The Appropriate Amount to Give at Donation-Based Events

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As someone who leads regularly donation-based events, is steeped in a Buddhist tradition that has existed entirely on donation for 2,600 years, and lives in a community where donation-based events are bountiful, one question I often encounter is, “what is the appropriate amount to give?”

What follows is a guide on how to approach that question.  However, I’m not going to actually tell you “the appropriate amount of give,” as that sort of misses the entire point!

Instead, I hope to show you the intentions behind that offering, different ways to think about appropriateness, and hopefully empower you to make your own informed decisions.

Why Donation Based Events are Confusing 

It’s helpful to start with why this question comes up in the first place.  For many people, the open-ended’ness of “offered on donation” is a little confounding, likely due to some of the following reasons:

(1) They don’t want to under-give, and either send a poor impression, create hardship in the other, or feel lousy about themselves.

(2) They don’t want to over-give, causing a detriment to themselves, or making the other feel uncomfortable.

(3) They don’t have a cultural context around donation-based events, and, lacking a precedent, they aren’t really sure what to do with it — does it mean free?  Is there a right/wrong amount?  Why is this person even doing this on donation?  Does it mean they don’t value themselves, or aren’t confident enough in their abilities to just charge something?

(4) It’s financially difficult to make ends meet in our day and age, and culturally we also tend to value having dynamic and varied experiences, like vacations, eating out, workshops, trainings, concerts, a Netflix subscription, chocolate bars and all sorts of other things that overtly cost money.  Of course, most people would rather not pay for any of that stuff, but they have to in order to do it.  And, so, when there’s something that they don’t have to pay for, like a donation-based event, they do some subconscious math and give what’s left over (which is often nothing!).

There is nothing right or wrong with any of these responses, and they are all perfectly normal!  Although, one of the basic purposes of this post is to help untangle these mind-knots, and give some direction on other ways to approach it.

 

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The Two Most Important Things to Know

As a foundation, I find it helpful to trust that the person making a donation-based offering is genuine in their generosity; that is, in their giving (teachings) without expectation of return.  As a participant, this frees me from feeling like they will judge me, regardless of how much, how little, or how unconventionally I might give.  And if they do judge me, or if they weren’t actually genuine in their generosity, that’s their own stuff to work with & not my responsibility to manage.  In turn, I can rest with a clear conscience that I acted in integrity.

With that assumption as a base, the basic answer to the question of appropriateness in the Buddhist tradition is something like,

“There is no right or wrong amount to give. It’s all about your intention. In turn, take a look inside, sit with the question, feel into it, and give whatever feels appropriate and good. 

Although, as one of the core premises of buddhism is that happiness comes more from letting go than getting more, perhaps slightly leaning towards towards the side of generosity rather than holding. 

However, even in that, perhaps an even more essential part is paying attention to how it makes you feel to give however much you’ve given, and in whatever way you’ve given it.  This is because we’re here to study the mind – to notice cause & effect patterns.

For example, if you notice it feels not so good to give a lot, because, say, you’re poor & struggling to pay bills, well then that’s really good information, and it would be wise to take that into consideration in how you navigate your financial life, both in donation-situations and in others.  Inversely, if it feels good and uplifting to give a certain amount, notice that too.  Or, if like exercise, it feels uneasy on one level, but life-affirming on another, that’s more info to feed wisdom!

Once again, there is no right or wrong amount – it’s all about checking in with your heart, and seeing what feels good and appropriate.”

The rest of this post will look at more specific frameworks, both buddhist and non-buddhist, to help inform & give greater context to our sense of “appropriate and good.”

 

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Four Frameworks to Help Think About This Question

The Market Economy Framework

Culturally, this is probably the most typical lens we use to evaluate how much to give.  We break everything down to its monetary value.  So what is the monetary value of a donation-based offering?

A hyper-capitalist school of thought is that value is set by the person leading the event, and so if they say it’s donation-based, well that means it’s basically free, because if they really valued this offering, then they would assign it an appropriate market value.

However, as not everyone’s primary motivator is maximizing revenue, another more helpful school of thought looks to market-comparisons:

For example, if you take a one hour meditation class, what would you expect to pay for a one hour yoga class, dance class, pilates class, breathwork session, men’s or women’s group session, sound bath, or anything else with led by a qualified instructor?

Or, say you have a one hour private session with a mentor figure – well, what would you expect to pay a plumber, architect, counselor, massage therapist, psychologist, or anyone else who has the “expertise” that would lead to you soliciting an hour of their undivided time?

Or, what about going on a full blown weeklong meditation retreat, run completely on donation?  You might look to what it would cost you to go on a retreat at any of the number of meditation, yoga, spiritual, nature, mental-emotional, or self-growth oriented retreat centers that charge money.  Even further, you might also consider that the donation-based retreat center is likely including food/lodging, and then checking out what it would cost to stay at a lodge/hotel/AirBnb with all meals included for a week (without even considering the instruction and social container).

Focus-on-other Framework

This framework is all about empathy.

