ZAG Marketing Conference 2024: Generosity in a time of greed

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By Nicola Clark-Tonberg, Senior Marketing Manager, The Scottish Government

Are social media and unethical politics eroding our values? Have we lost our way a little after COVID-19? Or has our faith in humanity never been stronger?

These are the questions that the intriguing invite to this year’s ZAG conference posed. Interest piqued, I signed up. (Also, I was on holiday when last year’s ZAG took place, so I wasn’t going to miss out twice!)

In the days leading up to the conference, I was thinking a lot about generosity, especially as having watched coverage of the COVID-19 inquiry I was remembering the acts of kindness I experienced during that time that meant the world to me, when the world felt like a very scary and unfamiliar place. 

My parents were shielding, 150 miles away, and so I was beyond grateful to their friends and neighbours who did the caring I wanted to do, but was unable to: leaving homemade bread or dinners on the doorstep, chatting through the window, arranging guidance appropriate outdoor gatherings. And, in a kindness that I’ll never forget, someone would send me a daily update to set my worried mind at rest or tell me what I did need to worry about as I knew well that my parents would be putting a brave face on for our evening videocalls.

My own friends and neighbours filled a gap for me too. We built a little community where we shared fruit boxes (too much kale for my liking!) and giant loaves of French bread, left each other treats on the doormat and met in the carpark (when allowed), to form the Rodney Street Carpark Collective (merch made by my dad is available in 2020 and 2021 varieties).

Everyone felt they wanted that connection, and that generosity of spirit, in the toughest of times, has created lifelong friendships. This was also true of colleagues, when suddenly working from home for the first time we found ways to keep relationships going while also nourishing new friendships. Best of all, former Union alumna Nicci Motiang had the idea of a daily check to share three good things we’d experienced. This soon became the highlight of the day. Everyone was generous with their thoughts, which were funny, moving, honest and authentic – mine were often squirrel-related, but that’s a story for another time. 

Image: My cat squirrel watching.

With permission, I passed Three Good Things on to my parents and it became something they also looked forward to, and created a link between my work and home life that I had never expected, but brought us all joy. 

So, it was those acts of neighbourliness and generosity that were in mind when I pitched up to Union House on 7th February. I already knew a little bit about one of the speakers, John Dower, as I’d followed the story of how he faced up to his problematic family past when he discovered in 2016 that some of his ancestors had received financial compensation for having ‘owned’ 1,004 enslaved people. As John said himself during his presentation, I wasn’t sure how his story fit with the conference theme, but I soon realised that it is his generosity of spirit, and innate sense of doing what’s right, that drove him to make amends for the past. 

The Scottish Tech Army was new to me, but I was inspired when listening to Kirsty McIntosh, Head of Partnerships, talk about how she signed up as a volunteer during COVID as she felt she had to do something to make her feel less powerless. A UK wide initiative, the Tech for Good Alliance, matches skilled tech volunteers with companies, often charities, which need support. Afterwards, my colleagues and I discussed how rewarding it must be to use your skills to help others with a tangible problem, something I’ve been mulling over ever since. 

Hannah Crawford is a theatre producer and coach, and having grown up in Edinburgh, she saw how challenging a shortage of affordable accommodation was for performers. So at the Edinburgh Fringe 2023, Hannah produced and fundraised for five plays and musicals, as well as pioneering a revolutionary new Host An Artist scheme to accommodate theatre professionals with local residents who were keen to help offset the high cost of Festival renting. 

I loved Hannah’s audience participation where she asked everyone to mime the concept of generosity as shown by the hosts. The vast majority of people made a gesture with their hands moving outwards away from themselves, but actually generosity is a mutually beneficial human experience, where by doing good we feel good ourselves. In my own small way I can attest to that truth: I use the volunteering time I’m fortunate to be allotted at work to spend a couple of hours each Monday afternoon with my 84 year old friend, who I was matched with through Vintage Vibes. Mondays are now my favourite day of the week – my cross-generational friendship is a gift indeed.

The final speaker of the evening was Ewan Aitken, the CEO of Cyrenians, a charity tackling the causes and consequences of homelessness. What a good soul Ewan is, and I could have listened to him all night. My key takeaway from his presentation that you don’t have to have much to be generous, and in fact those who have the least often give the most – it’s in their DNA. Community should include everyone, and we have an abundance of time and kindness that we can and should share with those around us. It’s good for us all, and while right now the world might feel a dark and chaotic place, kindness and hope are still there to be found.

And so it was generosity of spirit that linked the four presenters together and the action they took to make positive change. Kahlil Gibran said it best:

“Generosity is giving more than you can, and pride is taking less than you need.”