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Getting Started:
Going Back to Your Giving Roots

The following is an excerpt from The Generosity Plan: Sharing Your Time, Treasure, and Talent to Shape the World by Kathy LeMay. Published by Beyond Words/ Simon and Schuster/ Atria, January 2010.

At the heart of getting started on your Generosity Plan is going back to your giving roots. Each of us has roots in giving, be they based in culture, faith, personal belief systems, or family. These giving roots are a powerful force and have likely shaped your values and thinking today. By remembering these roots and recalling specific examples of how you or your family gave back, you will draw on traditions that will energize your present work and serve as the heart of your Generosity Plan.

If you’ve heard the phrase “You can’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been” and you agree with that belief, you are already well on your way to the getting started portion of your Generosity Plan.

Much like tracing ancestry, reconnecting with your giving traditions creates continuity in your philanthropic efforts. You will remember what you loved about making a difference. You will recall the good feelings that came with knowing you were doing something that helped someone in need. You will remember the part of you that gave without expectation of return. You will reconnect to being fulfilled by what you could do rather than worrying about what you couldn’t do. You will likely uncover that you were involved in charitable work far earlier in your life than you initially thought.

Questions to Guide You

What do I remember about giving in my family? Did my parents or guardians volunteer? Did we talk about those in need?

Did my family encourage giving back? In what way? Through faith-based activities, school, community groups?

Did I volunteer? If yes, when was the first time? Was I nudged to do it by a parent or teacher? How did I feel about it? How do I feel about it now?

Use these questions as a starting point, but don’t let them limit your thinking. Write down your thoughts or share them with someone close to you. Ask a family member or friend to ask you questions about your giving. This will stimulate your thinking. You may even experience a few aha moments that can dramatically impact your present and future course as well as how you see yourself as an agent of change. And, most important, you will reconnect with those activities that brought most meaning to your life. This happened for my sister, Tricia, when she went back to her giving roots.


Tricia has a career she loves: working for a talent recruitment company. Prior to entering this industry, she had a career in the animal care field. After high school, she got her associate’s degree in animal science and worked as a veterinary technician for thirteen years.

Tricia loves animals. And though she loved her work as a vet-erinary technician, she also struggled with seeing animals suffer and pass away. Needing a break, she branched out into management in the human medical field. Then, after relocating, she landed her current position. To stay connected to her passion and to make a difference in the lives of animals, she became a member of several animal protection groups. She was part of monthly pledge programs. She signed petitions. She voted for better conditions for racing dogs and farm animals. She forwarded action emails to friends and family. And while this had helped, it wasn’t enough. Tricia didn’t feel connected to the cause she cared about. She didn’t feel fulfilled.

To discover what was missing and what more she could do, Tricia went back to her giving roots, to our family’s giving traditions. In looking back, she discovered that as a child she felt most fulfilled being hands-on. As a kid, she would find a stray on the street, scoop it up, take it in, and find it a home. When it came to animals in need, Tricia became the go-to person in our family and in our neighborhood. She felt most herself when she was helping an animal that had no other advocate. Tricia came from a line of caretakers: our mother, who showed us what compassion looked like; our grandmother, who volunteered as a nurse during the war in Finland. My grandmother, my mother, and my sister: they’re hands-on givers. They nurture. They provide care to those in need, one person / one animal at a time. For Tricia, adding volunteering at a local animal shelter to her Generosity Plan made her strategy complete. “I went back to my roots and discovered that I am happiest and most fulfilled when I am there for animals who haven’t yet been adopted. I know my time with them makes them more comfortable. For those few hours, they have a companion who will come back week after week. I hadn’t realized what a gap it was for me. I’m glad to write checks and sign petitions; I know these efforts are important. Equally important is being there with the animals. It makes a difference in their quality of life and in mine.”


By looking back, you will reconnect with the things that you did which were most fulfilling. You will access and recapture your own family’s giving traditions. Draw on what fulfilled you; draw on your own or your family’s giving traditions; draw on your roots. This practice will add continuity to your plan and help you connect past, present, and future.


