Generosity as Genius

We tend to think of genius as a gift bestowed genetically on individuals in various ways – intellectually, artistically, scientifically, even athletically.  Genius emerges based on a predisposition to greatness in some field or endeavor.  While we understand that training, practice, effort, and focus are components of genius, perhaps honing and sharpening the raw, natural inclination toward excellence, the primary explanation we provide for genius tends toward it simply being a random genetic gift.

And, yes, a genetic stimulus for genius is not imaginary.  It is real.  With the 2016 Summer Olympic Games approaching, the world will watch as Jamaican Usain Bolt either wins or medals in both the 100 meter and 200 meter sprints.  He is the fastest human ever, covering 100 meters in a mere 9.58 seconds.  At 6 feet 5 inches tall, trim, and muscular, one look at his body and it is clear that a man of my size (5 feet 10 inches), would have an extremely difficult time keeping up with him in a foot race, no matter how much I trained and practiced.  He is genetically gifted to sprint.

However, there is another version of genius – or another suggested pathway to genius.  It focuses on the importance of practice, repetition, iteration, and focus.  Malcolm Gladwell, in his book, “Outliers:  The Story of Success,” suggests that 10,000 hours of practice is needed to become genius at a complex task.  And while other research has questioned the “10,000 hours rule,” there is little doubt that applying good genes and giving consistent effort and focus do, in fact, matter in achieving excellence in any field.  Usain Bolt, no matter how genetically-gifted he is to run fast would get beat regularly if he did not train consistently.  So, consistent practice, effort, and focus do matter.

I recall talking about the concept of “genius” with an art professor years ago.  He shared with me a version of the 10,000 hour concept.  “I’ve watched very capable (read genetically-gifted) students go from being good artists to outstanding artists by dedicating themselves to their craft,”  he said.  “That means they draw, paint, or sculpt, even when they don’t want to or don’t feel like it.  What separates the top 1% of my students from all the others,” he said, “is that they have dedicated themselves to becoming more expert in their craft.”

That phrase, “the top 1%,” got me thinking about our donor bases.  If you think about your donor database, no matter how many records you may have, it is the top 1% of your donors or prospects who possess the financial capacity to make the gifts that will significantly impact your ability to fulfill your mission.  And, my experienced guess is that an even smaller percentage of your donor database are what you would term as “joyful givers” – the ones who give generously – perhaps even sacrificially – and thoroughly enjoy doing it.  You know these donors.  You write stories about them in your magazine and you recognize them at your donor recognition events.  These “joyful givers” are probably less than half of that top 1%.

If we think about the “joyful givers” as being the true generosity geniuses, we can ask the question of how to cultivate more of them.  Sure all of your top 1% donors have the financial capacity to give significant gifts.  You might view all of your top donors as the financial versions of Usain Bolt.  They show up in our donor databases with outsized assets.  But not all of them become “joyful givers.”  Not all of them take the next steps on the path to becoming generosity geniuses.  And according to Malcom Gladwell and my art professor friend, the idea of commitment and dedicated practice, even when one doesn’t feel like it, is a pathway toward that genius.

So take a look at the giving history of your “joyful givers.” In general, I will bet that you see a rather consistent history of giving – perhaps smaller gifts at first and then larger and larger commitments.  Yes, some buck this trend and make their first gift at a leadership level.  But in general, you will most likely find a stream of giving, a practice of giving, perhaps even when they weren’t particularly excited about making a specific gift.  And over time, they developed a habit, a deftness for giving, that turned into a deep and abiding joy experienced from the act.

We can’t do much to impact the financial resources that our prospects possess – that is their genetic predisposition, so to speak.  Our prospects come to us with those assets.  However, we can encourage, educate, and provide opportunities for them to consistently practice giving.  And we can thank and recognize them specifically for their consistent and dedicated giving – no matter the amount.

Yes, receiving a single, significant commitment from a donor should be celebrated and recognized.  But if you want to create more “joyful givers” – more generosity geniuses –  you may want to think about how you are encouraging, thanking, and recognizing the dedication, effort, and consistency of the giving practice it takes to become a genius.



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