02 Oct 2017
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Radical Generosity for the Real World

Author Ami Campbell on her spiritual journey to giving—and how you can kickstart yours

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Dan Morrell: Growing up in a single parent household outside of Chicago, Ami Campbell's (MBA 1997) thoughts on money were mainly focused on scarcity. As she writes in the September issue of the Bulletin, it just wasn't something her and her family spoke about. Today though, she talks about money all the time. She teaches stewardship at her church. Recently co-authored the book Love Let Go: Radical Generosity for the Real World, which was released in March. In this conversation with The Bulletin's associate editor, Julia Hanna, Campbell talks about her unique path to giving, and offers actual advice for anyone who wants to start their own path.

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Julia Hanna: Ami, you have a really interesting relationship with giving, and have spoken to people about giving, particularly at your church. And I just wondered if you could talk a little bit about your background, and how you came to this kind of interesting topic for a lot of people.

Campbell: Sure, I'd love to. And you're right, I think it is—it's quite a story, and a little bit roundabout really in that I didn't grow up talking about money. It was not a conversation that came up around the dinner table or regularly for any reason. I grew up in a single parent household for most of my youth, and so money was tight, it just wasn't something we discussed. And then later in life, as I got older and I started to manage my own money and think about how I was going use my resources, I really started to think about what had I been given, and therefore, that caused me to be grateful and then think about what, therefore, can I give.

One of the most formative giving experiences I had was when I went to Tanzania for the first time. My husband and I had been sponsoring a child there. A bunch of people at our church—you know, 100 some people at our church had been sponsoring children in this village in Tanzania, and I was one of eight people from our church who got to go on a visit to see all these kids and to see the work that our church's contributions had been able to accomplish there. And when we were there, I got to meet our sponsored child, Enkanashai, and her mother, Nasaru.

And Nasaru was not much younger than I was. I mean, we were very close in age, and yet our lives could not have looked more different. I mean, she was the mother of five kids, one on the way, and here she was walking for hours a day to get water, living in a very subsistence level off of their farm. And here I was, I had gone to HBS, I had a successful career, I was very heavily involved in this church and our family life. And what struck me in that moment was that I really was no different from her, and my story could have read exactly the same way as hers could have, because even though I was in the position I was in, that's not where I started.

I was born in Vietnam. I was born to an American father, who was a contractor for the military, and a Vietnamese mother. And unlike thousands, literally tens of thousands, of kids who were born to American fathers and Vietnamese mothers, I got to actually come to the US. My father decided to marry my mother and bring me to the US. But that was rare, and I could have so easily been Nasaru. I could have been a subsistence farmer, farming a rice paddy, living the exact same life she was living. And the only difference is that I got lucky, frankly.

I got lucky, and because of that, I needed to acknowledge it and then somehow do something with that, you know, pay that forward. Use and be a voice for what could have been and what was still possible for someone like Nasaru.

Hanna: You also got to witness that process in your church, when your church received a significant windfall from the sale of some real estate. And I wondered if you could talk a little bit about that and how that's influenced your thoughts about giving.

Campbell: Yes, that was another profound experience. So yes, our church had made a $1,000 investment in 1970 that became a $1.6 million windfall, in 2014. And so the very first thing our church did with that money was to tithe, which in biblical terms means to give 10% back to God. And our—the form with which our church did that was to give every congregant a $500 check, and the—with the instruction to just go and do God's work with it, essentially, that pay it forward, right? So in that process, I—you know, we have about 300 church members, and so we got to see how each of us thought about that and discerned, and then went out and did it.

So here were a bunch of people given $500 to give away. And at the church, those of us who were in leadership said, you know, for some of you, really paying it forward actually means dealing with some of your own circumstances, you know, because you can't actually go and give of yourself until you address some of your own needs. You know, we actually had a gentleman who was homeless, had been chronically homeless, and had lived under a viaduct for 10 years. He was finally in some transition housing, and he had medical needs, he had to pay, even in transition housing, he had to pay rent. He had lots of ways he could've used that $500.

And yet, what he did was he went out and he gathered up his old buddies, from under the viaduct, and he took them out to a movie and a real restaurant meal. And he said it was the first time in a long time for some of these guys that they felt like real humans again. And to see that, I mean, that's the kind of trust that just blew me away.

Money has always meant emotional security for me, and having it means that I don't have to worry about what might happen. That's what these people were—they weren't doing, right? They weren't worrying about what might happen. They were taking this money and making something really great happen today, and not worrying about what might happen tomorrow.

Hanna: How do we get started. I mean, maybe we're not affiliated with a church, but we want to give; what would be some steps you would advise people to take to begin this process of examination and giving?

Campbell: It starts with making the decision and saying, OK, if I look at my budget, and I want to be able to give, you know, maybe it's $500 a month to support this other family, or whatever the number is, if you look at your budget, where are the areas where there's a little bit of room. And it may be that, yes, you're going to have to make some sacrifices, but are there places where, you know, the sacrifice hurts a little less, and so you can start there. I know a lot of people who just have automatic deductions from their paychecks, and it either goes directly to an organization they care about it, or it goes directly into a separate account that they then use and that account is specifically for giving related. It has, you know—and they've made that—they've sort of contracted with themselves and made that commitment.

