Values Added

Part 4: How Can I Make Giving More Meaningful?

So far we’ve talked about why you should give, how much you should give and how to choose the organizations you donate to. That’s enough to get you started in your giving program, but how can you make your giving more personally meaningful?

Create a ritual for giving

Simply increasing your donations is likely to do more good in the world but unlikely to make you feel much different than giving a lower amount. Why? It’s because, as we’ve learned via years of work, the exact amount of money we give away doesn’t have all that much influence on how meaningful our giving feels. However, the rituals we build into our giving process can make a big difference. Today, we’ll talk about what makes a ritual and how to create one that is meaningful for you. 

What makes a ritual?

A ritual is a way that we elevate a regular activity into a deeper experience. For instance, a wedding ceremony transforms a relationship, taking first-day-of-school pictures makes it different than any other day, and baseball die-hards know it’s spring when pitchers and catchers report, and many have detailed rituals for watching games.

Rituals often help us become more mindful by marking off certain moments. This can happen via words, music, colors, people, or a myriad of other ways. Most good rituals have a beginning, middle, and end. The beginning and end often serve the function of separating the ritualized experience from everyday life and the middle is often the experience that is being elevated with mindfulness and intention.

Rituals can help us feel gratitude, interconnection, and many other emotions.They help remind us of our values and ground us in those values. They help us be present and pay attention. Whether you do (or will start doing) most of your giving once a year or more often, consider setting the context so you’ll be more mindful. Following a few simple steps will help elevate the experience of giving.

Create space and time (the beginning)

Start the ritual in a way which marks it off from normal life (reading a poem, lighting a candle, listening or creating music, etc).

The heart of the ritual (the middle)

You might start by taking a few deep breaths to be present and then reading an intention to ground yourself in your values. Something like:

“Here I sit, in recognition that the world is broken and that I must help to repair it, that I have more than I need, and that others have less (often because systems are unfair). I will do my duty to use some of my resources to make the world more equitable and to help meet the needs of others.” 

Perhaps you have never articulated quite why you give, what problems you see, what capacity you have to address them, or why you think you should.

Then, say that clearly! It might change a bit over time or eventually you might come up with something that you use each year. 

What symbolizes the values you hope to feel present with you?

Maybe you explore through conversation, reading, art, or some other way. However, you explore, giving will be more valuable as you develop a vision for it and consider your why.

As Proust famously shared (and is memorialized as the Proust phenomenon), senses can trigger powerful memories and associations. In his case, a madeleine cookie triggered memories of childhood but for us it could be something completely different. Adding a smell, taste, sound, or other sensory element could help connect you to prior (and subsequent) times you use your giving ritual, making the experience more impactful and memorable. 

Bring your creativity to designing your ritual. It should use elements which you find meaningful whether from your family, your faith tradition, an ethnic tradition, or something from your own story. We love helping clients identify something that fits into their family rhythms. For instance, some of our clients light shabbat candles every week so we helped them decide to take a moment before they light the candles to think about issues, or suggestions of giving ideas, that came up during the week and write them on a running list they keep near (but not too near!) the candles.

Moving back to the mundane (the end)

As you prepare to re-emerge into everyday life, it’s helpful to demarcate the end of your giving ritual. You can bring it to a close in many ways. Perhaps you light a second candle, play a different piece of music, read a different intention, sing a song, walk around the block, eat a special food, or make a certain movement. Whatever it is, it will help you mark the end of your giving ritual.

Gather those with whom to share the ritual

If you want to make decisions with a partner, friend, or family member, schedule a nice meal at a restaurant to discuss it. Order dessert to associate the happy memories with the good work. This can *be* the ritual or an opportunity to co-create the ritual.
If you want to discuss with a friend far away (or for any other reason) perhaps this is a good excuse for a phone or zoom call with a little more content to help you connect one-on-one with people you care about.

If you have kids you might also consider how to include them. W.E.B. DuBois wrote that “children learn more from what you are than what you teach.” He’s right. Our children learn a great deal from the example we set. Bringing them into the experience is a powerful way to teach these values and show how important they are to the family. And every time we do or don’t give, we are also teaching a lesson. Knowing we’ll need to explain our decisions to our kids over time might also help us make more generous decisions.

Ron Lieber, an exceptional personal finance journalist, wrote a fantastic book about money, values, and parenting: The Opposite of Spoiled. It is a great resource as you consider how to talk with kids about money, including giving. It’s well worth reading.

Choose a giving model that speaks most to you

You might also consider the idea of a giving circle or other participatory philanthropy options. They can be structured in a lot of different ways, with varying levels of formality. One model is that people come together, commit to giving money (different amounts or all the same), and work together on researching/deciding but then write their own individual checks along with a group cover letter. Another model is to actually pool money together and then decide as a group which organizations or people to donate to.

A third model is to work with groups like D.C.’s Diverse City Fund, where donors delegate the actual decision-making to a grants team made up of people from directly impacted communities rather than the donors deciding how much to give to whom. There is a very powerful idea built into this model. Just because people have been endowed with resources by an unjust society doesn’t mean they should get to decide the best use for those resources. Our lived experience strongly influences which issues we know and care about. In this view, people who are part of the communities most impacted have lived experiences that better prepare them for making those decisions.

What if I don’t want a ritual? 

Do you need a ritual? Of course not! But it’ll probably help the experience be more meaningful. 

Should I wait to give until I have the perfect ritual? 

Of course not! Injustice is a pressing matter of life and death. Our own meaning is important but shouldn’t delay urgent work. If you don’t have a ritual, that’s just fine and the lack should definitely not keep you from giving. Start and then figure it out in a future year.

Action steps

Put a time on the calendar (consider making it a recurring date once a year/month now), gather those close to you with whom you would like to give, set your intention, lean into your ritual, and create waves of impact in your life and the lives of others.

In Conclusion

As you’ve probably realized by now, I *love* giving rituals. Building them, learning about them, talking about them, and seeing the things people come up with. No matter how simple or complex, I would love to hear how you approach this. I’d be delighted if you replied to this email to share about that or any reactions you have to these ideas. Especially, let me know if you create an intention, build anything ritual-like, or even if you just enjoyed thinking about it.

Charitable giving: A five part series on more effective philanthropy

Photo by Elvert Barnes

Updated December 2022