Breathing Exercises

Refuge and Prospect

Generosity Dinner

with 2 comments

I’ve always been the kind of guy to spend time talking to someone who’s asked me for money. I’ve thought that, whether I have money or not, I can have a conversation and meet this person as a fellow traveler, and not only as a person who wants something I’ve got. It’s part of the story that I usually did not have a lot of money to give away: when I got hired onto a church staff back in 2002, I had a built-in desire to learn how the strength of the organization could be used to help people in need. I naturally slid into the role of Outreach Guy, and when people came to the door of the church to ask for help, I enjoyed meeting them, praying with them, and arranging financial help for them. This was all fine and good, except that within a few months, word had gotten out, traffic at our front door had increased, and I had given away a large percentage of the church’s annual mercy budget. Our policies changed shortly thereafter.


But I got to have a say in the new policy, and we came up with a good plan to make our church (and my efforts more specifically) less like an ATM, and more like a generous community. We decided that mercy money would no longer be given out to ‘walk-ups’ as a rule. The new plan: as our people encountered needs out in the neighborhoods, they could get money from the budget, ideally to supplement their own efforts to help. This was good in a number of ways. We’d be helping people who were in some kind of relationship with the members of our community (providing for a greater chance of ongoing connection). Our people would know that church resources were there to help them to be helpful in their context–we were putting the power of the organization to work empowering its members. The policy also avoided the pitfall of centralizing outreach work in the church office, which effectively took it out of the hands of the community members. It felt like this was as good an institutional policy as you could get. It was also only moderately successful: all people had to do was let us know of a need they saw in the world, and we’d try to back them up … but not many remembered that the resource was there.

Fast forward to today, and to this community, and we’re getting a bit more traction in putting a community’s strength behind individuals’ impulse to do good. Last night, with help from a non-profit called Common Change, we enjoyed a yummy dinner and shared stories of our hope for change, which will culminate in the donation of a pot of money to a worthy recipient. Common Change (run by a friend who created the free tool to “spread awesomeness“) provides the online invitation to our Generosity Dinners (which we have the option of making public on their site), “sells” tickets to the dinner, and pools every dollar received into a common pot. Every ticket holder has the privilege of sharing a story of a significant need (generally one that is greater than the individual in question can meet), and the right to vote at the end of the night for which need will be met. Common Change then cuts a check and communicates the gift to the recipient. Sweet. The tool provided by Common Change allows us to introduce a level of anonymity if we want, and makes the vote-your-choice aspect a little more private, which can be good for a group that is getting to know each other.

Our community doesn’t really have a “mercy budget”. But we have a desire to dedicate a significant part of our common resources to making positive changes in the world around us, helping people, and generally being generous. And we love to eat. Can you say, “You had me at dinner“?


Combining good conversation with a really tasty meal is pretty much sacred ground with us. After trying the idea out a few months ago, we decided to replace our normal Sunday evening meeting with a Generosity Dinner 4 times a year. The payoff has been swift in coming.

After only two generosity dinners, we are getting to know each other in new ways, learning about things that matter to each other, and about people and organizations that we otherwise might not encounter in our day-to-day. When the money is donated, we know it is in the context of an existing relationship, and that there will be follow up: we’re not sending money to a distant organization, or to a stranger who came to the door, perhaps never to return (which I have lots of experience with). Furthermore, conversations are never only about how much money somebody needs–they touch on many aspects life and culture, and help us think more clearly about what we really have to offer. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, during these conversations, it is hard to get people to stop sharing ideas. As one dinner guest said last night, with a wink, “Hey, look, we’re getting more generous.”

Check out Common Change, and their page in support of Generosity Dinners. Also, sign up for our weekly email so you’ll hear when the next dinner+good event is ….


Written by dmaddalena

2014/10/07 at 8:35 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , , , ,

2 Responses

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  1. […] Recently a group of people in Los Altos, CA gathered together for a Generosity Dinner and wrote a reflection on their time together entitled Breathing Exercises […]

  2. Yeah!

    > dmaddalena posted: “I’ve always been the kind of guy to spend time talking to > someone who’s asked me for money. I’ve thought that, whether I have money or > not, I can have a conversation and meet this person as a fellow traveler, and > not only as a person who wants something I” >

    Darla Mckenna

    2014/10/08 at 7:16 pm

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