Debi is a successful corporate executive. With multiple degrees and the smarts and savvy to know when to make tough decisions, she excels at her work. She loves her job. She is also grateful for the opportunity to give back. Debi serves on multiple nonprofit boards. She makes personal contributions to the organizations, gets her company to share some of its wealth with these causes, organizes events, and sells tables for fundraising events. All in all, Debi contributes a great deal to causes that are near and dear to her heart. I was surprised then that she asked to meet with me to help her create a better giving plan. After she shared how she was contributing, I asked her what she thought was missing from her plan. She said she wasn’t sure, but her giving seemed to lack oomph! “I should be more excited about what I’m doing, but really sometimes I feel like I’m just checking off my philan thropic to-do boxes. It feels more like my position at work than giving back.”

So we went back.

Debi grew up in Brooklyn, New York, in the 1960s. Her parents were her anchors, providing her with a loving, albeit strict, home. In her home, Debi learned the value of working hard and giving back. And though she and her family didn’t have money for travel, she told me about her father taking her “all over the world through books.” Her father would say, “Reading is the key to personal freedom and liberation.” Debi read books—a lot of books.

When her aunt got sick, her parents sent Debi to her aunt’s apartment, just down the street, to read to her. What started as reading to her one time a week turned into two times, then three times. “I didn’t really think about it, I just did it. She seemed to enjoy it so much. I couldn’t imagine why listening to me read helped her, but it did, so I did it.” Debi read to her aunt for months on end, until her aunt passed away. “I had gotten pretty used to our reading time. When she died, I missed her and I missed that time we had together. It was pretty special.”

The years passed, and Debi graduated from high school, went on to college, and then attended graduate school for her master’s degree in business administration. She volunteered a little, but she was focused on her career and on building a family.

She had reached her goals: husband, two beautiful daughters, successful career, leadership in the philanthropic community—but she felt something was missing. I asked her how fulfilled she was by serving on boards. She said she knew she was helping, but she felt removed from the charitable aspect. I asked her if she thought that reading to her aunt was her first philanthropic contribution. She smiled. “I guess I thought of philanthropy as something formal, something that happens in boardrooms. But you know, you’re right. I loved helping my aunt.”

I asked her what she thought about volunteering to read to the elderly. She smiled but then questioned it. “Well, I guess I thought that’s what you did when you were younger and couldn’t write checks or sit on boards. Then, as you got older and acquired skills, you moved away from that kind of work. I’ve seen myself in boardrooms for so long, I think I forgot that I could be with the people we’re trying to help.”

Like Tricia, Debi missed the hands-on giving she practiced when she was a girl: reading to her ailing aunt. But, when I pressed, she said it was her most fulfilling volunteer experience.


Simple acts become transformative acts. None of us outgrows hands-on helping, one-on-one support; those connections are what fuel us. Those interactions give us hope. Take the time to go back to when you made a difference—before you had a bank account, before you wondered how many zeroes to put on a check, before you wondered if you were qualified enough to volunteer. By going back, you will remember how good you felt, as those feelings are still a part of you. They can fuel and inform your generosity efforts today.

To help you with your going back, start a Generosity Journal. (Don’t worry. You won’t need to start journaling in a formal sense.) Think of it instead as a notebook where you jot down ideas, create outlines, record your thoughts. My own Generosity Journal is 8˝'' × 11'' copy paper that was on its way to the recycling bin. Yours can be a bound journal, a notebook, or a pile of scrap paper. The most important part of the Generosity Journal is not what’s on the outside but what’s on the inside.

By keeping a journal, you will be sure to capture all those great aha moments that could have an important impact on your Generosity Plan. This happened for Chrissie, who learned she had been giving back and making a difference for a lot longer than she initially recalled.


When I first talked with Chrissie about her initial memory of making, or wanting to make, a difference, she recalled volunteering at a hospital when she was nineteen. She volunteered as a candy striper during her first year of college and said that the experience made her feel “like I was brightening people’s days.”

She continued, “What I remember about it is how such a little thing, like a magazine, a smile, a ginger ale refill, could make such a difference. That, and I was already really, really tall. I felt like I loomed over their beds! One patient called me Wonder Woman. I loved it.”

