A Little Generosity Goes a Long Way: How a Small Kindness Can Have a Big Impact

Life seems to happen to me in twos. A few weeks ago I blogged about A Cautionary Tale for Marketers based on two stories—a “don’t do this” story and a “do do this” story. Today’s blog is two-fer of a slightly different type: two stories, both illustrating what a difference a small kindness can make.

Story 1: Parking in a Premium Demand Zone

Washington DC, where I live, has recently begun upgrading its street parking system. Many of our old coin-operated “single-space” meters have been replaced with “multi-space” meters that take credit cards as well as coins. If you’ve never encountered a “multi-space” meter, it’s a one-machine-for-a-whole-city-block kind of thing. When you pay, you pay for however much time you want and you are rewarded with a little white slip of paper that goes on your dashboard, telling the ever-industrious meter monitors when they can write you a ticket.

While I do appreciate the convenience of paying by debit or credit card (that is, when the card reader works), I hate the fact that any unused time goes wasted—or more accurately, I hate that it goes to the City. You see, if I come back earlier than expected, there’s no meter to be left behind with time remaining for the lucky next-parker; there’s just a slip of paper that drives away with me. Gone are the days of collaborating with my fellow citizens to share the burden, and beat the City at their parking meter game. (I know, I know, I should Metro more.)

Just last week I returned to my car 47 minutes earlier than expected. Being the mature adult that I am, I couldn’t bear the thought of giving away those 47 minutes to the City (particularly in light of what I paid to be in a “premium demand zone”), so I waited and offered it to a couple who pulled into a space a few cars behind me.

You would think I had handed them a check for $1,000. They were nearly giddy with excitement and effusive with their thanks.

I walked away with a little spring in my step—I beat the system and did a good deed, all in one fell swoop.

Story 2: Thirteen for the Price of Ten

Later that very same day, I was at my local FedEx Office picking up a print job for a client meeting. While waiting in line, I spied these really cool new plastic document holders—the perfect organizers for my documents and a nice change from the usual two-pocket folder deal. The only problem was there weren’t enough on the shelf to meet my needs. When I asked the clerk if there were more, he nicely said no. Then his manager chimed in and suggested we take a look at another shelf together to see what we could find. Et voila, there they were in another color, just one short. I said I could make do, no problem, and the manager offered to give me an extra one in a different color to make up for their lack of inventory. Then when she rung me up, she charged me for two fewer still. Each document holder was worth $1.29. She saved me a total of $3.87.

You would think she had handed me a check for $1,000. The gesture was grand, even if the dollar value was not.

And I walked away with a little spring in my step—what a nice, helpful lady!

The Moral of the Stories

It was fascinating to be on the receiving end of a small kindness so soon after I had offered one. Both experiences taught me a big lesson.

We talk a lot about the difference generosity makes here at Trusted Advisor Associates. “Selling by doing” offers a gift without expectation of return, among other things (see Selling by Doing Not Selling by Telling for the complete picture) and reciprocity–the tendency to return a favor—is the number one factor of influence. In fact, people who walk the talk of a Trusted Advisor tend to view life from a context of abundance and are always looking for ways to genuinely be of service.

What I didn’t realize until now is how little a kindness can be and still have a huge impact. 47 minutes. $3.87. A few extra copies of a book. A call returned at lightning speed in the midst of a busy day. An offer to spend a little time reviewing a document … with no meter running. Small things send a signal about our intentions, and help us keep our motives clean. If we’re only in it for big, we’re not in it for real. If we’re willing to be generous in all moments, including the little ones, it becomes a way of life. And the paradox is, of course, that if we’re willing to let go of hitting it big, we usually ultimately do.

I’ll remember this next time I’m tempted to take no action because I think it’s not worth my effort or not grand enough to matter. When it comes to generosity, a little goes a long way.

6 replies
  1. barara garabedian
    barara garabedian says:

    Andrea, I totally understand your euphoric feelings regarding those tiny generous gestures, albeit  there are those that just don’t "get it" beyond the tiny windfall.

    I was going through a toll booth years ago [ before the days of EZ-Pass] and as I approached the booth, the attendent told me the car in front of me paid my toll. I had no idea who that stranger was. I was flabbergasted and absolutely delighted. Granted, it was only a 50 cent toll but the surprising gesture made my entire day and the concept stayed w/ me for quite a while!

    Based upon that experience,  I would occassionally "pass the gift on" and do the same for a  car behind me…just for the kick of it. Most times I’d just drive off and leave the astonished driver in my dust but I’ve actually had cars " push the pedal" and drive up along side me and with a large smile on their face and mouth "thank you!" 

    Truth be told,  the gesture provided me w/ more pleasure than I’m sure the recipients obtained.  Now if I could only find a way to do that w/ EZPass.



  2. Shaula
    Shaula says:

    Great post, Andrea.  Your two stories, and Barbara’s as well, remind me of the 1972 Isen and Levin studies about "helping for a dime":

    > "Subjects were random pedestrians in San Francisco, CA and Philadelphia, PA who stopped to use a public payphone.  Whereas some subjects found a dime that had been planted in the phone booth by researchers, other subjects did not find a dime.  When subjects left the phone booth, a female confederate of the researchers dropped an armful of papers and researchers recorded whether or not the individuals leaving the phone booth stopped to help.  The results were shocking: the subjects who found the dimes were 22 times more likely to help a woman who “dropped” her papers than the subjects who did not find the dime.  Let that sink in for a moment.  The slight elevation in emotion caused by randomly finding a dime on top of pay phone made a significant difference on subjects’ moral behavior—something presumably all participants would deny if asked.  Perhaps the most surprising feature of these results isn’t that something so morally insignificant—namely, finding a dime in a phone booth—had such a pronounced effect on people’s moral behavior, rather it’s that these results appear to be representative of moral behavior rather than anomalous."

    My takeaway: the positive impact on the recipients of these kinds of small acts of generosity is easy to underestimate. And, these acts have the potential to positively influence the moral behaviour of the people around us.

    Think about  how this might play out when you are dealing with a client organization that is resistant to cultural change, or when you are trying to manage a recalcitrant subordinate . . .



  3. Lance E. Osborne
    Lance E. Osborne says:


    Great tie-in to "selling by doing." Thanks, the more examples the merrier; though my friends and colleagues are probably growing tired of my enthusiastic sharing of said examples. 😉

    I often find myself thinking about what driving would be like if all those behind the wheel were just a little more selflesss. How much more efficient and safe would our daily commutes be? I wonder if anyone has ever researched this.

    Thanks again.




Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] Next time you think a small act of kindness isn’t worth doing, think again. People who walk the talk of a Trusted Advisor are always looking for ways to genuinely be of service. Read about two small acts of kindness that created a ripple effect of benefit. After all, if we’re only in it for big payoff, we’re not in it for real. (Published on the Trust Matters blog) http://trustedadvisor.com/trustmatters/a-little-generosity-goes-a-long-way-how-a-small-kindness-can-… […]

  2. […] Next time you think a small act of kindness isn’t worth doing, think again. People who walk the talk of a Trusted Advisor are always looking for ways to genuinely be of service. Read about two small acts of kindness that created a ripple effect of benefit. After all, if we’re only in it for big payoff, we’re not in it for real. (Published on the Trust Matters blog) […]

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