A Portion of Thyself: Barbara Bonner Is Inspiring Generosity with Her First Book
By Nichole Dupont
“Giving away an old coat you wouldn’t be caught dead in isn’t exactly generous,” says philanthropy consultant Barbara Bonner, glancing over the top of her red-framed glasses. “It doesn’t have meaning. True generosity is giving away something that has meaning to you. It’s a gift. Generosity is a gift.”
Bonner, who is a veteran board member and fundraising and management consultant for nonprofits – Kripalu, The Museum of the City of New York, Bennington College – is offering up her own gift to the world. Inspiring Generosity (Wisdom Publications, Feb. 2014) is a book that she hopes people will buy and “then give it as a gift to someone else.” The book is a compilation of Bonner’s own lyric and simple observations that are intertwined with hundreds of quotes (from Euripides to Mother Teresa to FDR) and true – sometimes famous – stories of modern-day generosity at play in the lives of ordinary people. The official book launch is slated for Sunday, March 2, at 2 p.m. at The Mount in Lenox as part of the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers.
“When I tell people about the book, readers anticipate feeling guilty. They say right off the bat ‘I should do more.’ People feel guilty somehow,” Bonner says. “They have to deal with the issue of privilege.”
Paying the message forward has been a long time coming for the Columbus, Ohio native who, by her own account “grew up in a world of economic privilege” in the 1960s, in a society that was “by and large quite oblivious to a larger world of human need.” And while Bonner never doubted that her parents and surrounding neighbors were kind people, they were not truly generous, she says. But then again, that’s a subjective term, too.
“The way generosity is crafted in our culture…it’s limited to the giving of any material goods. There’s a big distinction that needs to be made between philanthropy and generosity. Philanthropy has become a business,” Bonner says. “It’s a relationship of exchange. In many cases it’s giving for fame. But what motivates people to give? I’m most interested in what it means to live a generous life; to have generosity as your compass.”
According to several reports and studies on charity, those who have the least tend to give the most. For instance, the Philanthropy Roundtable reports that of the $300 billion that is donated to charity every year in this country, 15 percent comes from foundation grants, 6 percent from corporations, and the rest, individual donations from people living in the most modest income bracket. While the origin of that impulse remains somewhat elusive, Bonner surmises that those who have experienced need have the empathy and the wherewithal to give, regardless of their own financial status.
“To feel real need makes you want to be generous. You are grateful to be in the position that you are the one giving,” she says. “I hear about these Lebanese families living in these incredibly poor border villages, and they give everything they have to the Syrian refugees who are crossing over. They are making sure that these people are being taken care of despite their own poverty. I feel really lucky that these stories exist. Sure, they’re not on the front page, but I’m ‘tuned in’ to them.”
Through her eyes, the stories are abundant and they are everywhere. Inspiring Generosity provides a glimpse of that truth in the short three-page tales of giving; an Indian all-star chef ditches his career to deliver food and haircuts to the most impoverished citizens of Madurai, a Staten Island medical technician devotes her life to helping war torn children receive prosthetic surgery and a new lease on life. Even locally in the Berkshires, Bonner finds ultimate generosity in the life of State Representative William “Smitty” Pignatelli, who, with the help of local contractors and friends, was able to rebuild Ninth Ward resident Stanley Stewart’s house after it had been destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Yet, despite making nine trips to New Orleans over the course of nine months, Pignatelli considers his efforts as an unavoidable human duty.
“I am honored and extremely humbled to be included with all these extraordinary people whose riveting stories of unselfishness and innovation have changed lives and inspire us to be better people,” he says. “We all have the generosity inside of us that it takes to make a difference in us and in others!”
Tapping into that generosity may be a challenge, but Bonner is confident that it can happen…every day. As for the most generous thing a person can do, well, she says, that’s easy.
“Give people the benefit of the doubt. The act of forgiveness is a generous act. That’s when we start to move forward.”