I never thought I would create a day. And yet, two years ago, with a few friends, I did.
It all started back in 2008 on a cold December evening like any other. I was in the New York City subway rushing home. A man I’d seen many times on the train was asking for money to help the homeless. He had a warm smile and an open demeanor, and was wearing a hat that said he was a Vietnam vet. Like everyone else on the subway car I looked down, hiding in my iPhone. A monologue ran through my head about how his story couldn’t be true, and how the smartest, best thing I could do was nothing.
This wasn’t an academic question for me. Just two years before I had left the private sector to work at Acumen Fund, a new nonprofit that fights global poverty by investing in businesses that serve the poor. Acumen’s investments had brought safe drinking water to millions in rural India; had helped hundreds of thousands of farmers in Kenya earn more money; had created vibrant, dignified housing for former slum-dwellers in Pakistan; and each of these changes were brought about by businesses, not by charities. In Acumen, I thought I had discovered the perfect antidote to all the limitations and inefficiencies of aid and of the nonprofit sector. I thought that, despite being a nonprofit, it was just because we took a business approach, because we acted like a venture capital fund (yes, taking more risk; yes, focusing on social impact first) that we would crack open the big problems of poverty.
That day on the subway I started to hear a voice that I had been ignoring. That day, I felt a pull back to the core of what brought me to social change work in the first place. I felt a connection back to the "why" of my work and started to see a reality that I’d been intentionally ignoring. I started to wonder if part of the "why" of Acumen’s success had to do not just with accountability but also with generosity.
On one level, the decision to dedicate one’s career to trying to improve the lives of people thousands of miles away is grounded in generosity. It is grounded in the realization that we are all connected to each other, and the moment we really see that connection is the moment we have no choice but to act, even though we know in our hearts what a long, hard road it is going to be to make change. And yet, rushing from the subway to my commuter train back home, I realized that I knew almost nothing about generosity. I’d never worried about it, cultivated it, practiced it, or thought about how regularly I failed to be generous. And suddenly I felt a huge disconnect. Suddenly I realized that I could never make the change I wanted to see in the world using half of my brain and none of my heart.
So that moment walking away from that subway car, I decided to make a change. I decided that I needed to jump-start my practice of generosity, so I publicly launched a month-long "generosity experiment," a month of saying "yes" to every request that came my way, whether from a homeless person, a colleague, or someone who’d just served me a coffee. And in that process I awakened something inside of me and got back in touch with what had brought me to this work in the first place. In that month I started a process of transformation.
That brings me back to creating a day. I’d always felt that other people might also want and need to reconnect with generosity, but I didn’t know what to do about it. Then, two years later, just three days before Valentine’s Day, Katya Andreesen, Fast Company's Ellen McGirt and Scott Case and I hatched a plan to create "Generosity Day:" one day for everyone around the world to replicate my generosity experiment, to practice radical generosity.
We decided that Valentine’s Day, just three days away, might be the perfect hook. Valentine’s was a day about love, but that had lost its way. So with just 72 hours and zero budget, we set out to "reboot" Valentine’s Day as Generosity Day: one day for millions of people globally to say "yes," to engage in small or radical acts of generosity. One day to light a spark. We launched a grassroots social media campaign and couldn’t believe how it caught on. From nothing we reached millions of people, connected them to each other, and gave them permission to give in to their generous impulses. Generosity Day in 2012 was even bigger, and we’re looking forward to 2013 setting a new mark, aiming for one million acts of generosity. Generosity Day has no organization behind it and no budget. It is owned and spread by the people it has touched, by the lives it has changed.
I’ve learned so much since then about generosity. The moment I started thinking about generosity I saw it everywhere: when I stopped and really listened to someone I disagreed with; when I lean a helping hand and boost someone’s confidence; and, yes, each and every time I give time and money.
When I cracked open this door to generosity I also saw for the first time that each and every philanthropist I knew, no matter how tough or rigorous or innovative they were in their giving, was deeply grounded in a practice of generosity. They were using their giving both as an exploration of and as a way to express their own generosity in the world.
I saw that at Acumen, despite all the term sheets and shareholder agreements and milestones for us and for our companies, that we are using investing as a means, not an end in itself. What drove and drives each and every one of our actions is the unwavering commitment to transforming the lives of poor people in the developing world, and we are grounded in a commitment to those ends and the spirit of service it entails. And I saw that in each and every one of our companies—whether an ambulance company in India that’s grown from just nine ambulances in Mumbai to more than 1,000 nationally, and has transformed emergency care in the country; or a cotton ginnery in northern Uganda that has given hope and a livelihood to more than 35,000 farmers who had spent the previous two decades in refugee camps—everything begins with the hope and the dream of transforming the lives of others, of taking what we hold within ourselves and giving it as a gift. I saw that Acumen’s promise of building business-oriented solutions to the problems of poverty is a promise to show up not just today and tomorrow; it is a promise to show up with real, reliable, meaningful solutions for decades.
And that’s the most generous act of all.