Chrissie initiated her own volunteering—it wasn’t part of a community service program or her degree. She wasn’t majoring in medicine. She majored in the arts. Based on this, I had a feeling that she likely started giving back before she entered college. I asked her about it, and she replied, “No, I don’t think so. Well, not anything of significance. I collected food for a food drive at school. I remember giving blood at a blood drive. Oh, and when we were kids, my mom had us make up homemade cards for the older people in church who had gotten sick.”

I asked her why she thought she didn’t tell me about these experiences when she initially talked about the first time she can remember giving back.

“I think I didn’t recall those because I thought that was just what you did—helped when you could. Now that I’ve made money, I think I haven’t seen volunteering as philanthropic. Talking with you, I realize how philanthropic my family was, in our way—in the way that we could be.”

Looking back helped Chrissie realize that her family did indeed have a tradition of generosity. As she continued to create her Generosity Plan, she shared how this early exercise benefited her: “Before these exercises, I felt like an amateur. No one in my family had much money to give. When I made a decent enough salary to be able to write checks that got me handwritten thank-you notes, I felt like I was on my own. I didn’t know how to ‘do philanthropy.’ I then realized that I did have a tradition of philanthropy in my family. I felt less alone and more equipped. Behind me were generations of parents and grandparents giving to their capacity. Giving to my capacity carried forward these traditions.”


Looking back helped Chrissie reconnect to her giving roots, recall that she has always been a philanthropist, and increase her confidence as she moved forward. She also created new traditions of giving in her family, including involving her children in the giving money part of philanthropy. She wanted to ensure that her children appreciated the concepts of spending, saving, and sharing and didn’t want them to go through the anxieties she experienced when she first started writing checks to her favorite causes.

What if you’re married and have children? How can going back to your giving roots as a couple enrich your joint generosity experi-ence? How can going back help to pass on to your children the best of their family roots?

Mark and Ellen

I met Ellen years ago through a mutual friend. She had left the high-paced world of finance and was ready to be as serious in her giving back as she had been in her professional work. Like Chrissie, Ellen felt that she didn’t have solid philanthropic roots. When she was growing up, her family had been lower-middle class. She hadn’t seen her parents write checks or even talk about money. Now that she had made money of her own, she felt she needed a guide. After a few coffee dates with Ellen, I met her husband, Mark. Mark had also made money in finance and was now pursuing a new vocation. They both felt they had been successful but that something was missing. I shared with them that my good friend York Mayo talked about retiring after a successful business career, waking up one morning, and realizing he was ready to go from “success to significance.” This resonated with Ellen and Mark, who said that this was what they were seeking.

Ellen and Mark wanted to jump right into giving. They showed me a list of everyone they had written checks to and asked: Who should we remove? Who should we keep? How do we know when to say yes? When to say no? How do we know when to say yes to a larger gift request? I then began with the exercise of going back to their giving roots. As Mark and Ellen focused on results and outcomes, they were wary about this exercise. “Neither of our families had money,” they said. “How will this exercise help us give ours away?”

I shared with them that they very likely have seen charitable acts in their lives—acts that have had an impact on how they think about giving back. I shared that if they wanted to lead a life of significance, they must first look at what they thought was significant when they were growing up. What mattered to them? Who was a role model? Who wasn’t a role model?

As we began the exercise, Ellen recalled her mother volunteering her time and donating canned goods to local charities. Mark remembered that his mother was also active, coordinating blood drives for the local hospital and donating books to the library. Neither Ellen nor Mark could specifically recall checks being written; if they were written, their mothers didn’t share this portion of their giving with them. Similarly, neither remembers their fathers volunteering or writing checks.

What did this mean for them as they approached their Generosity Plan? In their current family, Ellen had taken the lead with their family’s giving: researching the charities, deciding a gift amount, and mailing in the checks. Both Ellen and Mark felt passionately about the same issues and causes, and both felt an obligation to give back to those who were not as fortunate. No doubt, these feelings originated from their familial roots. However, when it came down to thinking about which groups to write checks to, and for how much, or places where the family could volunteer as a whole family, Ellen bore the responsibility.

