations of generosity. Ramban created an eight-step ladder to explain different levels of giving. At the bottom: tossing spare coins to a beggar to get rid of him; at the top, making a gift that enables someone to become self-reliant.
- Inspire yourself by watching movies. The French film Amelie presents an unforgettable portrait of a young woman who demonstrates a remarkable talent for giving. She finds ways to help her customers at the restaurant where she works, her reclusive father, the concierge of her building, and a clerk at the grocery store. In turn, one of her friends helps her connect with her soulmate.
- Pay It Forward shows what happens when 11-year-old Trevor is given the school assignment, "Think of an idea to change our world and put it into action." He decides to do a good deed for three people and then ask each of them to "pay it forward" by doing similarly difficult big favors for three others. Before long, his project has become a movement, demonstrating how a little love and kindness can really make a difference in the world.