Most of us have heard the old adage, “Tis better to give than to receive.” Nov. 15 is National Philanthropy Day in the US, and it’s meant to be a time meant to celebrate the culture of philanthropy and focus attention on how to make the world a better place. The impulse toward service often has generous origins—perhaps tinged with compassion and responsibility toward our fellow humankind. Yet, the nature of generosity is very much a two-way street—the act of giving, a gift unto itself.
In late September, we had a chance to float around the Clinton Global Initiative’s annual meeting and ask a range of the world’s most charitable folks—those who donate dollars and those whose work serves others—to reflect not on what they give outwardly, but on what gift they are most grateful for in life. Perhaps in ruminating on the very personal act of receiving, our own generosity can be enhanced.
Trudie Styler, actress and co-founder of the Rainforest Fund
Having our (six) children. God has been good to us.
Sting, musician and co-founder of the Rainforest Fund
Giving is intrinsic in what we do. We’re extremely privileged and well looked-after by the world, so we need to give something back. But we don’t think about it. We just do it.
Ted Danson, actor and board member of Oceana
My wife, on a daily basis. It’s not just saccharine. The love that I get to experience from being with her is the same place that giving has to come from. The older I get, I realize that you have two choices: fear or love. So, have a light heart, come from love. My new philosophy is that we’re all going to die anyway…so what the heck?
Jaclyn Matfus, social advocate
My husband and I getting married—that’s the greatest gift yet. It’s an ongoing process of growing, learning, shifting and sharing—sharing, too, a lot. It might be trite, but love tends to open your eyes up to a lot more than you’ve seen before.
The biggest showing of generosity, in the name of teaching me something about the world I needed to know, was from a man named Walt in South Dakota. He’s a man of Native American heritage who works directly in suicide prevention in the Native American community, and he took me into his home and his mother’s home and his father’s home and showed my wife and me a level of hospitality I had not recognized until that moment.
Rob Garcia, fashion designer, En Noir
One of the biggest components of my success and the brand’s success has been the people supporting us from the beginning. Usually, when you’re doing something new and very different, it takes a while to be embraced. But a couple places, like GQ and Barney’s New York, really, really catapulted us, and I don’t take it for granted.
Rainn Wilson, actor and co-creator of Soul Pancake
What did you get me in to? About the biggest gift, I’m not sure, but I do know that the most fulfilled I feel is when I am giving to others. I think we have it backwards in our society, where there’s so much self-focus and we just want to take care of ourselves, when in actuality if you work in service to others, that’s when you find the most joy.
Denver Frederick, radio host of the business of giving
When I was seven, I asked my mom who she loved the most of the kids—I have two older sister and a brother. At that age, I expected her to say me, because I’m there with her, or “I love all of you equally.” Instead, she said, “I love the one who needs my love the most at that moment.” Then she went on to list specific times, like when my sister had spinal meningitis. She said, “Each and every one of you has had a turn.”
Ten years ago, I was going to university, and for my birthday my parents gave me a Gameboy and said, “This is to entertain you so you don’t study too hard.” But it was meant to be a joke because I didn’t study at all. It backfired. All I did was use that Gameboy. Now, it has sentimental value—every time I travel, it’s the only thing I bring to entertain myself.
Before coming on this trip, I went and spoke to the caregiver for one of our Playcares [a program to revolutionize education in urban slums], to let her know that we were going to be away. She started crying, thanking me because she is so proud to be a part of our program. What she was most proud of is that the mothers who drop their children off at our Playcare are now thanking her. Now that they have a safe place to leave their children, the mothers can find a job during those days and earn their own money—that’s the whole purpose of our organization. It was encouraging.
Anonymous security guard
No one gives me anything.
Rob Holzer, founder/CEO Matter Unlimited
The gift of suffering. I lost my best friend five years ago to cancer. He was forty years old. We were born a day apart. Then, just boom. That’s life. I had also just sold my company and then left it—a minor loss in comparison—and my marriage also ended, all at the same time. Going through an experience like that, you can’t avoid crystalizing on the impermanence of life and understanding the value of the present moment. I realized, there’s only one time around this merry go ‘round, so I better get to work.
Craig Cogut, co-founder and chairman of Polyphony Foundation
My mother was diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer when she was 32 and was given no chance to live, but she fought through it. The doctors told her she wouldn’t live to see her sons grow up, but she was determined. She kept it from us, too, so I had a normal childhood. She ended up living to 86 years old. Every day is a gift.
Bob Harrison, CEO of the Clinton Global Initiative
The single most important act of generosity that I personally experienced was receiving a Rhodes Scholarship in my senior year of college. It was completely transformational. I was able to spend a couple of years at Oxford and read all the great books that I never had the chance to read. And I was with a group of Rhodes Scholars, all of whom were extraordinary people and some of whom are my very close friends today. Most importantly, what Cecil Rhodes did when he set up the trust in 1903 was to try to inspire people to recognize that they have some kind of obligation to public service. Even though I had a 20-year career on Wall Street as an investment banker, the Rhodes Scholarship is really the reason I wanted to have another chapter.
Geraldo Rivera, journalist and senior Fox News correspondent
Sacrifice and access, people on the inside of stories risking their careers—risking their very lives—to talk to me. That has infused the reason I give. There’s philanthropy, giving money—and that’s important, but it’s not everything. What I have received from the sources in the Middle East, South Asia, Africa, even here in New York, I certainly don’t take for granted.