As we explored this more, Mark said to me, “I never thought before about why I left most of our foundation giving work to Ellen; I think I thought she was more organized than me. I realize now that I have always just thought women volunteer and host events at their home for a local charity. I show up and smile, and I certainly care about the cause, but I learned that it was something that women take care of.” This is not the first time I’ve heard this story. In fact, this may be true in your family’s giving history or in your family structure today.

In Mark and Ellen’s case, they asked themselves: even though this is how it was done in our households when we were growing up, does the same approach work for our family today? This one question helped them pose and resolve a new set of questions about the family’s involvement in giving back. They asked themselves:

Do we want to have our son and daughter seeing just Mom spearhead the giving and volunteering?

For Mark: How much am I missing by being on the fringe and not really getting more involved in the work? For Ellen: I think that women do lead a lot of efforts in their household. However, the causes we care about will be much better served if the whole family gets deeply involved.

This shift in thinking from Mom will do it to This is an effort for the whole family brought them to the place of posing these questions:

What are the most important causes to us as a family and to each of us individually?

At what age should we begin to involve our children? When is too young? When is too late?

Are we happy writing a check and getting updates in the mail, or do we want to meet with the group and get involved beyond the check?

What inspires us most? What work do we see truly making a difference?

How would we like to balance our giving (i.e., how much to our alma maters, to social service groups, to international organizations, and so on)?

Today, Ellen and Mark have a Generosity Plan that involves the whole family, and they both believe that taking the small amount of time to go back to their giving roots before moving forward helped them to become more thoughtful and intentional in their generosity activities. “We learned which [family] habits . . . we wanted to reclaim, and we learned which habits wouldn’t benefit us in moving forward. We feel we’ve created new giving traditions that involve our children.”


From Tricia’s, Debi’s, Chrissie’s, and Ellen and Mark’s stories, you can see the power of accessing your roots and your family’s traditions to remind yourself what you most love about giving back and to inform your present and future efforts. What, though, should you do if you look back and see an absence of giving traditions, or see traditions that you’d rather leave in the past? What steps can you take if you don’t have a giving history that can support your present and future Generosity Plan? What do you do if you don’t feel connected to a family custom?

This very thing happened to Neil when he began looking back.


When I met Neil, he told me that he had no giving traditions from which he could draw inspiration. Born and raised in the Midwest in the 1950s, Neil felt lost when it came to figuring out the source of his generosity values.

“What’s funny about my life, I come from what a lot of people would consider a privileged background. We never went without. My father was a good provider. My mother made sure we ate, had good clothes, and had a warm house. But my life growing up was a lot like those television movies you see: Dad works all day, makes a drink when he comes home, and sits in front of the television, aloof and distant. Mom scurries about, making sure Dad has what he needs and asking us kids to keep it down.

“Ours was not a house where you brought home candy bars for Dad to sell at work to help pay for gym equipment. Mom made sure we got off to school every day, and she greeted us when we got home. But Dad liked her home, so she didn’t serve on the PTA like other moms.”

For Neil, the exercise going back to his giving roots required that he look beyond his immediate, nuclear family for his role models. In his Generosity Journal, Neil answered the questions:

Outside of your parents and siblings, who were your other relatives: grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins? How often did you see them? Can you recall a relative who did something that inspired you?

Was there a teacher or coach who inspired you? Did he/she go out of his/her way for you? What do you remember about that?

Can you recall an act of kindness from someone in your immediate surroundings who made an impact on you? What was it? What did you feel about it?

As he answered these questions, Neil recalled a handful of instances that helped him to feel a connection to traditions greater than himself. In middle school, Neil was quiet and didn’t fit in. He was a shy and average student. A math teacher approached Neil and told him he recognized talents in him. He gave him additional assignments and extra credit. Neil learned to love math, and he went on to take advanced level math in high school. In his journal he wrote, I got absorbed in math. I don’t think I ever thanked that teacher for what he did. I guess you could say he was just doing his job, but to me, it was someone who believed in me.

This teacher’s generous act helped Neil realize that working one-on-one with people who have been left out is what matters most to him. Though Neil’s family did not possess obvious giving traditions, by digging a little deeper and expanding his view, he was able to see generosity practiced by others in his early years.

