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.

The 5 Principles of a Minnesota Methodist

Full disclosure: I was not raised in a church-y family, and although I was born in Faribault, Minnesota I haven’t spent a lot of my life there. Nonetheless, I was raised as a Minnesota Methodist, next door to but not quite the same as Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon Lutherans.  And although Methodism is technically a creedal denomination, we put most of our emphasis on faith through good works. Here’s my version of the five things you need to do to be a Minnesota Methodist; feel free to join!

1.      Always feed your animals before you feed yourself. This one is pretty straightforward: take care of the critters who depend on you. And it has a practical Midwestern twist – by holding off your own dinner until you’ve fed them, you’ll never forget. There may also be a message in here about work before play…but that’s for you to decide.

2.     Choose kindness. This one seems simple, but can be a little harder in execution. Is it kinder to tell your colleague that you saw her husband out with another woman, or kinder to keep your silence? Usually, though, if the intention of kindness is kept front and center, the right action will follow.

3.     Do your work as well as you can. The variant of this is “do your work so you’re proud of it.” I think these two variations boil down to the same thing, doing our best on any given day, and at any given task. Taking responsibility in the work, and pride in a job well done.  This simple guideline takes you out of the realm of perfection and into, simply, the doing the best you can at the moment.

4.     Stand up for what you believe in. It’s no accident that Minnesota is considered a pretty progressive state, lots of Methodists standing up and being active for what they believe in. Action is the key – again, faith through good works.

5.     And keep a loaf of homemade banana bread and a tuna hotdish in the freezer, so you’re prepared for anything. The sudden death of a neighbor; a new baby; unexpected company. All merit an immediate visit to the family, with a gift of food in hand. I used to think this one was about getting good gossip (and that’s a side benefit, of course) but at its base it’s about community, and connection, and comfort.

I’ll leave with a link to a lovely poem from Julia Kasdorf, “What I Learned from My Mother” while I take a few minutes away from work to go and make a tuna hotdish and stick it in the freezer.

Random Canadian Acts of Kindness?

Yesterday started badly for Ian Welsh in Toronto. His computer crashed—no response from the power button. After the taxi dropped him at the computer repair store—he discovered he’d left his backback in the cab.

Then—it all ended well. The question is—why?

Says Ian:

Turns out it was just the power supply. I thought it wasn’t, because enough power was getting through to keep the power light on the motherboard on, but it turns out it was damaged enough that there wasn’t enough power to boot.

Since the techie did more than he had to and wouldn’t let me pay him "under warranty" he said, and seemed offended when I offered, I gave his business (family owned) a plug at the Agonist.

And the cabbie whose cab I left my backpack in, returned it to the store he dropped me off at.

A banner day for "people can be really decent sometimes" and a nice anti-cynicism dose.

A banner day indeed. Possible explanations:

1. People in Toronto are just nicer than the rest of us

2. Ian’s a decent fellow, and you get back what you put out

3. The weather was great yesterday, which makes people act well

4. Ian was lucky; sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you don’t

5. What’s the big deal? People are generally nice—this is the norm.

I think those are pretty much the big generic explanations, unless you’ve got some I missed.

So—what’s your take on it? Did Ian have a good day? And if so, why?