We put ourselves in the shoes of the facilitator, and try to see the world through their lens.  We might think of the time, energy, and incredible amount of training (and courage) that it took them to put on this event.  We might tune into their human needs, and consider how they have bills to pay, perhaps family members to feed, a rainy day fund, and they also probably want to have some of their own aforementioned “dynamic and varied experiences.”

Although, beyond all the “perspective-taking,” we might drop down to a more primal level, and just tune into our care and appreciation for the other.  Instead of doing a big thinking project, we just feel the goodness of having a positive impact on the life of another.  We notice that what we do matters, and just as this person is supporting us, we can support them too!  It feels good to do nice things for other people!

Focus-on-self Framework

Given that I’ve been relatively poor most my adult life, and have had to be very selective with what I choose to spend my money on, I’ve sometimes asked myself this series of questions for donation-based events I’m interested in attending:

(1) Would I attend this event if it were priced at “market value”?

(2) If not, at what price point would I attend it?

Basically, focus-on-self gives a real honest look at our own financial situation.  While there’s value in challenging scarcity thinking & leaning into giving, there’s also foolishness in denying our financial responsibilities / priorities.

Of course, I advocate a holistic approach to finances – not being irresponsible across the board and then suddenly getting really aware when it comes to donation-based events. Instead, with all our financial decisions, reflecting on whether or not they align with our financial reality / stated priorities.  But that’s a whole different topic!

Generosity as a Practice Framework (My Personal Favorite!)

This is the framework I personally draw on most heavily, as it sort of combines all of the others.

Basically, I see generosity as one of my core practices for two reasons:

(1) It builds my “letting go” muscle, and life has taught me over and over that happiness is more correlated with my ability to release than it is how much I have.

(2) It helps me deepen connection with life and with others, and I get to experience the delight of sharing, even if it’s anonymous and no one knows but me!

In this mode, I might consider the market value, the other’s situation, and my own situation, but above all, I’m giving not as an exchange but for the sake of my own practice.  It’s a way of developing beautiful qualities in myself, and spreading that beauty into the world.

Worth noting here is one of the key aspects of generosity as a practice.  I sometimes call it the generosity stretch:

Just as we might do a forward fold to stretch the hamstrings, and thereby make them more robust and fit, so too does practicing generosity stretch the muscles of letting go and connection, and thereby increase our overall wellness.

However, there’s a little “inner heat” involved with a stretch – in this case, it pushes up against our edges of selfishness and scarcity thinking.  Both of these are extremely prevalent in our individualist, capitalist and fear-based culture – and, in my experience, lead to depression and anxiety and misery more than happiness.

In other words, doing a “generosity stretch,” and giving just a little bit more than “we want to,” is a great way to work through poorly informed conditioning & impulses that are implanted by our culture.  After stretching for enough years, the mind becomes flexible, strong and happy!

 

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A Few More Brief Thoughts on Giving

Why Would A Facilitator Offer Something on Donation, Anyways?

I’ve alluded to this throughout, but I think the basic reason is that their primary motivator is not “the market economy.”  Perhaps they see generosity as a practice, or maybe they genuinely believe what they are offering is priceless.  I could write another 2,000 words on this question alone, but why not just ask them what their motivator is!?  It would probably be a really interesting conversation!

Creative Ways to Give

The focus here has been on monetary donations, but there are so many ways to give!

In the context of making an exchange with a facilitator, I’ve had participants give me a bag of coffee, a jar of home-blended herbal tea, a professional photography portrait, marketing help, a handwritten gratitude letter, or let me know the ways they are “paying it forward” in their own lives, among other things.  Sometimes people say, “money is tight so I can’t give,” but there’s always room for creativity!  Generosity is not just about money!!!

I can’t say enough that there’s no right or wrong when it comes to giving.  It’s all about checking in with your heart, and tuning into what feels good and appropriate.

While we may be exchanging goods & services on some level, we’re much more so creating a culture of wisdom & generosity!

 

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Conclusion

There were a lot of words here, and I don’t think it’s that important to remember all of them.  Instead, they were mostly meant to give greater context to the basic answer of the Buddhist tradition that was written in beginning, and again here:

“There is no right or wrong amount to give. It’s all about your intention. In turn, take a look inside, sit with the question, feel into it, and give whatever feels appropriate and good. 

Although, as one of the core premises of buddhism is that happiness comes more from letting go than getting more, perhaps slightly leaning towards towards the side of generosity rather than selfishness. 

However, even in that, perhaps an even more essential part is paying attention to how it makes you feel to give however much you’ve given, and in whatever way you’ve given it.  This is because we’re here to study the mind – to notice cause & effect patterns.

For example, if you notice it feels not so good to give a lot, because, say, you’re poor & struggling to pay bills, well then that’s really good information, and it would be wise to take that into consideration in how you navigate your financial life, both in donation-situations and in others.  Inversely, if it feels good and uplifting to give a certain amount, notice that too.  Or, if like exercise, it feels uneasy on one level, but life-affirming on another, that’s more info to feed wisdom!

Once again, there is no right or wrong amount – it’s all about checking in with your heart, and seeing what feels good and appropriate.”

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