If you’re like Neil, remember that you can uncover a role model you have met along the way. One simple act can help you recognize how you want to practice generosity today. This is true for all of us, even the forty-fourth president of the United States.

President Barack Hussein Obama

In October 2007, while campaigning in Iowa to become the next president of the United States, then-senator Barack Hussein Obama was asked by a man in the crowd, “What would you say is the most painful and character-building experience of your life that puts you in an important position to make important decisions of life and death and the well-being of our country?”

He replied:

I would say the fact that I grew up without a father in the home. What that meant was that I had to learn very early on to figure out what was important and what wasn’t, [to] exercise my own judgment, and in some ways, to raise myself.

My mother was wonderful and was a foundation of love for me, but as a young man growing up, I didn’t have a lot of role models and I made a lot of mistakes. But I learned to figure out that there are certain values that were important to me that I had to be true to.

Nobody was going to force me to be honest. Nobody was going to force me to work hard. Nobody was going to force me to have drive and ambition. Nobody was going to force me to have empathy for other people. But if I really thought those values were important, I had to live them out.

That’s why it’s so important for me now . . . to wake up every morning and ask myself, am I living up to those values that I say are important?


Each of us has the opportunity to wake up every morning and ask: What matters most to me? What one thing can I do today that will make a difference for someone I know or for someone I may never meet? To ensure you uncover this passion in you and develop an intentional and thoughtful tradition of giving in your own life, here are three simple things you can do today:

1. List three different acts of your own personal generosity. Chances are very likely that you have given sel?essly for the benefit of others. List three different times when you have given to someone without expectation of return. How did you feel when you gave of yourself? What was the impact on the recipient? What do those actions say about you and what you value?

2. Make a list of individuals who inspire you. Who inspires you? Have you read a story recently about someone whose actions were admirable? Who in the public eye do you look up to? Have you been inspired by a neighbor? A coworker? Whether you are inspired by the works of a great spiritual leader or by the efforts of someone you’ve met in passing, list the traits of that individual. Which of these traits do you want to continue to cultivate in you? How can your Generosity Plan support you in living those qualities?

3. Create a Generosity Club. Like book clubs, money clubs, or investment clubs, Generosity Clubs allow you to share your knowledge and benefit from others’ experiences. The group environment can help you unleash your best thinking, take action, leverage efforts, and get ideas to support you in your generosity efforts. (For more on starting your own Generosity Club, see chapter 10.)


Going back to your giving roots, accessing your family’s giving traditions, and creating the conditions for habitual generosity puts you firmly on the road to creating your Generosity Plan. Take the time now to go back, and it will serve you in the days, months, and years to come. You will know what you stand for and why you stand for it, and from this you will turn your hopes into realities.


Excerpted from The Generosity Plan: Sharing Your Time, Treasure, and Talent to Shape the World by Kathy LeMay. Published by Beyond Words/ Simon and Schuster/ Atria, January 2010.

Kathy LeMay is the founder, president, and CEO of Raising Change, which helps organizations raise capital to advance social change agendas and individuals create Generosity Plans to help change the world.

LeMay, who began her global activism in war-torn Yugoslavia where she worked with women survivors of the siege and rape-genocide camps, has been a social change fundraiser for 15 years, raising more than $150 million dollars in the fields of women’s human rights, hunger and poverty relief, and movement-building. In addition she has directed an additional $100 million in philanthropic dollars to organizations working to make a difference. LeMay serves as an adviser and consultant to Fortune 100 companies, universities, international NGOs, and the United Nations. She is a sought-after speaker on strategies for social justice and empowering women to come into their voice.

In the year 2000 LeMay was nominated for a Reebok Human Rights Award for her 15 years of service as a human rights activist. She was just named one of Business West Magazine’s “40 Under 40” and, in January 2010, she released her first book, The Generosity Plan, published by Simon & Schuster/Atria and Beyond Words.

Kathy has appeared on numerous television and radio shows including Oxygen TV and The Oprah Show. She is a contributing columnist to World Pulse Magazine, where she also serves as the Board Chair.


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