One successful giver in Adam Grant’s book insisted on being anonymous. Progressives should support narratives and practices that encourage and enable more givers. (More)

Give and Take, Part III: Changing Cultures (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature considers Adam Grant’s Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success. Thursday we saw how givers build networks that expand opportunities for everyone involved. Yesterday we discussed how to avoid the risks of giving: burnout and the doormat effect. Today we conclude with how to change community attitudes and our own lives.

Adam Grant is the youngest tenured professor at Wharton. He earned his Ph.D. in organizational psychology from the University of Michigan, and his B.A. from Harvard University. He has been recognized as Wharton’s single-highest-rated teacher, one of BusinessWeek’s favorite professors, and one of the world’s 40 best business professors under 40. Previously, he was an advertising director at Let’s Go Publications, an All-American springboard diver, and a professional magician.

“But a paradigm shift kicks in.”

In 1993, having just moved to the city, Craig Newmark began an email list to share information about arts and technology events in the San Francisco area. Three years later Craigslist moved to the web, where it is now among the world’s ten most often viewed sites. Craigslist is an online culture built for matchers, exchanging goods and services on what the parties believe are fair trades. “We’re not altruistic,” Newmark has written. “From one perspective, we’re an online flea market.”

In 2003, Deron Beal decided to see if a similar system could function based on giving rather than matching. Like Newmark, Beal was new to his city and his idea began as an recycling email list. Soon local businesses began to donate desks and other office equipment that was still in good shape but could not be recycled. He decided to give the items away, along with a bed that he no longer needed and that thrift shops would not accept, and started a website to let people know what he had available.

But unlike Craigslist, Beal’s website would not allow currency or direct trading of goods and services. Any good or service offered on his website had to be given away for free, with no strings attached … and the Freecycle Network was born. Within two years, Freecycle reached a million members and there are now over 5000 Freecycle communities in 85 countries.

When Robb Willer, Frank Flynn, and Sonya Zak decided to study why people join online exchange programs, they expected to find that matchers would prefer sites like Craigslist and givers would join sites like Freecycle. But after surveying more than a thousand Craigslist and Freecycle members, Willer and his team made a surprising discovery: matchers and even takers also joined Freecycle … and they began to act more like givers.

People usually hear about Freecycle as a way to get free stuff. Your average person will join thinking ‘I can get something for nothing,'” Beal says. “But a paradigm shift kicks in. We had a big wave of parents who needed help in hard times. They received strollers, car seats, cribs, and high chairs. Later, instead of selling them on Craigslist, they started giving them away.”

“Adam Rifkin, this is Adam Rifkin.”

Even if you haven’t read Dr. Grant’s book, you might have seen the name Adam Rifkin. It’s a distinctive name, but there are two Adam Rifkins. One is a Hollywood director, the other the entrepreneur and financier we met yesterday. The latter founded Panda Whale, and Panda Adam Rifkin often received calls from people looking for Hollywood Adam Rifkin. Panda Adam put his telephone number on the internet, hoping Hollywood Adam would call so they could clear up the confusion. One morning four years later, Hollywood Adam was visiting a friend in New York, saw Panda Adam’s site, and decided to call:

Panda Adam (groggily): “Hello?”
Hollywood Adam: “Adam Rifkin, this is Adam Rifkin.”
Panda Adam: “I’ve been waiting my whole life for this call.”

They weren’t related. Panda Adam grew up in New York; Hollywood Adam in Chicago. Yet when they met face-to-face, they felt an instant bond and have since helped each other on several projects “without keeping score,” in Hollywood Adam’s words.

That’s partly that both are givers, but Dr. Grant writes that something more was at work. It turns out we’re more likely to help people who remind us of ourselves in some way. One study in Manchester, England found that Manchester United fans were far more likely to help a fallen man who was wearing a Man U shirt. Another found that that college students were more likely to help another college student if they were told they shared a fingerprint type, and even more likely to help when told that fingerprint type was very rare.

It’s a trait psychologists call optimal distinctiveness: a preference for helping others who share at least one of our own quirks. When a group of such people reaches critical mass, as happened with givers on Freecycle, others who come to the group want to share that quirk … and thus Freecycle’s matchers and even takers began to act like givers.

“I’m not afraid anymore.”

As a sports contract negotiator, Derek Sorenson had a whatever-it-takes attitude toward winning. He honed his taker skills in a business school negotiating class, where he was voted Most Ruthless … not only by his own class but also by another whose students he had never met.

That dubious honor was a wake-up call. As an athlete in high school and college, Sorenson had earned a reputation as a generous teammate. Indeed he was so unselfish that he was chosen to captain his professional team, as a rookie. But when he moved into business, he brought only his competitive skills and became a taker. He didn’t like being voted Most Ruthless – especially by people he’d never met – and began to rebuild his giving skills. Now he’ll share information on former players with rival teams. “On the field, I want to beat up opposing teams,” he told Dr. Grant. “But off the field, I’m always trying to help them out.”

He even renegotiated a deal with a player, after a negotiation where Sorenson realized he’d been unreasonable. Still, he asked Dr. Grant to conceal his identity for the book. “I don’t want it to get out there that I’ve given more money than I needed to a player.”

He wasn’t alone. Dr. Grant also told the story of Sherryann Plesse, a financial services executive who tried to hide her giving nature from her colleagues. Like Sorenson, Plesse first agreed to be interviewed only if she could remain anonymous. Six months later she changed her mind and asked Dr. Grant to use her real name. “I’ve started an underground campaign of givers coming out of the closet,” she told him. “Being a giver has contributed to my personal and professional success. It’s liberating to talk about it. I’m not afraid anymore.”

Actions for Impact

Dr. Grant offers several ideas for action in his final chapter, including:

  • Test your giver quotientDr. Grant’s website offers both a self-assessment and a utility to let others assess your reciprocity style.
  • Start a reciprocity ringHumax Networks offers social networking tools for individuals and organizations to build reciprocity rings and practice “paying it forward.”
  • Send the LoveSendLove offers tools to help businesses and other groups recognize and celebrate givers.
  • Practice the Five-Minute Favor – Simply, never refuse a favor that you can do in five minutes or less.
  • Introduce distinctive people to each other – If you know two people who share a distinctive trait, introduce them. Helping each other through the bond of their shared trait may help both develop a habit of giving.
  • Join other givers – Participate in Freecycle and ServiceSpace to meet, support, and be supported by givers in your community.
  • Start the spark – “If you want other people to be givers,” Dr. Grant writes, “one of the easiest steps is to ask. When you ask for help, you’re not always imposing a burden. Some people are givers, and by asking for help, you’re creating an opportunity for them to express their values and feel valued.”

To encourage and enable a more generous society, we must become better givers and encourage other givers to come out of the closet. Dr. Grant’s book is one step in that process. The next steps … are ours.


Happy Saturday!