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What Generosity Really Means

The end of the calendar year showcases generosity. Consider the holidays. Thanksgiving is about gratitude, when people often express thanks for the generosity of others. Christmas is largely about being a good giver and a good receiver of gifts. Both Christmas and Hanukkah represent gratitude for receiving gifts from God. For many, New Year’s Eve is a time to look back with gratitude on the closing year. And throughout this period, taxpayers consider how much money to give away, and to whom. Charities, for their part, remind donors to make year-end contributions.

So what is generosity, really?

What, if anything, does it have to do with the business of family enterprises?

In the world of charitable giving, generosity almost always means giving a lot of money. Gift officers at charities use the word 'generous' interchangeably with "big donation." A person who is "'generous" gives away large amounts of money. Conversely, by implication, a person who gives lesser amounts is not "generous." If you’re not convinced this is true, test it the next time you read a charity’s report or hear a gift officer talk about a person who gave a major donation. For example, a recent article in Trusts & Estates labeled people age 55 and younger "not so generous" because since the Recession they have donated less to charity than the article’s author thought they should.

This modern understanding of "generous" may be short-sighted. As the more discerning donors have pointed out, and as the best charities recognize, giving away money is not easy. Donors and charities alike cite the observation Aristotle made over 2,300 years ago:       

"It is a hard task to be good, for it is hard to find the middle point in anything. Anybody can give and spend money. But to give money to the right person, and in the right amount, and at the right time, and for the right purpose, and in the right way – this is not within everybody’s power and is not easy." 1

This suggests that the larger the amount of money at stake, the harder it is to give the money away effectively. Large donors face an even tougher time of it.  

Yet Aristotle himself does not define generosity as giving away large amounts of money. There’s more to it than that.

To appreciate this I turned to Steve Vanderslice, retired professor of English and philosophy at Louisiana State University. An experienced student of the great thinkers, he also happens to be my father in law. Generosity, says Aristotle, pertains to how a person acquires, spends, and gives money. It is the "middle point" between wastefulness on the one hand and stinginess on the other. Giving money away, and leaving less for oneself, befits a generous person, "since it is proper to a generous person not to look out for himself." But, Aristotle cautions, giving exceedingly is not the middle point:

"for in speaking of generosity we refer to generosity that fits one’s property. For what is generous does not depend on the quantity of what is given, but on the state of the giver, and that kind of giving fits one’s property. Hence one who gives less than another person may still be more generous, if he has less to give." 2   

My father in law himself exemplifies this point. Despite the LSU retirement system, he is not a wealthy man. No charity has ever marked him "generous." He is not on the prospect lists of any universities, hospitals, or social service agencies. Yet he uses money to give away something that is arguably more precious than money: his time. At least once a month, my father in law makes the drive from his Louisiana home to Dallas, to help my sister in law care for her handicapped son. My father in law has been doing this for 13 years. He has put tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of miles on the car. He could be using his time playing tennis or socializing. Instead, he gives his time away, for the benefit of my sister in law, her husband, and their three children.

If real generosity is the kind that "fits one’s property," then every person can aspire to generosity by giving time.  

Everyone has time. Time is prior to money – in the sense that earning money results from the profitable use of a person’s time. You have money because someone (whether you or someone else) spent the time to acquire it.

Here, then, is the connection to the work of a family enterprise.

In a family enterprise, all questions of ownership, decision-making, and succession pertain to the time the family members devote – to the shared assets of the family, to the common activities of the family, and to one another. Successful families arrive at workable agreements about how to use their time. Deteriorating families fail at this. So as the calendar year draws to an end, we express gratitude for those who are truly generous – certainly those who give money, but also those who give time for the sake of the common enterprise that is the family.  

[1] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1109b, 24-29.
[2] Nicomachean Ethics, 1120b, 4-10 (emphasis added).