Pay It Forward: What does it mean to give?

Tucked away on the hill in Homer is a fairly new nonprofit called Storyknife Writers Retreat. Established by author Dana Stabenow, Storyknife exists to provide women writers with the time and space to devote to their work. In other words, Storyknife gives women an opportunity to step away from the demands of their everyday lives and devote either two or four weeks to their writing.

It’s a gift. The totality of the experience is a gift: the beautiful cabins, the gardens, the artwork, the handmade quilts, the incredibly prepared food, the time to spend writing in isolation and the time to build a community with the other women in residence. Every aspect of a residency at Storyknife is considered, purposeful, and beautiful.

Storyknife was built with grants and funding from individual donations. Members of the Homer community donated hand-thrown pottery and artwork and made quilts. Others gave us plants for the gardens and paving stones. Every dish, every bedsheet, every towel was donated by someone. And now, individual donors make up the largest share of the funds that buy the food, keep the lights on, pay the employees, heat the cabins, mow the lawn, fix the stove, and wash the linens.

Why do I tell you all of this? Because donating to a nonprofit can seem faceless, perhaps more so since COVID when events are fewer and online communication is greater. But the people that each nonprofit serves are not faceless; they are real and your generosity can change their lives.

For instance, at Storyknife, donations have supported a mother of a physically and intellectually disabled child to step away for two weeks to write her memoir; a woman recuperating from breast cancer treatment who is writing about losing her mother and grandmother to the disease; a poet who is processing her mother’s Alzheimer’s disease through poems; and a Native American writer who is writing about how to decolonialize higher education by emphasizing Indigeneity and Indigenous Knowledge System.

Donations did not support only those writers, but like all gifts to nonprofits, there is a ripple effect. In the case of Storyknife, the ripple doesn’t just include the writers who come to Storyknife, but also the readers of the work they produce. Every writer in residence goes forth to produce poems, articles, novels, plays, memoirs and more that touch readers, expand their world, and create bigger communities.

I want you to imagine that each time you give to a nonprofit organization, of your time, your donation, your attention, it is like smooth stone tossed into a pond. From there, the ripples move outward. It’s a simple metaphor, but I want you walk with me for a moment as I move it to another level. There’s a conceptual framework called “behavioral spillover.” Psychologists, economists and policymakers are aware that an action might ripple outward and create new behaviors. Let me tell you what I hope happens when you give to a local nonprofit: Your gift inspires someone else to give, and then the behavioral spillover just continues outward.

One of the aspects of the Homer community that I fell in love with 23 years ago was the generosity I felt. I would be in the tiny “old library” trying to unload boxes of books for the book sale and folks would just start pitching in. A house would burn down and there would be scores of people helping resupply a family who now needed everything. It may seem that the culture these days accelerates division, but we can change that. Each of us can give a gift and start a behavioral spillover of generosity that just keep growing.

Erin Coughlin Hollowell is a published poet who is the executive director of Storyknife Writers Retreat and director of the Kachemak Bay Writers Conference.