David Risher, co-founder and president, WorldReader
When my mother and father split up when I was six years old, my mother became an encyclopedia sales person. She figured that if she sold the World Book encyclopedia, we’d have enough money to eat, but also have a set of encyclopedias for my brother and me to use. So as a result, I would wake up every morning, eat my raisin bran and read the World Book. We didn’t have a lot of money growing up, but I could explore the world that way. Today, World Reader puts millions of books in the hands of kids in the developing world, with six million people reading on Kindles and cell phones throughout Africa and India. My mother didn’t want to be known as an encyclopedia saleswoman—she wanted to do more important things—but that was an important decision she made, and it’s had a ripple effect many years later.
Dr. Anita Goel, MD, PhD, chairman and CEO, Nanobiosym Diagnostics
The generosity that my parents have shown to me, and that parents show to their kids—it’s the closest to God giving to humans. For me, generosity is not what a person gives, or how much, but the consciousness of the person who is doing the giving—that’s the element of divineness.
Camille van Gestel, CEO, Waka Waka
In 2011, when we did our first crowd funding campaign [to make solar-powered lamps and chargers for those without access to electricity] it was really about gaining the trust of people—because we are presenting something that’s not there yet. I was nervous, but we surpassed our goal by 40% and raised $48,000 from 800 people. Today, we’ve raised $1.5 million in crowd funding from thousands. So, for me, it’s not one gift, but the many gifts from these backers who believe in what we do. During our last campaign, I was abroad when we launched, and I remember when we went live, getting beeps on my phone every second when people signed up. That’s overwhelming—and amazing.
Charlie Benjamin, president of the Near East Foundation
As a Fulbright Scholar, I spent two years living with a family in a very remote rural village in southern Morocco. They built a room on top of their house out of mud brick and opened their home to me. I got to be a part of this family, which was very different from my own. When I saw how much effort went into collecting water, I helped the village get a grant from Catholic Relief Services to build a water tower and to put in a pump, to branch water to all of their houses. One thing led to another, and I was asked by the Near East Foundation to continue doing that type of work in Morocco, and I did that work for another six years. I also did my PhD work in northern Mali, where I worked in four villages. I spent significant amounts of time in grass huts and rock houses. People were so welcoming and accommodating, sharing their experiences with me so that I could write my dissertation. I still feel a debt towards them, and it drives my commitment to do this type of work.
Dr. Greg Allgood, vice president of World Vision Water
A $40 million gift to World Vision. Dave and Dana Dornsife have been partners with World Vision for combined 50 years, so we are way past the honeymoon. Last November, we all took a trip to six African countries, where we had committed to reach up to a million people a year with clean drinking water. So we’re on this long journey and our plan was to ask at the end if they would consider giving us another gift to further our work; our goal is to reach one new person every ten seconds by 2020 to help end the global water crisis. But in the middle of our trip, we were in a quaint restaurant in Zambia with our team—and, most importantly, the African leadership of World Vision—when the Dornsifes said they wanted to tell us something. Dave started by telling us the things we needed to do better. It was a hard conversation, the kind that you need to have, and we actually thought, “Oh my gosh, they’re not going to fund us again.” And then Dana reminded us of why they’re working with us, the gift that they had made previously, and we thought, “OK, they’re still with us.” Then they said, “We’re going to give you $40 million over next five years.” I was shocked. There were hugs, tears. It was tremendous. This life-changing gift was going to mean so much to so many people. It was foundational, allowing us to gain other support, too, and ultimately come up with a clear road map to end the global water crisis. As a Christian-based organization, our motivation is to follow Jesus Christ’s example of serving the poor. By serving, what you get in return is ten-fold—much more than you give.
Joan Hanawi, senior at UCLA, member of CGI University 2015
After high school, I took a gap year with Global Citizen Year, and I was placed with a host family in the Amazon, in Ecuador. When I first arrived, I was excited to share any useful skills—helping to teach English, contributing to local projects, anything that could be helpful. However, I quickly realized my naïveté as I learned how much more I was going to receive over the year than give. My host family welcomed me with open arms not only to the family, but to the entire community. They were patient with me and taught me the local language, culture, and customs. On a return trip last summer, one of my good Ecuadorian friends summed up the nature of this gift. He said, “You Americans always come here to help, to ‘fix’ things. But you’re not here to do anything but learn.”
Bill Austin, Starkey Hearing Foundation
My great grandfather’s parents and his siblings were all wiped out in a Civil War massacre at their farmstead—the buildings were burned to the ground. My grandfather was five years old, and he had nowhere to go. Into the smoldering ruins rode a lieutenant pursuing the raiders who did this. The lieutenant picked up my great grandfather and took him to the closest place of safety—a mill on the river—and that’s where he grew up, working for his keep. When he was 15, the lieutenant passed away, and, knowing my great grandfather was an orphan, he had willed him the land that he had earned for serving in the Civil War. My grandfather took that land, became a very successful farmer, and had a fine family. He taught the lesson of caring because he was cared about—which he passed on to my grandfather. I get to be part of my present work [treating hearing loss around the world] because of that one lieutenant who did something he didn’t have to do, just because he respected life. The question is: Who cared about the lieutenant? It didn’t come from nowhere.