How do you lead at the places where cultures collide? Dawn Austwick, CEO of Big Lottery Fund, considers how generosity can help leaders build networks, relationships and communities across cultural boundaries.

John Berger was what we might now call a ‘multi-hyphenate’ – artist-novelist, art critic and radical thinker. He donated half of his Booker prize money for the novel G to the Black Panther movement. Less publicly, within the art and literary world, he was particularly known for his generosity: of spirit, time, and attention to others.

Berger’s generosity is the cause of, as well as result of, his success as an artist and critic. His willingness to share and collaborate across genres and cultures allowed him to develop his particular worldview. That attitude partly led to the spread of his reputation worldwide, in turn generating further collaboration from a diverse range of individuals.

And Berger’s generosity is not unique. As isolated individuals, humans can be remarkably generous. From a classical economic perspective, they can be irrationally generous. A UC-Santa Barbara psychology experiment found that, when gift giving, even if the subject had no connection to the beneficiary, knew that they would never see them again and their generosity was anonymous, more often than not they still chose to incur costs in order to benefit others.

In another study, a number of scientists from the USA, Brazil and Italy wanted to see if there was a neurological basis for generosity, or, as they put it, the interesting fact that ‘humans often sacrifice material benefits to endorse or to oppose societal causes based on moral beliefs’.

The researchers scanned the brains of subjects who were donating anonymously to charitable causes. They found a strong connection between gift giving and receiving: the same areas of the brain that are activated by donating to charity are also engaged when a subject is given money. The brain seems to be rewarding generosity.

It is not just individuals who can benefit from acting generously. A recent report from the Centre for Social Justice investigated whether incorporating social purpose into a business, as projects such as B-Corps aim to do, is not just good for the world, but also benefits the businesses themselves.

At a minimum, it improves reputation, image and brand recognition. It is easier to recruit and retain staff and employees who are more engaged, happy and productive. And ultimately, it improves the bottom line:

“A strong and well-communicated purpose can boost financial performance by up to 17%. Actively managing and measuring corporate responsibility is hugely important to organizational resilience – companies that did this recovered faster from the 2008 financial crisis, with shareholder returns an average of 10% higher in 2009, than at those companies that did not.”

These are lessons we can all learn. Take Charlie Howard, founder of MAC-UK. A clinical psychologist, Charlie realized some children were missing out on mental health services. She spent months talking to young people in North London - outside chippies, getting to know local gangs - to reach those who could not, or would not, access mental health services.

Understanding their perspectives led to her quitting her job and founding MAC-UK. The organization uses music to draw people into the project (as suggested by young people), and they help reduce offending through their services and a support network, both young person-led. MAC-UK is award winning, strength-based, and successful. It has grown to four projects around London, created an innovative ‘Integrate’ model that is being applied by other mental health services, and is regularly consulted with and referenced by policy makers.

Crucially, Charlie set up the charity with a 10 year lifespan, understanding that a focus on a mission is more important than organizational preservation. She convinced many of her fellow NHS practitioners to devote their own time as volunteers, and has now stepped aside to allow a new CEO to take the reins.

This is an important aspect of what I am calling ‘Generous Leadership’: seeking to be part of a wider movement and having a flexibility and openness that encourages collaboration. Generous Leaders build networks, facilitate the work of those they support and foster the innate tendency for cooperation that is a fundamental aspect of human society.

Organizations and leaders need to embody generosity in everything they do. Like Berger, they need to look over their horizons and understand their place in the wider ecosystem. Sometimes that is about putting faith in other people; as the philosopher Onora O’Neill has pointed out, trust is something that needs to be won and freely given, it cannot be taken.

This means seeing yourself as a partner in an ecosystem and trusting others to have answers to their own challenges. It is about supporting and believing in grassroots organizations, so that beneficiaries become practitioners, take control, and empower their lives.

As Generous Leaders, we need to take the passion and vision we have for our own organizations, and use it to drive collective change. By working together, by sharing knowledge and listening hard, and by giving time, resources and influence to support those around us, we can improve the health of the entire ecosystem and build a strong and sustainable future.

“That's what I consider true generosity: You give your all, and yet you always feel as if it costs you nothing.” ― Simone de Beauvoir