September 6, 2011; Source: Statesman Journal | When a customer told his server at a Salem, Oregon diner that he wanted to pay the meal tab for two Oregon National Guard soldiers sitting nearby, he unwittingly launched a four-hour marathon of kindness among strangers. The guardsmen paid the good deed forward, picking up the check for another table. Folks at that table did the same for another, and it continued. “People were just pointing at tables,” Tammy Hall, the assistant manager at Sybil’s Omelettes Unlimited, told the Statesman Journal. She lost track of how many times the cycle repeated itself as it approached 20 transactions, and it didn’t stop until closing time. Are you smiling yet?

This series of simple acts holds deeper lessons for the nonprofit field about why people act with generosity. For example:

  • There’s a catalyst: While we may first think of tremendous opportunities or pressing challenges as the catalyst for philanthropy, the catalyst can also be one unassuming person with a commitment to action.
  • It’s easy. The call to action is quiet, but clear and specific.
  • It’s meaningful.The value-added of each contribution is tangible.
  • There’s positive peer pressure. People who are surrounded by givers give themselves.
  • It feels good. In the words of server Lorri Collins, “It just really made the day to know there are so many good people out there. It really felt spiritual among us.”

Does this story inspire new thinking about your organization’s fund development work? Are there other lessons to draw about why people give? Are you still smiling?—Kathi Jaworski