Monday, May 07, 2007

The kindness economy

The kindness economy

As I twisted the gas cap on my Dodge Caravan a well-dressed stranger, a seventy-something lady, came around the gas pump and said, “Could you show me how to do this? My husband died and I don’t know how to fill on gas.”

“Yes,” I said, and I followed her to her car.

“I have to learn to do this,” she said, as I coached her to twist the black gas cap and then pull it free. Next I showed her how to lift the nozzle from the pump and to select a grade.

“Won’t the gas come out if I push the button?” she said pointing to the button to select a grade.

“No,” I assured her, “the gas won’t come out until you squeeze the handle on of the nozzle.” Then I showed her how to insert the nozzle and lock the handle into the on position.

“My husband died and he always filled on gas,” she said as we waited for her tank to fill. Then I showed her how to hang up the nozzle and taught her how to turn and press the gas cap to lock it back into place.

Then I drove to Chicago to pick up Sarah from the airport. An hour early, I stopped at an Aldi near Midway Airport to shop for a few groceries. At Aldi you insert a quarter in Aldi shopping carts to unlock them and to use them. When you finish with the cart, you return it, relock it in place, and get your quarter back.

I’ve always thought that was a smart and friendly system to encourage folks to return their shopping carts to the stall. Only this time when I relocked the cart, it did not release the quarter. I tugged at it but with my arthritic fingers I could not get it out. Finally I abandoned my efforts. As I turned, a thirty-something dark-haired woman approached the carts.

“Someone’s going to get a free cart,” I said. “My quarter is stuck in this one.”

“Let me look at it,” she said. As I watched she struggled with the quarter. She tried several different ways to release it. Finally she freed it and handed it to me.

“Nothing is free these days,” she said. “Not even a penny.”

Then she took a cart into the store and I returned to my van to contemplate her words, “Nothing is free.” But, as I think about teaching the new widow how to put gas in her car and the young Hispanic woman rescuing my quarter, I realize that each was given freely and received. There is an economy to kindness apart from money.

Our financial economy allows nonprofits and activist organizations to pay salaries, to purchase goods and services, and requires the tracking of funds. Yet there is a deeper economy that nonprofits depend on--the flow of strangers helping other strangers.

Wisdom for the week: At their best, nonprofits run on an economy of kindness among strangers.

Fare thee well, Rich

7 Path of Thriving Organizations, #103, March 1, 2007

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