The art of giving back: an unconventional approach to negotiation

April 2015: “I’m torn. I want to work with this conference in Guadalajara, but they can’t afford my keynote fee. I could give them a discount, but I’ve noticed that the clients who pay reduced rates end up treating me poorly.”

C*: “So, basically, they’re asking you to donate a chunk of your time and energy, right?”

Me: “Yeah, that’s one way of looking at it.”

C*: “Respond by asking them to donate their time and energy. Get the conference to do a community service project or something similar in exchange for the discount. If they’re open to it, then it’s a win all around.”

Me: “You’re a genius.”

When I told the conference coordinator that I’d be happy to offer a discount in exchange for community service, she leapt at the opportunity. The end result was amazing. Together, we activated hundreds – maybe thousands – of hours of community service. It was magic.


One of the hidden-in-plain-sight secrets about the human experience is that we are all deeply connected. Another secret: we all belong to one another. Many people succeed at creating amazing lives for themselves while still feeling like something is missing. This sense of lack or hollowness is a result of forgetting to invest in other people’s success as well as your own. Ultimately, a failure to invest in others’ happiness and stability is a failure to invest in yourself.

Fortunately, there are simple and effective ways to use your existing job – whether you’re a business owner, executive, or employee – to improve the world around you.

The uncomfortable tension between making money and being generous

Many of the most talented people I’ve met used to dream of making the world a better place. Now, they hide behind lies of powerlessness by telling themselves, “I can’t change the world” or “I’ll focus on giving back when I’m rich.”

And I get it. What they’re really trying to do is resolve two truths that seem to contradict one another:

  1. Making money for the sake of making money is inescapable. You have to pay the bills. Unfortunately, the mere act of making money and being successful, while addictive, is not intrinsically fulfilling.
  2. Being generous for the sake of being generous is extremely fulfilling.1 Unfortunately, it’s also unsustainable on its own; the act of generosity does not usually generate enough income to live off of.

In an ideal world the solution is simple: dedicate half of your time to making a living and the other half to giving back.

But the reality is much more complicated. Volunteering can always be pushed to a later date, while paying the bills can’t. As a result, many people find that their goals change from giving back, to making enough, to making more. That’s exactly what happened to me. When I started working, I focused on reducing global poverty, but the demands of the real world interfered with my plans. Without noticing, I began spending more time thinking about my sales cycle and less time figuring out how to help others.

It was only when C* suggested requesting a volunteer project in exchange for a discount that I returned to using my business for social good. The trick is to harness what you’re already doing for the better good.

Using your job to give back part 1: entrepreneurs, executives, and people who can negotiate

If you’re a business owner or an executive, the approach I recommend is simple: if a client needs a discount, offer the discount in exchange for community service. This strategy can be effective with a wide variety of customers. I’ve used it with speaking, consulting, and coaching clients. C*, the friend who gave me this idea, works in film production, and he’s used it with his clients as well.

A few guidelines to make this feasible and effective:

  • Request a small amount of community service if your client needs a small discount. If they need a large discount, ask for a large amount of community service. On one side of the spectrum, I’ve asked for entire organizations to dedicate a full day to volunteering. On the other, I’ve requested that everyone involved bring a can of food for the local food pantry.

  • Focus on organizations that serve your client’s community. This makes it easier for your clients to say yes. It also extends the reach of your generosity, which is a deeply satisfying feeling.

  • Make sure that your client has partnered with a reputable organization that you respect. In other words, if you’re not an animal lover, and your client proposes working with the local animal shelter, politely decline and suggest a different organization. It’s important that you feel great about the social good you’re creating. Personally, I’m disturbed by poverty and homelessness. Because of this, I request that my clients partner with organizations addressing these issues.

  • Most importantly: take time to feel the impact that you’re creating. Your generosity and creativity benefits you, your client, and a group of benefactors. That’s true power. You deserve to feel amazing for becoming one of the people who actively makes our world a better place. If more people behaved like you, everyone would be better off.

Why this works: if you’ve ever given a discount to a client, there’s a good chance that you felt weird about it. I used to. In fact, many of the clients I formerly gave discounts to treated me worse than the clients who paid full price.2

There are two schools of thought as to why this happens. The first believes that people who are likely to negotiate tend to be high maintenance and difficult to work with. The other believes that when you negotiate, you signal that you are low-status and easily pushed around.

I don’t buy either of those theories. People treat us how we allow them to. If you give a discount without asking for something equivalent in return, you’ve indicated that you don’t fully believe in the value of what you’re selling.3 By asking for something valuable -like your client’s time and energy- in exchange for a discount, you signal that you’re confident in your ability to deliver.


