The 5 Languages of Giving: The Secret to Paying It Forward

GiveDirectly, a superb non-profit organization, sends unconditional cash grants to the poorest households in Kenya and Uganda. Amongst other measures of success, they test beneficiaries' cortisol, normally elevated by the stress of extreme poverty. They are, rightly, celebrated for their ingenious impact measurement -- the new religion of the non-profit and social enterprise sectors -- and I'd encourage anyone to consider supporting their excellent work.

Yet there's a hidden side effect of the relentless quest to measure the return when we give our money. The return on money (even if it means cortisol tests) is usually easier to measure than the return on other types of generosity. Compare the number of new children in school thanks to a scholarship, with the value created by the business person who mentors three young social entrepreneurs, the student who weekly spends several hours with his lonely grandparent, the young employee who stays late to help her colleagues, or the busy executive who makes numerous connections for people starting out in their careers. If you're someone who finds meaning by giving in these less neatly measured ways, it can make your generosity seem less worthy. Even less real.

The Big Five Languages of Giving

The word "giving" is itself limiting. Ask people how they like to give, or give back. Mostly they'll talk about donating, sometimes volunteering, occasionally mentoring. Ask people, instead, how they find meaning by helping others, or the planet: their eyes light up and the conversation expands, usually touching on at least two or three of what emerges as a "Big Five of Giving."

  1. Your Time: Classically we think of this as volunteering. But it includes -- just as importantly and often more impactfully -- mentoring, helping out friends (or strangers!) with requests, random unprompted acts of kindness, and providing emotional support or company.
  2. Your Knowledge: This might be advising (in a formal role, or ad hoc), providing quick answers, and helping friends brainstorm ideas. But let's not forget contributing to Quora, Wikipedia or other incredible public knowledge repositories, which we all owe to thousands of mostly unsung givers.
  3. Your Influence: This a vast, important and highly personal category, which includes introductions, public shout-outs on Twitter, LinkedIn recommendations, private recommendations or advocacy, book reviews, and many more. It's also often the most effective type of giving because, provided your reputation is not reduced, it comes at very little cost (time, financial or cognitive) to the giver.
  4. Your Living: Perhaps the most interesting and complex category, this involves a combination of sacrifice, sharing and intelligent choice. It includes, to name a few, reducing your carbon footprint (buy green, install solar on your roof), sourcing from sustainable supply chains (FairTrade, local), choosing giving products (e.g. one-for-one), buying or using less, sharing your stuff (carpools, AirBnB, Seti@Home) and, most dramatically, finding a job that directly benefits society.
  5. Your Money: Money is often mentioned last of the big give, and the subcategory of donations last within the money category. Many people, even those who donate, speak first of Kiva loans, impact investment, angel investment, pre-buying products on Kickstarter, and even giving gifts or generous tips.

Money is to giving is rather like "English" is to languages. In many ways, focusing on it makes sense -- the international language of business etc -- but it also excludes many: who may speak it poorly, or not like speaking it, or not speak it at all.

And this comes at a cost, powerfully illustrated by an experiment we ran atIntros, which helps people be more generous with their networks.

How would you pay it forward?

There's good evidence that people who receive an act of generosity, are more likely to be generous to someone else. And because intros are fantastic vectors of generosity -- they cost little to give, and can generate great gain for others -- we thought it would be fun (and easy) to tap into the holiday giving spirit, and spark a chain of helpful introductions.

The idea was simple: each time you receive an intro, pay it forward with another intro between two people in your network. Many people did make helpful and sometimes transformative intros. We officially counted nearly 500, with several hundred more unrecorded. But many more people either registered for the experiment and didn't make an intro, or received an intro, and wanted to pay it forward. But didn't. The same explanation echoed across many of the enthusiastic emails we received:

"I want to pay-it-forward, but I don't make many introductions."

These generous (thwarted) people fell into two groups:

  1. Those who said they'd like to pay it forward, but didn't do anything. They were sure they didn't want to make an intro, but they were not sure what to do instead. And so the pay it forward chain ended here.
  2. Those who asked us if they could pay-it-forward in a different way. Suggestions made included giving advice, giving time, making a recommendation rather than an introduction and many more wonderful ideas. They kept the chain going.

Most of us receive much from others. And most of us want to give more back than we do. Imagine, then, how much more giving could be unlocked -- how much more goodwill and gratitude could be paid forward -- if, like this second group, we better understood our languages of giving. Giving that roles off the tongue, as it were, because it is instinctive and meaningful to us.

I'd love your feedback. Do these five categories make sense to you? Are you a knowledge-influence giver, a time-living giver, a knowledge-money-living giver?

With thanks to Adam Grant for his thoughtful comments on this article, and for his inspiring work showing how giving helps the giver succeed too.