The benefits of altruism

My favourite idea was that, once in a while, you should pay for the car behind you at a toll booth just to cheer them up

I first discovered it in a downstairs loo in America. Which, I’ll grant you, isn’t as glamorous as a bejewelled cave in The Goonies.

Life’s Little Instruction Book is a pocket full of wisdom, written by a father to his son. It contains all manner of advice, from how to stop bread going stale to other, less profound insights. My favourite idea was that, once in a while, you should pay for the car behind you at a toll booth just to cheer them up. Something about this random act of kindness must have appealed to my teenage brain. I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

Giving strangers money has been high on the agenda this month as Make Your Mark With a Tenner reached its annual conclusion. Thanks to the generosity of Peter Jones, Michael and Xochi Birch and NESTA, we were able to challenge 16,000 school pupils across Britain to see what they could turn £10 into, in just a month.

Bearing in mind that their cash would have actually lost money in the FTSE, we were amazed that the average return from the top 100 teams was over 40 quid. Next time your son, daughter or nephew asks you for some cash, think twice before saying “no”. There could be a tidy profit in it.

I encountered more evidence of the drive and passion of young people at Channel 4’s London headquarters, preparing for a new TV show, Battlefront. It follows the lives of 20 young campaigners. I’d been paired with recent organ transplant patient Holly Shaw, but as she was still in hospital, a friend had come along instead.

“My name’s Emily and I’m helping Holly,” she said. I asked her why she wanted to get involved in Holly’s campaign.

“Well, a couple of years ago, I was given 12 months to live,” she replied. “Since then, I’ve had a double lung transplant.”

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For once, words failed me. I paused.

“Wow! What else keeps you busy?” I asked.

“I’m a vocal coach. I love singing,” said Emily.

At that moment, I knew that this cause to encourage as many Brits as possible to sign the organ donor register was going to become more to me than a casual conversation at an evening event.

In fact, it was another Battlefront campaigner, Tom Robbins, that reminded me of Life’s Little Instruction Book. He’s encouraging random acts of kindness, recently putting together Kindival to inspire us all to go out of our way to do the small things that could make someone’s day.

His work has made me realise just how few of the things that I do fall into that category. I’ve been ignoring strangers unless I feel that they are, or could be, connected to me in some way. What about those people I know I’ll never meet again? I’m not talking about being friendly to shopkeepers. I’m imagining a genuine act of generosity. I’ve been inspired to try some this month. Watch this space, but in the meantime feel free to tell me what I’m letting myself in for.

Connecting people for a living can take its toll on the laptop. With some reluctance then, I recently made the call to my cyber-medic. As the man struggled to save all my work, he caught sight of a logo on my desktop.

“Were you, by any chance, involved with Holly Shaw and yesterday’s Donor Day?” he said. I asked him why he was so interested.

“Because next month, I’m giving someone a kidney,” he replied.

What were the chances of that? The first organ donor I’d ever met was repairing my computer. I asked him how he knows his recipient.

“I don’t. It’s just an altruistic act,” he replied. My computer whirred back to life.

“I just figured that I’m a healthy, independent guy, and someone needs it,” he continued.

Now that’s kindness.

Oli Barrett MBE, is a founder of Cospa , the co-sponsorship agency that helps to create and deliver social action projects, such as Tenner, Missions, Build-It, and Speed Mentoring. He is also a founder of StartUp Britain and can be found on Twitter


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