There are other things that I would also recommend that, again, are part of the baby steps. One thing that is proven out in the social science research is the social contagion phenomenon, where, you know, if you are around people who are nice, you're more likely to be nice, right? And so if you surround yourself with people who are like minded, who are giving, who want to make that a priority in their lives, that will affect you and you will want to give more. Giving really does beget giving. So that's one thing you can do is just find some like minded people, and you know, have coffee with them. Decide to meet together once a month and talk about what your goals are, talk about how you're making it happen, what baby steps you're using to get to your goal.

Another very simple thing to do is to remove some temptations in your life. I think back in the day when I first started teaching stewardship, I would tell people, you know, every single catalog you've gotten in the last three months, gather them together, take a half an hour and call all those 800 numbers, and tell them to stop sending you those catalogs. Today, it's a little different, right, it's e-mails. You're getting e-mails from lots of different places trying to sell you stuff that you probably don't need, frankly. So unsubscribe. And then instead, if you really are—you know, if you're a person who—you are on email all the time, subscribe to the causes that you like and get their e-mails instead, so that you're—the messages that are coming to your inbox are not messages that are reinforcing some needs that you don't really have, but they're instead reinforcing the needs of the world that you might be able to meet.

Hanna: Now, you, I believe, have children and a house, and you know, financial obligations and concerns of your own. And I just wonder, can you give us a window into maybe a struggle you've gone through or are going through now in terms of giving? Because it seems to me the thing about giving is where's the end of it, and when do you feel like you've done enough, and how do you know you've done enough?

Campbell: Mhm. Right. Where is that sweet spot? And what I tell people often is that the magic happens when you feel like you're sacrificing some things that you would like, actually, but you also feel this freedom in the giving that you're doing.

So yes, that I have a house, I have two kids, one who's heading off to college. So of course, the temptation for us, over the past several years, has been, you know, should we just finish saving for our daughters for school and not give? Because we could have easily said, OK, this year, we're going to cut back on our giving. For the next four years, we've got two kids getting ready to go to college. And that's a hard conversation, especially for someone like me, right, who care—for whom money is all about security.

And here's where I really think it's important for people to do some self-examination. There are some areas for us that are almost sacred. You know, of course, the tithe for us is sacred, and that we do, no matter what. But honestly, for us, and I imagine this is true for a lot of my fellow grads, is for us vacations are really sacred. We have so little family time between our work schedules and our kids schedules that we said, you know what, we will cut back on restaurants, we will—we're not going to do any remodeling to this house, but we won't sacrifice vacations.

We will find other ways to save the money. We need to save and give away the money we feel called to give, but vacations, that we're not touching. So I feel like people just need to ask themselves, where is it in your budget, like I said, where you might feel like you're sacrificing a little, but you're not sacrificing what fundamentally is your core.

We've had to live on an austerity budget. That's no fun. You know, there are times when you're in-between jobs, you have to live on the austerity budget. That is no fun. It makes giving not fun. It just—it's an icky place to be.

So don't go there, you know? Don't go to the point where you feel like you're having to sacrifice things that give you tremendous emotional satisfaction, and like I said, for us, that's vacations. We weren't going to sacrifice there, but we were happy to say, you know what, yes, that bathroom could really use a new floor, but that's OK, that can wait.

Hanna: We can live with it.

Campbell: Right. We'll do some other things first. We'll save more, we'll give more, and the bathroom—you know, the bathroom will come when it's time is ready.

Hanna: Right. Well, obviously, the causes that you give money to benefit in this process, but what do you feel you've personally gained by giving?

Campbell: Well, I think I had mentioned earlier, this freedom. This sense of having enough, it's just pure joy, right? You have this place in your life where you feel content, and you could feel content with less. And talk about freeing. I mean, that is antithetical to almost every message that we hear in the world today.

So of course I'm always learning. I mean, I'm not—I never feel like I'm done, I've achieved everything I need to achieve to be a generous person. But as I've grown more generous, I just feel like, you know, more attuned to the needs of the world. I feel like I am a lot more free to respond to them.

And that is—that's just such a gift. I mean, you know, you can look at all the research, of course. You know, there's plenty of research, from HBS professors included, on how giving is good for us. It's good for our health, it's good for our mental attitudes, it's good for our happiness. And all of that is true. It's profoundly true.

But also, personally, I feel like what you don't necessarily capture is that sense of freedom, that sense of feeling like, you know what, you could live on a lot less and you would be content, and you would make it work. And therefore, all the messages that you need more, or that you haven't saved enough, or all of those just kind of roll off your back. You know, they just don't hit you in the gut. They don't make you feel like you haven't done enough or that you're—you've fallen short in some way. And so the emotional freedom that I've experienced has probably been the biggest benefit of this whole giving exercise, this giving lifestyle, essentially, that we're trying to lead.

Skydeck is produced by the External Relations department at Harvard Business School and edited by Craig McDonald. It is available at iTunes or wherever you get your favorite podcasts. For more information or to find archived episodes, visit alumni.hbs.edu/skydeck.

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Class of MBA 1997, Section E

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