Using your job to give back part 2: employees, bosses, and owners

As crazy as it sounds, employees can use their company’s resources to give back to the local community too. The trick is to help your boss understand how she and the company benefit by getting involved with community service.

Here’s how to do it:

1) Begin by finding an organization that is somehow related to your company. Though there doesn’t have to be a logical connection between your company and the organization, having one helps. A few examples:

  • An accounting firm partnering with a mathematics tutoring center
  • An ice-cream stand partnering with a homeless shelter
  • A summer camp partnering with an overseas HIV/AIDS program for children.4

If you can’t find a logical connection between your company and a philanthropic organization, aim to partner with an organization in your community. Local ties are very appealing to business owners.

2) Make volunteering beneficial for the company. The easiest way to do this is to contact the local media and let them know about your company’s efforts. Don’t overthink this. It’s the journalist’s job to cover local events. Most of them welcome tips about stories in their community. Of course, this is also a huge win for the company because it will generate free publicity and media coverage. 

3) Schedule a time to chat with your boss. I suggest sending your boss an email asking if she’d be available for 15 minutes to discuss a new project.


4) Start by asking for a small commitment. Make it as easy as possible for your boss to say yes. A few guidelines:

  • Ask if you and any interested employees could spend one Friday afternoon volunteering. Mention that Friday afternoon is the perfect time for volunteer work because employee engagement is already low.
  • Tell her that you’ll handle the logistics and organization. Let her know that all you really need is her permission.
  • Mention that this project can bring good publicity for the company, and to increase the likelihood of this happening, you will personally reach out to at least three journalists before and after the event. If you come prepared with a list of journalists and their contact information, it will be even easier for your boss to give you permission.
  • Remind your boss, if appropriate, that creating an opportunity to serve the less fortunate will boost company morale.
  • Tell her that you’d love it if she joined, too.

5) Pause to appreciate how exceptional you are, regardless of the outcome. If more people cared as much as you do we would have fewer problems and more joy. The world needs people like you. I hope you pause to feel good about that.


6) After the volunteer experience, have everyone sign a card for your boss and the owner of the company. You want to make your boss feel proud of the good work that “she” enabled. Yes, you’re really the one who did all of this, but it’s beneficial to give the credit away. Doing so will make your boss feel important and make her more likely to green-light volunteer projects in the future. Also, repeat step five.


7) Assuming everything went well, ask if you can do this once a quarter. There’s a very good chance that your boss will say yes.


I know that a lot of people are going to dismiss this idea, telling themselves it would never work at their company. If this is you, my hope is simple: challenge your assumption by talking to your boss and seeing what happens.5 To dismiss an idea that excites you, without even attempting it, is to fail before you’ve begun.

The myth of powerlessness

It’s unrealistic for most people to dedicate their lives to building a better world. Because of this, many of the most generous, kind, and capable people have fallen victim to the toxic myth that their need to make money negates their desire to make a real difference in our world.

While this is a common belief, it’s also divorced from reality. No matter where you are in your job or business, there is always a way to generate profit while contributing to the creation a better community. Anything less should be considered a failure to express your true power, creativity, and generosity.


  1. By “being generous for the sake of being generous,” I mean giving for the joy of knowing that your actions have improved someone’s life. This is very different than giving for the sake of receiving.
  2. Case in point: the last time I gave a client a discount without asking for something significant in return, she was slow to respond to my emails and payment was nearly five months late.
  3. And honestly, if you don’t fully believe in what you’re selling, you shouldn’t be selling it.
  4. It’s tempting to dismiss this idea as being wayyyyyy too far-fetched to work. It’s not. The summer camp I used to work at (the best summer camp in the world, Camp Nashoba North) did exactly that, and I was the volunteer. While I was the only one who was sent overseas, they routinely send counselors to volunteer at Camp Sunshine, a local program for terminally ill children and their families.
  5. Can we have a bit of real talk for a second? One of the biggest problems in our world is that talented, generous people, like yourself, often fail to take action. They reject themselves and their ideas before they’ve even tried them. At an individual level, that’s sad because you aren’t realizing your true power or happiness. At a societal level, that’s tragic. So, please, if you’re sitting here thinking, “Oh, that’s a nice idea, Jason, but it’d never work,” at least try to make happen. My bet is that you’ll be pleasantly surprised by your own ability. And if things don’t work out, feel free to send me a “Told ya so” email.

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