Brad Formsma loves a riveting story. In fact, he’s found that a powerful story about giving can be the key to unleashing the radically generous giver inside all of us.
Take Evelyn, for example. He calls her story I Like Being 98. An elderly widow with a clean driving record, Evelyn had had her driver’s license revoked for no other reason than her age. But the spunky, mentally sharp woman had made a promise to an elderly neighbor that she would drive her to appointments. Determined to keep her word, Evelyn went to the DMV and reapplied. She passed all the tests and was reissued a license. Giving isn’t always about money, and it’s something anyone can do—even a 98-year-old woman on a fixed income.
“I share that story with 10-year-old kids and college students, and they love it,” he says. “It shows them that being generous goes way beyond money. Now money is very important, but it’s a big straw man for many people. How many times have we heard people say, ‘I don’t have anything to give’? I always say, ‘If you’re breathing, you’ve got something to give,’ and Evelyn just breaks all the rules.”
Evelyn became a personal friend of the Formsmas, and her story is just one of many he tells in his book I Like Giving and through short films on his website, ILikeGiving.com. The stories, he finds, give people a sense of permission to share their own stories of unusual and radical giving—buying a car for someone in need, donating an organ, rescuing a homeless veteran, adopting special-needs kids. Most importantly, they cause people to want to be on the giving end of such moving, exciting experiences themselves.
“There are daily, weekly, monthly opportunities that are right before us,” he says. “There are ways for us to engage in someone else’s life. And the more we look for them, the more we listen for them, the more they appear. They’ve always been there. It’s just a perspective shift.”
Really, Formsma’s goal is to make giving more common and accessible for more people.
“I just want to give people the freedom to receive and the freedom to give. We aren’t prescriptive of telling people where to give. We just want to inspire people. The Message translation of the Bible says Jesus told stories to nudge people to receptive insight (Matthew 13:13). I feel like, in a way, our giving stories nudge people to be receptive to creating their own giving story.”
As a Christian, he encourages tithing, but he thinks giving should occur in the rhythms of daily life and should be motivated by a person’s own passions and by direction from God.
“I think tithing is great,” he says. “I think it’s a great box. I just don’t think it’s the only box, and I feel like we have so much capacity in our lives to find ways to meet the needs of others through our words, and with our stuff, and with our money, outside of the walls of a church.”
Though Formsma says his family (he has a wife and three children) makes the tithe a part of their regular giving, they also set aside a certain amount to use when they feel the Holy Spirit leading them to slip a generous tip to the kind-hearted server or to pay for the coffee of the guy at the airport who’s in a rush or, as was the Formsmas’ first family giving project, to buy bikes for a refugee family nearby whose own bikes were stolen.
“I run into people in different environments, and I feel like those are my times when I see Matthew 5:16: ‘Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.’ I don’t think there’s any stronger expression of God’s nature than giving, because He is a giver and we’re created in His image. So I just feel like it’s the best way to model life that’s truly life.”
Giving spontaneously and creatively also lets kids play an active role, and it creates a legacy of giving through them. Formsma’s own grandfather, the owner of a large commercial bakery, was intentional about teaching his young grandson about outrageous generosity, and, though Formsma himself didn’t adopt that lifestyle until his late 20s, he still credits those early lessons as influencing his generosity today.
“Recognize the power of it being observed,” he says. “Your kids are going to see this. Others are going to see this. And when people observe giving and it’s taught to them, they become generous in their lives, and that is a very powerful force.”
His one caution: not to adopt a “pay it forward” mentality when giving to someone else. That creates a sense of obligation for receivers and robs them of the joy that comes from receiving a gift, no strings attached. It also means they’re no longer able to make their own decisions about where and when to give.
“Think about the times you’ve given out of duty and obligation,” Formsma says. “Did you like it? No. But when you see an opportunity and you decide to give, oh, the joy you experience!”
Brad Formsma is the author of I Like Giving and the founder of ILikeGiving.com.