The Catchafire/Co.Exist Most Generous Person Series

Author: Hayley Downs

Why are some people seemingly hard-wired for compassion, while others hardly notice suffering? Is generosity the by-product of a virtuous upbringing; a quality we learn primarily through early observation? Or is altruism something we can develop later in life through practice? What do we really know about generosity?

Very little, as it turns out, but that’s changing. In 2009, Christian Smith launched the Science of Generosity Initiative at Notre Dame to lead “an international effort to uncover the causes, manifestations, and consequences of generosity.” In a September 2012 paper in Nature, Harvard University researchers David Rand, Joshua Greene, and Martin Nowak conclude that when given the choice, our innate first responder–intuition–is pretty generous. But in a span of just 10 seconds, a stingier impulse arises, and the cooperative impulse decreases dramatically.

We can see that happening around us right now. Just after Hurricane Sandy, New Yorkers exhibited the kind of intuitive outpouring of generosity the Harvard paper suggests. Rebecca Solnit, author of A Paradise Built in Hell coined the term “disaster utopia” to explain how people band together and help one another when crisis hits. But now, as with all crises, we see this immediate and spontaneous generosity receding: New Yorkers back to jostling each other on the subway and pretending not to see the homeless as we scurry by.

The importance of generosity is strongly rooted in all cultures: Buddhists believe that dāna (generosity) has positive transformative powers on the mind of the giver. In Judaism, the idea of tzedakah holds an interchangeable meaning–righteousness and charity–you can’t have one without the other. In the book of Mark, Jesus pointedly observes a poor widow parting with her last two coins  and tells his disciples that the sacrifices of the poor mean more to God than the proportionately larger donations of the rich. Muslims believe no charity decreases wealth, it will be returned to the giver by Allah, all in good time.

But congregants’ adherence to philosophies that encourage generosity are on the decline, and there’s even some fibbing involved. A national survey of churchgoers by Christian Smith and Heather Price at the Association for the Sociology of Religion Meeting this year, found that while a quarter of respondents claimed that they contributed 10% of their income to charity, in reality, only 3% of the group gave more than 5%.

But perhaps our interest in generosity isn’t declining, it’s changing and in need of new models for expression. A 2010 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by James H. Fowler and Nicholas A. Christakis, revealed that social networks inspire greater generosity. In lab experiments, subjects played a series of games with strangers (choosing how much money to give away and to keep). Subjects were “influenced by fellow group members’ behavior in [their] future interactions with others who were not a party to the initial interaction.” This influence kept up for multiple rounds. In other words, generosity is learned, it’s contagious and most effective when it’s a shared experience.

At my organization, Catchafire, we’re creating new opportunities for talent-based generosity. We work with professionals who, not content with just doing excellent work at their day jobs, join Catchafire looking for ways to put those same skills to good use for nonprofits and social enterprises they admire. You simply register on Catchafire and the site delivers you highly accurate matches to specific nonprofit projects based on your skills and cause interests.

The projects you get to work on are high impact and high value, spanning a few hours to a few months, and they are designed to be executed in parallel with regular life. Jim Craig, an executive from Virginia, helped empower low income urban kids by leading a Mission and Vision Analysis for Quest Adventures. Faigy Gilder, a New York non-profit manager, helped alleviate poverty in Kenya by designing a Social Media Strategy for The BOMA Project.

In celebration of generosity, and in the spirit of inquiry on how to understand it and to create new mechanisms to express it, we’re announcing a series running on Co.Exist examining some of the most generous people in a variety of fields. You can find it on Twitter at #GenerositySeries.

We’ll be showcasing monthly lists of honorees based on professional excellence and demonstrated acts of service (rather than just deep pockets). Then we’ll be talking to each of them about their personal philosophies on generosity and who in their lives have inspired them the most. Together, we’ll attempt to get to the bottom of how to embed, encode, burnish, and lock-in ongoing, meaningful, day-to-day service into our collective DNA.

Today we unveil our Top Ten Social Media Mavens, who have innovated the use of social media for the greater good. In the coming months we’ll keep going with profiles of Designers, Tech Founders, Wall Streeters, Marketing Gurus, and Filmmakers.