Its Valentine's Day -- and many of us will spend today tending to our relationships. It's certainly a special thing when we pause to appreciate our loved ones. But perhaps we can raise our game in 2011 and do a bit more on this date.
This idea is inspired directly by my friend Sasha Dichter. Sasha is an executive at Acumen Fund, the well-known social investment firms founded by Jacqueline Novogratz that attempts to alleviate poverty through enterprise in countries across the planet. Yet, in late 2009, he conducted a provocative experiment that helped him to better understand the world right in front of him.
Working in NYC, Sasha typically responded to the endless stream of requests for change from beggars, buskers, and others like most New Yorkers -- simply by ignoring them. But, one morning, after taking the time to notice a homeless man on his morning commute, Sasha changed his approach. For a full month, he challenged himself with a self-imposed "generosity experiment." During this period, he vowed to respond affirmatively to every request for money.
At a time when we poke and tweet our friends and followers without ever truly touching them, Sasha's effort to connect with strangers in the real world seems retrograde, almost quaint. Yet it was profound in its restorative impact. Day by day, with each interaction, his Big Apple cynicism started to thaw. He soon discovered that a sustained commitment to kindness allowed him to engage, not just other New Yorkers, but also his own core being.
More than a year later, Sasha is thinking about how to replicate the moment. Not just for himself, but in order to share with others. There seems like no better time to do so than Valentine's Day.
Think about the holiday. It's certainly worthwhile focus on our loved ones, but the day itself is merely a contrivance. It's a convenient fiction invented by greeting card companies and the modern marketing industry to prompt sales of chocolates and flowers. But why not reclaim the day? Why not reboot it, so to speak, endowing it with authenticity and making it meaningful?
This year, let's upgrade Valentine's Day into Generosity Day. Let's spend February 14 saying YES to everything: to anyone who asks for help or who could benefit from our best impulses. This is not just about giving out money -- it could be helping someone cross the street, holding the elevator for a tarrying colleague, giving a generous tip to the beleaguered waitress who brings you coffee. More or less, its about simply taking the time to listen to our better angels.
Generosity Day should not be about doing any one particular thing -- other than finding ways to say yes and stretching yourself to help others. So let's reaffirm the idea of love - but not just romantic love. Instead, lets find the love in the golden rule and in our concern for our fellow man. And what better way to express love than through acts of compassion and giving?
So what exactly should you do? Here are a few ideas:
• Give money to anyone who asks: that street musician you typically walk by; a homeless person; a child selling candy; the street performer; your local public radio station. Better yet, don't wait to be asked.
• Take clothes or shoes or books from your closet and give them to Goodwill. Not just the old stuff. Something that matters.
• Leave a $5 tip for a $2 cup of coffee
• Introduce yourself to someone you see every day but have never spoken to
• Sign up for a volunteer activity in your community
• Bring in bagels for your co-workers.
• Give someone a compliment.
• Ask the person riding with you in the elevator about their day.
• Make a loan to someone on Kiva. Support an innovator on Kickstarter.
• Take a $7 taxi ride, give the driver a $20, and say "keep the change."
Moreover, don't just think of this as a one-time Generosity Experiment. Instead, think of it as a Generosity Experience. And experiences are something to be shared.
So tell your stories of generosity! Post a video account on Youtube, share updates on Facebook, blast it out on Twitter, your blog, even just add your personal account to the comments section below at the bottom of this post. Wherever it makes sense for you.
If you are using Facebook or Twitter, definitely use the hashtag #generosityday to spread the word so others can take inspiration from your stories. Happy to say, the idea already seems to be gathering steam.
I'm a social entrepreneur and an optimist by nature. I deeply believe that everyone can have an impact -- and that, taken together, those small acts can roll up into something truly worldchanging. As we were reminded over the past few weeks in Tahrir Square, every singe person carries the fuse of civic engagement that can ignite our common humanity. Sometimes it just takes a small spark to set it off.
This year, let's make Generosity Day that spark. I want each of us to repair the world. Lets do it, one small act of kindness at a time.
Follow Jonathan Greenblatt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/J0NATHAN_G