/ 21 November 2023

Creativity and generosity on Giving Tuesday

Photo: (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

“It’s inspiring to see ordinary people contribute to making a difference, not just on one day, but every day.” — Sne Vilakazi, Giving Tuesday South Africa Lead

Generosity is a good thing any time, of course. But late November is the time that generosity actually lands on our calendar, in the form of Giving Tuesday. It’s a good opportunity to reflect on the relationship between creativity and giving.

Giving Tuesday is the culmination of a week-long run of crass commercial holidays starting the day before American Thanksgiving with White Wednesday followed by Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday.

If you knew there was a holiday called “Giving Tuesday”, consider yourself a quasi-visionary — the Greater Good Science Center, a research institute in Berkeley, California, in the US, found that fewer than two in 10 people have heard of it, even though Black Friday’s benevolent step-sibling is now formally commemorated in more than 90 countries.

But hey, give it time. The seeds of Giving Tuesday sprouted only 12 years ago, when Carlo Garcia, a Chicago theatre director, wrote an article in The Huffington Post urging shoppers to donate to charity after they had finished their Cyber Monday shopping. 

His aim was to cap off the cascade of materialism with a celebration of giving. (Optimistic folks might point out that the whole following holiday season is supposed to be about jolly good giving … but we digress.)

Garcia’s concept bloomed the following year, when New York’s 92nd Street Y formed a partnership with the United Nations Foundation to launch a separate entire day of giving on the Tuesday. And so it has continued since.

The $2 billion that the holiday now raises for charity annually is an extraordinary amount of giving — especially after so many days of retail bacchanalia. And that’s only counting the cash. You can also give time or expertise, which can actually be far more impactful. As Kahlil Gibran wrote, “You give but little when you give of your possessions. It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.”

Of course, by the time you get to Giving Tuesday, you might find that yourself is all you have left to give, having bankrupted your actual finances during the lead-up spree. 

No matter. Never mind, either, that the world spends over $100 billion on Black Friday and more than double that through the entire week. That is not the point.

The point is that giving gives back. You surely won’t be surprised to learn that studies prove that more generous people are happier, healthier and mentally more fit. They have better relationships and collaborate better too. 

And here is where we connect to creativity. Renowned psychologist Adam Grant found that a desire to help others correlates strongly to higher levels of creativity and problem-solving success. His study, with the truly beautiful title The Necessity of Others is the Mother of Invention, led to Grant’s book Give and Take, in which he shows in much more depth how “givers” drive organisational innovation.

No surprise, I’m sure, that a workplace where employees are rewarded for sharing knowledge and supporting each other is a great place for successful brainstorming and collaboration — and an attitude of failing forward. 

Leaders who exhibit generosity and altruism can inspire creativity in their teams. Generous leadership often creates a safe space for risk-taking and novel idea generation, essential components of creativity.

A study cited by PsycNET found that emotionally intelligent employees who display a high level of generosity nurture a sense of vigour, which in turn fosters creative behaviours. 

Research by the University of Notre Dame, in Indiana, found that performing generous acts in the workplace makes everyone happier — the giver, receiver, connector and observer. Increased happiness, in turn, has numerous benefits, including enhanced creativity and productivity.​

Socially active organisations bring broader communication and exposure to more diverse perspectives into their idea pool. Companies that invest in their employees’ and the community’s welfare are actually investing in their own innovation. 

For instance, Patagonia, the American retailer of outdoor recreation clothing, puts a great deal of money behind environmental sustainability initiatives — and this external corporate social responsibility giving has led directly to profitable innovations in product design and materials sourcing. 

In fact, companies with more active social responsibility programmes show a consistently higher rate of success in innovation.

The same benefits accrue to you as an individual. Neuroscience research shows that positive emotions increase connectivity in areas of the brain associated with creativity and cognitive flexibility. 

And generosity is one of the best ways to make yourself feel good. Witness the “kindness contagion” phenomenon, in which people who experience acts of kindness become measurably kinder themselves. 

Giving activates our cerebral reward centres — the ventral striatum and prefrontal cortex. This increases the release of “feel-good” dopamine, jacking up both motivation and problem-solving ability, and reducing stress, which clears our mind and magnifies the cycle.

The desire to make a public impact drives the most prolific artists. The need, the compulsion, to do something that makes a difference. 

As much as generosity inspires creativity, creativity is a powerful engine for generosity too. Creativity brings us the ability to see life from a variety of perspectives. It brings an open-mindedness that drives compassion. And compassion is the gateway to giving.

Being creative can help you think of new and unusual ways to be generous. In fact, creativity and innovation are themselves acts of generosity — helping someone see something in a new way or take new actions can be one of the most generous things you could do. Don’t give a beggar a loaf of bread — show them how to bake one, you know?

That, after all, is a core meaning of creativity — thinking differently than you are used to thinking. And generosity in daily interactions — helping a colleague, volunteering in your community, giving someone a sandwich, being there for a friend — can actually be very selfish. Because it enhances your problem-solving skills. 

Perhaps that’s why South Africa’s representative of Giving Tuesday, Vukawanele (the name means “Wake up, you are enough”), has launched an initiative to commemorate giving every Tuesday throughout the year. 

Why limit it to Tuesdays? If giving makes you more innovative, do it as much as you can. It literally costs nothing, if you’re creative about it.

While we’re on the topic, the gratitude represented by American Thanksgiving does pretty good work for creativity too. As Deepak Chopra says, “Gratitude opens the door to the creativity of the universe.” 

And that’s not just metaphorical. Creativity guru Teresa Amabile’s research has shown that an attitude of gratitude promotes success in creative problem-solving. And being creative promotes mindfulness and presence, making gratitude easier.

Yes, it’s all a bit of an upward spiral, a self-fulfilling loop. Neuroimaging studies show that gratitude activates brain regions associated with altruistic behaviour — in other words, when you feel grateful, you are more likely to be generous in turn. 

Of course, as the word of the holiday itself embodies, gratitude is really a form of giving. So one good way to be sure you are generous on Giving Tuesday — or any time — is to notice what you can be grateful for first. 

Get grateful, get generous, get creative this week. Being innovative, it turns out, is one of the kindest things you can do — for yourself and for everyone around you.

Michael Lee is a creativity expert, an advisory board member of World Creativity and Innovation Week/Day, and Radio 702 creativity contributor.