by Kathy LeMay
Sitting in a massive hall at the St Regis Hotel on a cool San Francisco morning, I am surrounded by women who are accomplished, exceptional, and extraordinary in their fields. They have re-written the rules of finance, innovated in science and technology, re-imagined health care, unleashed groundbreaking films, and provided transformative leadership in an ever-changing world. They are the tops in their fields. This morning, after an impassioned invitation from the stage by one of their peers they will add another accolade to their offerings. This morning the transformational power and utter joy of giving is about to take center stage. This gathering will shift from a group of extraordinary women and men attending a philanthropy summit to a generous collective creating the world we know is possible.
Together they've spent days discovering and uncovering the concepts of human-centered design and transformational philanthropy; they've uplinked to a refugee camp in Iraq and listened to girls tell of their lives in a camp separated from their home and families; they witnessed the courage and bravery of an female Afghan rapper who escaped the world of child marriage. They've seen women stand and share their ideas, their hopes, their despair, and their stories. After days together they are gathered this morning and they don't yet know it but they are about to make organizational history. They are invited to give and to share why they are giving.
In the non profit world what happened on this morning in San Francisco is called "an ask". In the past two decades I've been to hundreds of events and heard countless asks. I'm known as someone who's pretty ok at doing the ask. I've seen and been involved in endless invitations to contribute. This morning's ask feels different. It is not a request to fill out a pledge card. It is not a plea to fund a worthy mission. It is an invitation. And invitation to contribute funds and to share your story, something they have witnessed others do with courage and grace these past few days. The invitation is not a separate event. It is not siloed from the larger summit. It is part of the DNA of what has been unfolding for days.
One by one hands ascend. A microphone is passed from each woman and one man like an eager Olympic baton ready to make its way to the successor. Women stand and tell their stories and pledge their financial gifts. A man stands and pledges in support and solidarity. Each shares her reason for being here, her need for this tribe, a need she didn't know she had until she got there. One woman says she doesn't like conferences, that is was an epic decision to even attend this conference. Now she knows why she said yes. She didn't know, she said, that it could be like this. Some women's voices shake, others cry. Each is part of a larger fabric, a fabric being woven in this room at this moment. It is purpose that brings them together and giving that links the individual purposes into a shared one.
You can feel the joy and the love in the room. It is infectious. Women stand and share that they had not planned on standing. One woman says she's never been afraid to stand and speak and suddenly she is speaking from a place of vulnerability and connection, something she's never done in her career. She can't believe how scared she is. It is clear to everyone that something larger is playing out here. It is of course the mission of this organization and knowing there is no time left to lose. It is the right invitation at the right time. And, it is something else. What is happening here is generosity in motion. It is the joy of giving. It is witnessing love for one another and the larger world and knowing this is always where you belonged. It is captured perfectly by a woman who stands and says about the beautiful women and man in the room, "Here we all sit magnified." Here they each stand magnified.
In this world that is contentious, divided and struggling to find its way, we ache to find generosity. In these times, witnessing generosity and making the decision to be generous is radical, even revolutionary. We are encouraged to hold onto our resources. We are told we are wise and prudent to stockpile. We are told to hold on to what we have because we don't know what the future will bring. This morning, this group of women and one man made the decision to share, not stockpile, to stand from a place of hope and not fear, to shape the future instead of imagine it is something to worry about.
This is the transformative power of giving. We are moved and inspired by the generosity of others. We see this generosity and we step up. We give boldly and in doing so break open parts of ourselves we haven't yet met. We can't see it or fully name it but there is suddenly a thread that connect us. That thread has always been there, waiting for us to pick it up and give it life, to create new DNA strands in the world. We give outside of our comfort zone. When we give in a way that makes our voices shake we know we are living the words gifted to us by Arundhati Roy: "Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day I can hear her breathing."
On Saturday morning, September 17, 2016 women and one man gave generously, and with joy and love. They gave in honor of those who came before them, those in the room, those they haven't yet met. Pledges were tallied. As the last woman sat and the microphone placed down, the number was announced: more than $2M was pledged and contributed in under ninety minutes for the unwritten future.
In this field of social change, some think that pure philanthropy- that is charitable and humanitarian giving without any financial return- may become a thing of the past. Many believe that social impact investing in the future. By definition this form of investing is to "generate a measurable, beneficial social or environmental impact alongside a financial return." This has tremendous value. I've seen it in action. And while it has a place it cannot ever replace the power of giving for the sake of giving. Rumi wrote, "Even after all this time the sun never says to the Earth, "You owe me." Look what happens with a love like that. It lights up the whole sky."
Giving is faith in motion. It is hope in action. It is enacting your soul's yearning. We give not for a desire to see a financial return but to remind us who we are to one another. And while we look for outcomes and results, measurements and metrics, we give for exactly what happened in the hall at St. Regis: we give for the joy and love that is generated and replicated. We give to go from success to significance. And in giving we know this: sometimes the best things in life cannot be measured, they can only be immeasurably felt.