December 12th, 2013
Bold Givers Share Tips For Holiday Giving
December 2nd, 2010
December 2nd, 2010
When I was growing up, I thought only millionaires could be philanthropists. I came from a working-class family, so I thought I could never be a philanthropist. Still, I wanted to solve social injustices so I became an activist, first as a student in my small mill-town high school, then, working in the former Yugoslavia with women survivors of the rape and genocide camps.
There, I saw how meaningful even small gifts were to these women. I came to learn that philanthropy is not just for the affluent. While those with vast resources still do their part, the rest of us have to do our part as well. It is our collective talents, resources, and passions that sustain our community well-being.
I support organizations that fight for social justice and women's empowerment, including World Pulse and The Farm Sanctuary. And I also give to my friends and family who live below the U.S. federal poverty level any time that they need assistance. For years I've been told to wait to give away money until my own debts are paid off and until I have enough saved for retirement. I get the logic in this. Yet growing up I watched my mother give when we had so little, and learned true generosity from her and from others who had few material resources. They showed me that when you help others around you, you too will be supported and cared for.
When I see injustices all around the world, I don't want to hold onto more than what I need for today. I don't withhold my talents for fear that they'll run out; I feel the same way about my financial resources. Because I work as a consultant in the nonprofit field and my income varies year-to-year, I can’t say exactly how much I earn or give. I just know that if I get a check for $10,000, I sent $3,000-$4,000 to friends and family and organizations I love. When I was younger I'd scold myself for not being "adult enough" to save for my future. Yet, everytime I tried to put more money in the bank, I ended up withdrawing it so I could give. Now I just make the space for these insecure feelings and they pass.
For me, our conventional wisdom about financial security doesn't work. We’re advised to save up huge sums of money "just in case" but meanwhile are surrounded by millions of people who need those resources right now. Recently a wealthy woman told me she needed to save money because she did not want to be a burden on her loved ones. In my experience, it is not a burden to take care of those that you love. I fully support my parents financially, and it gives me great joy to do so. What a gift to give back to the people who made my life possible.
I have met many naysayers over the years that I’ve been giving. “You’re just one person.” “You might help a little, but nothing will really change.” “Don’t you think you should leave this to the experts?” “You gotta take care of yourself first.” What I’ve realized is this: statements like this are about them, not me. If you are proud and happy about your own contributions, you will quite likely be happy when hearing about others who are living their passions, even when they make different choices from yours.
I remember one time after I gave a speech about giving, this was the first audience question: "You mentioned animal rights in your talk. How can you justify supporting pigs and cows when children around the world are starving?" The room went quiet. All eyes were back on me. I responded: "That's a good point. Can you share with the audience what you're doing for children to help end this tragedy?" All eyes back on him. As it turned out, he wasn't involved at all. The point of this story: don’t let anyone make you think you need to justify what you care about and where you put your money and talents.
I know from my own experience how naysayers and distractions can prevent us from being generous, not to mention how confusing it can be to figure out how best to give and how much to contribute. To help people through all this I wrote The Generosity Plan: Sharing Your Time, Treasure, and Talent to Shape the World and have spoken now to audiences around the country to help them discover their full giving potential.
I know that my way of giving isn't for everyone. But what I encourage for is this: that if you want to unleash your generosity potential, make the space in your life to do so now. Don't wait until you feel you have enough money to give away; it's unlikely that "enough" will ever come. Although financial planners serve many critical functions, their primary role is to help you plan for your financial future, not to help you plan for your present role in social change. We can't rely upon the government or "real philanthropists" to bring about the social justice we so desperately needed. We have to take action ourselves.
When you write a big check to a charity, most charities will thank you profusely, maybe even give you a plaque or honor you at their gala. But only you know how significant the amount of the gift was for you and whether you stepped up to your fullest generosity potential. When you do, something frees in you.
For me, even though I have a second mortgage out on my house and a bank loan for my Honda, I know that I am financially better off than about 97% of the world. When I go to bed at night, only I know if I lived my values through the gifts I gave. I'd like to be able to fall asleep saying yes.
I believe there really is enough for everyone. To achieve this, each of us must do what we can with what we have, where we are. I hope that I am giving to my capacity and I challenge each of you to raise the bar -- for me, and for yourselves.
More on Kathy LeMay:
Kathy discussed Bolder Giving on NPR program - Humankind Weekly. Listen to HumanKind ep. 81 - "Bolder Giving - Answering the Need Segment".