Civil war in Syria! Tornadoes in Texas! Hate crimes in Mississippi!
This isn’t cable news: it’s a tour through my mailbox on any given week. Oxfam, the Red Cross, the ACLU, they all want a piece of me; more accurately, a piece of my wallet.
If you’ve given to a charity, you’re familiar with this pattern: something happens in the world, and you immediately receive crisis-driven pleas for money. Fire in the mountains? Give to the Red Cross! Trump signs an executive order? Oxfam needs money. Trump goes golfing? Give to the Mar-a-Lago Caddy Rescue Fund!
Now, all of these are good causes, but let’s be honest: these life-and-death pitches are a pretty cynical way to ask for money. And if you give, do you have any idea who you helped? Did you make the world a better place, or did you just assuage your guilt over not being one of those tortured faces on the web site?
What if there were a better way?
About a year ago, we heard that a friend, who I’ll call “Donna,” was losing her sight. She had cataracts, which were operable, but she and her husband had no health insurance and couldn’t afford the surgery.
When my wife and I were a young couple in Seattle, these friends took us under their wing and showed us what “old love” looked like. They gave us something to aspire to. Now, they needed help.
After talking it over with my wife, I wrote a note telling them how much they meant to us and enclosed a check for the full amount of the surgery. Donna had the cataracts removed and is back to driving, cooking, and sharing sappy memes on Facebook. We made a quantifiably positive difference in her life.
Were we able to do this because we have money to burn? Heh, no. Because we’re awesome, insanely generous people? Well… my wife is. We did it because we had money reserved for this purpose and were looking for an opportunity to spend it. This is the power of intentional giving.
As soon as we get our first job, we’re told to start saving for retirement. “Set aside 10% of every paycheck,” they say, “and through the power of compound interest you’ll retire a millionaire.” That’s good advice. So how about making another investment that pays a dividend in changed hearts and saved lives?
For the last two decades, my family and I have followed a 3500-year-old discipline called “tithing.” This was the world’s first social service program, but we’ve added our own personal twist. Every month, we put 10% of our income into a “blessing fund,” with three simple rules:
- This money is special: we can’t spend it on ourselves.
- It has to be spent to bless people.
- We have to spend it all every year.
That’s it. No political agendas, no geographic quotas or nonprofit requirements. It’s a simple discipline with a clear plan: make lives better.
This is the “give first” mentality at work, in this case quite literally. Before you spend on yourself, you give to others. And like your 401(k), this investment pays outsized dividends in your family, community, and the world at large.
When you have a blessing fund, you’re like a VC who invests in human well-being: you look for problems that only you can solve, then you apply your fund to those problems. It changes your perspective from “someone should do something about that!” to, “What can I do to help?”
I’ve also found that many people are just waiting for someone to “give first” so they know it’s OK to join in. Simple ideas take on great meaning when you see the results, and then everyone wants to jump on the blessing bandwagon.
Here are just a few things that we’ve been able to do over the years by giving first and inviting others to join us:
We bought breakfast for an entire restaurant on the tenth anniversary of September 11 because someone needed to spread joy on that date. Our story inspired others to do the same in their towns.
After the Aurora theater shootings, I wanted to find a unique response to the fear that one man created. So we bought over 1300 movie tickets and gave them to strangers around the Denver area so they could remember the fun of going to the movies.
After last year’s election, I used social media to encourage people to “turn on the light” in a dark and divisive world and spread joy through small acts of kindness. People from all over the country responded, turning their fear and anger into love and hope. We bought coffee for hundreds of strangers, handed out grocery gift cards to poor families, and flooded shelters and community programs with food and Christmas gifts.
Simple discipline, clear plan, big results.
I invite you to join me in this adventure. Start by setting aside even a small amount of money every month to invest in other people. The amount doesn’t matter, the discipline does. Now look for the needs that are right in front of you. All you have to do is open your eyes and listen to your heart.
Use your blessing fund to improve someone else’s life.
Enjoy the feeling.
It’s that simple. Now go and make the world better, one intentional gift at a time.