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Pay It Forward Parties
How to plan a party that’s all about giving
When Paige McCarthy begin planning her annual dinner party for a small group of friends, she knew she wanted to create something unique, something with lasting impact.
“I was really interested in how I could make something bigger out of the little that I have and create a good experience for everyone,” says McCarthy, a Portland, Ore., advertising executive.
Could she, McCarthy wondered, create an entire party around the notion of doing good deeds for others as payback for those received? That question sparked her to create a Pay It Forward Party, which, in the course of a few hours, transformed a small dinner party into a life-changing event for the guests and people throughout the community.
Preparing to give
The Pay It Forward philosophy was popularized in a book by Catherine Ryan Hyde in 2000, and in a subsequent movie. Yet, the idea has been around since the days of Ancient Greece when a play first talked of the concept of passing on kind acts. Benjamin Franklin wrote about it too, in a letter drafted in the late 1700s.
But, on that night in November 2010, McCarthy’s dinner guests knew little about what she had in store. After they arrived at her home, each of the four couples received $100 and partial instructions, plucked like leaves from a centerpiece cleverly designed as a giving tree. When combined with the instructions of the other guests, the group discovered that they were to use the money to help others.
While eating homemade soup from bread bowls in McCarthy’s dining room, the guests talked over various ways to spend the money. At the end of the meal, they all loaded into a rented van with a driver hired by McCarthy, and headed out with the sole purpose of doing good.
They handed out $50 gift cards to grocery store shoppers. Gathered blankets, food, supplies, and money door-to-door and supplied food to a family in the community. They filled up a motorist’s gas tank; took a box of doughnuts to the emergency room staff at a local hospital; and dropped a load of blankets and coats off at The Salvation Army, on a night when the aid agency had already run out. And they gave more than $100 to a single grandmother struggling to provide for her grandson. Many of the guests contributed more of their own money and before the night was over this small group of friends had donated more than $1,200 in cash and supplies to people throughout the community.
“We were just emotional all night long,” McCarthy says. “We felt so good. It was such a gift for us to be able to go around and unabashedly give and change somebody’s evening.”
Why it feels good to give
Serving or giving to others activates the brain’s pleasure centers, says James R. Doty, Professor of Neurosurgery and founder and director of The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, at Stanford University. The flood of good feelings we experience is one of the things that motivates us to give in the first place.
It’s also good for our physical well-being. Giving decreases stress, boosts immune function, aids the cardiovascular system and improves mental health. Research also suggests that compassionate and altruistic behaviors were essential to the survival of our early ancestors.
“We are genetically wired to do good and care for others,” Doty says. “Compassionate behavior is fundamental to the survival of our species. The traits of generosity, kindness and compassion were more desirable because they aided in procreation and group survival.”
Generosity can also be contagious. One small act of kindness often inspires the recipient to reach out themselves in a benevolent way and the cycle of giving expands.
Perri Kersh, a professional organizer in Chapel Hill, N.C., sees that happen as a result of her annual Pay It Forward Party. Each November about 100 guests come to enjoy wine and finger foods while visiting with friends and learning about local charities that Kersh and the other organizers have selected. Then, during the party, the guests can privately contribute any dollar amount to any or all of the charities in attendance. Last year the event raised $15,000 to benefit four local groups that aid women and children.
It’s a powerful way to feel a part of something bigger and to make a difference in the community, Kersh says.
Plan your own giving party
Both McCarthy and Kersh say simplicity is key when planning any type of Pay It Forward Party. Here are five other tips to keep in mind when gearing up for your own.
1. Create connection. McCarthy hired a car and a driver so her partygoers could stay together and share in each other’s giving experience. Kersh brings everybody — including reps from the charities — together under one roof to make a personal connection, share experiences and learn about the causes. People not only feel good because they are giving to others, Kersh says, but they also get to share the night with friends and meet representatives from the charities directly, which makes the process of giving even more powerful.
2. Keep it simple. McCarthy kept her guest list small. Kersh and her co-organizer Mary Beth Grealey send easy-to-create Evites to the folks on their email lists. McCarthy served homemade soup, which she made earlier in the day. Kersh’s crew provides simple, store-bought appetizers and donated wine. Keep the logistics simple so that you can focus on the giving and the friendship.
3. Let go of outcome. Don’t pressure people to give, or shoot for some lofty monetary goal. Let party guests decide how to spend their own money or resources. While McCarthy gave each couple $100, she let her guests decide how to use it. Almost all contributed more money during the party and even worked to gather more donations. Partygoers at Kersh’s event make private donations directly to the charities and then fill out anonymous giving cards that simply indicate the amount of their donations. That way organizers can reveal the total number of funds raised during the evening, while preserving the privacy of donors.
4. Sit with the emotion — really experience it. If you follow the tips, you’ll have time to savor the experience and the feelings that arise. Sometimes, with the rush of good feelings, comes a burst of creativity about ways to help others in your life. Sometimes, if you feel like you haven’t done enough, the feelings are sad or bittersweet. That’s O.K.; give yourself permission to feel whatever comes up.
Because of the large-scale suffering in the world, people sometimes feel as though their efforts don’t matter, that they can never do enough to help, Doty says. But in these moments it’s important to remember that even the most simple gestures can make a positive difference.
“Each of us, no matter our position, has the capacity to positively affect at least one fellow human being each day, and in reality many, many more,” Doty says. “Amazingly, even a positive outlook impacts every person one meets.”
5. Celebrate what you HAVE done. At the conclusion of each Pay It Forward Party, Kersh totals up the funds raised — all of the money goes directly to the charities on hand — and offers a Champagne toast to the guests who gave so much. “I always get all sniffly because I’m just so overwhelmed by people’s giving,” she says.
With a smaller party, like McCarthy’s group, guests took time along the way to talk about their contributions and share feelings as they witnessed the impact of everyone’s good deeds. It was an emotional and unforgettable night, McCarthy says.
“I wanted to create an experience that my guests would remember and something that they had probably never done before: A chance to openly give, with no strings,” McCarthy says. “Then I wanted them to have time to really experience what that feels like. It’s so simple and yet it changes you on a deep level.”
And makes for an unforgettable evening.