What does it mean to be generous?


Luc Tuymans is an influential Belgian artist known for his haunting, figurative paintings. In an interview with Apollo he said, “Without generosity there is no art. I am convinced of that.”

There has always been an uneasy tension between commerce and creativity. Most artists would probably like to make money, preferably a lot of it.

What is more likely to drive them, however, is a desire to create and share what they do.

Luc Tuymans, for example, insists that a third of his paintings are kept with public organisations and museums so that people can view them without having to buy them.

It turns out that giving makes us happy – and this starts young. Children seem to be happiest when they share what they have, especially when those things are their own rather than those that have been given to them.

At the other end of the scale, Bill and Melinda Gates have found that working to give away their Microsoft wealth is the most satisfying thing they have done.

The economy we have now is changing – it’s based increasingly on connections. And in such a world, as Seth Godin writes, why would anyone want to connect to a selfish organisation?

Some of the new giants of the online world are based on giving things away. There is no charge to search Google, no fee to join Facebook. Yet they are multi-billion dollar organisations.

The free software movement is based on making it possible to study, distribute, create and modify software – allowing many more people to get involved in technology than before and creating options for millions that are priced out of commercial software models.

Freemium software models are based on you getting some functionality for free, and then giving you the option to upgrade to get more. This is becoming a basic model for the Software as a Service (SaaS) world.

But this approach also makes other, perhaps more important things possible. In India, the Aravind Eye Care system provides free or subsidized treatment for the poor while charging the well-off and as a result provides a vital service while staying profitable.

These examples are commercial – but also generous, and businesses that are pulling away from the rest are finding ways to reconcile the two approaches.

In today’s world, creating a business model with generosity built in may be essential to surviving.

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