The Life-Changing Art Of Giving

‘The question of what you want to own is actually the question of how you want to live your life,” writes Marie Kondo. This quote made me think of Kondo in this High Holiday season. On both days of Rosh HaShanah and on Yom Kippur, we recite a prayer declaring that three behaviors can change an evil decree: repentance, prayer and charity. Without getting into the theology of this statement, how many of us will engage in any of these arenas in a different way this year? A Japanese cleaning consultant pushed me into the discomfort zone.

I know I’m not the only person who devoured Marie Kondo’s wacky, demanding, slightly OCD book: “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” I know because it was on sale at Costco, and they ran out of copies. I read the book believing that de-cluttering her way could change my life. It helped me change my closet. Not sure about my life yet. That will probably take more work. Let’s apply her philosophy of de-cluttering to charitable giving. 

“Keep only those things that speak to your heart. Then take the plunge and discard all the rest.” What charities really tug the compassion heartstrings or make us feel that giving is really receiving? I’m not sure when we stopped using tzedakah in organized Jewish life and started using philanthropy. Maybe we wanted our giving to feel less transactional and part of the very fiber of our beings. I am a philanthropist rather than I give charity.

“The best way to choose what to keep and what to throw away is to take each item in one’s hand and ask, does this spark joy? If it does, keep it. If not, dispose of it.” What causes do we support that bring about real joy? There are causes where we believe in the mission, the leadership or the impact. Kondo wants us to actually hold items when asking this question. I felt pretty silly talking to my old sweaters, but she is on to something. Only when you hold something do you realize if you want to keep it or chuck it. You can’t hold a tzedakah in your hand, but you can hold it close and delve into your true feelings about it.

“…when we really delve into the reasons for why we can’t let something go, there are only two: an attachment to the past or a fear for the future.” We are all afraid to let go of giving to a charity that no longer speaks to us. The key is to ask why. Are you holding on because you believe in a nonprofit’s mission/vision or because of status, friendship or the potential embarrassment of pulling out? Some people would rather make a new pledge than have an uncomfortable conversation.

A friend of mine from a very philanthropic family helped me understand how she and her relatives “cleaned up” their giving. She drew a pyramid. On the bottom, the largest third of it, she wrote Obligation. The mid-section said Passion and the small pyramid top said Strategy. This described the family’s giving patterns. 

Obligation refers to organizations with long ties to the family and lots of gifts to friends and colleagues who collect for various charities: the bike-a-thon, the walkathon, the 5K, the 26.2 mile for this cause and that. In the passion category were gifts to places like their alma maters or medical concerns they really cared about, and in the strategy category were impact gifts where they were really making a difference by leveraging a gift. 

A philanthropic adviser helped them slowly invert the pyramid. Obligations were tapered; they would come to represent the smallest part of their charitable contributions. Strategic gifts became the largest swath of the pyramid and the anchor of their tzedakah. 

The inverted pyramid became my new way of sketching out intentional philanthropy. For those of us who are charitable but not exactly philanthropists yet, this rubric is still immensely helpful. Confession: our own charitable giving as a family is largely self-serving. We give to institutions from which we personally benefit but give far less to where we have real impact or where our true passions lie. We haven’t been giving strategically. Have you?

“The place in which we live should be for the person we are becoming now, not for the person we were in the past.” If we truly believe that our behaviors can profoundly affect our futures, then perhaps this is the year that we re-think charitable giving. Let’s go into the year not only giving more but giving differently. Give better, not only bigger. Giving should be an expression of our deepest priorities. 

As repentance dictates, we don’t stay the same. Why should our charitable giving? n

Erica Brown is an associate professor at George Washington University and the head of its new Mayberg Center for Jewish Leadership and Education. Her column appears the first week of the month.

About the Author
Dr. Erica Brown is an associate professor at George Washington University and the director of its Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership. She is the author or eleven books; her forthcoming book is entitled Jonah: The Reluctant Prophet (Koren/OU, 2017). She previously served as scholar-in-residence at both The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston. Erica was a Jerusalem Fellow, is a faculty member of the Wexner Foundation, an Avi Chai Fellow and is the recipient of the 2009 Covenant Award for her work in education and the 2012 Bernie Reisman Award (Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program, Brandeis University). You can subscribe to her blog, Weekly Jewish Wisdom at erica@ericabrown.com.
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