Victoria Atkinson White: How to cultivate conditions for "givers" to excel

Give - Take

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Effective leaders help givers avoid burnout and create institutional cultures where seeking help is the norm, writes the managing director of grants at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

It’s better to give than to receive. Or is it?

According to Adam Grant and his New York Times best-seller “Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success,” the world is made up of three kinds of people: givers, takers and matchers.

Givers are others-focused and do not expect anything in return for their generosity. Givers freely offer their time, energy, resources and connections.

Takers see their needs as more important than others’ and the world as competitive. Takers will help others, but they do so strategically, to ensure that they reap the greatest benefit.

Matchers value fairness and work toward an equality of giving and taking. They operate with a “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” mentality.

In ministry, many of us pride ourselves on being givers. We claim we are called to give, citing the Bible: “Do unto others” and “From whom much is given, much is expected.” We take courses in seminary on how to give pastoral care and give a good sermon. Ministry is about giving, right?

Givers often sacrifice themselves to make their organizations better. Grant writes that the more often people are helping, teaching, sharing and mentoring, the better their organizations do in every measurable metric. This sounds like the narrative we tell ourselves in pursuit of “success” in ministry. We call it “sacrifice for the greater good.”

But before you classify yourself in what sounds like the category of champions, you might be surprised to learn that across a vast span of occupations, givers themselves consistently rank among the least successful people. On average, givers earn less money, are less powerful and are more likely to be victims of crime.

So what does this say for those of us who feel called to give of ourselves for the sake of others?

Grant’s research continues to surprise. While givers fall at the bottom of the success ladder, they also stand at the top. The workers who are the most productive in both quality and quantity are givers. They create on average up to 50 percent more revenue than takers or matchers.

The question then becomes: How do leaders cultivate the conditions for the givers in their organizations to excel? How do we help them rise and stay at the top of the success ladder rather than drop to the bottom? Grant has some suggestions.

First, help givers avoid burnout. Constantly helping others can be time-consuming and energy-depleting. Grant writes that through entrepreneur Adam Rifkin’s notion of the “five-minute favor,” givers can build rich collaborative networks and maintain healthy boundaries. We can teach our givers to ask, “How can I add value to someone’s life in five minutes or less?”

This idea has dramatically changed the way I spend my time in airports and on airplanes. While I used to pack books and magazines to read in short time spurts, I now strategically use my travel time for five-minute favors.

At my airport gate, I pull out a running list of people and ideas I want to remember. Who among my acquaintances would benefit from being connected? I introduce them via email. Who deserves or needs to be noticed? Sometimes I write an email, but more often, because it is a fading art form, I write a note and mail it. (All airports have mail slots!) What resources do I know about -- grants, scholarships, programs, events -- that would benefit those I just visited? What have I learned recently that should be shared with others? Emails and social media posts, likes and shares are quick and effective ways to communicate these simple connections.

Second, Grant suggests that leaders cultivate a culture of seeking help. Organizations where asking questions and seeking help are the norm have more givers.

I recently visited a church where the pastor urged congregants to hold the offering plate a moment before passing it on to the next person -- even if we didn’t have a contribution to put in. “These plates are symbols of the way we see ourselves and our resources in this community,” he said. “These plates are not only for those who give; they are for those who receive, because as followers of Jesus Christ, we are called to do both.”

When the plate came to me, I felt its weight, not because of the overflowing gifts within it, but because I felt the conviction of needing to become a better receiver so that I might in turn become a better giver.

I am working on this.

I recently had the privilege of holding a baby at an event I was co-facilitating. It was the first time the baby’s young mother had left the house since giving birth, and she was nervous about how to handle all the details of traveling with an infant and trying to be fully present at an event. It was an enormous treat for me to get to hold, rock and feed this beautiful baby so her mom could receive a few hours of intellectual stimulation, feedback and socialization. While the mother felt that I was giving her a tremendous gift, I felt that I was the one who received. But the cycle was not complete.

The next day, she texted and asked what I would like from Starbucks. My gut reaction was to thank her and tell her I was fine, that the last thing she needed was to leave her house five minutes early or spend money on me. And then I thought about the offering plate. I texted her back and later enjoyed the best skinny vanilla latte I have ever tasted. She gave; I received. We were both happy.

Givers are critical to an organization’s success and healthy relationships. Christian institutional leaders must cultivate the conditions for givers to thrive, in a culture of generative giving and receiving.