Liz Dow

is president and CEO of Leadership Philadelphia

Carly Spross, marketing director for the Fresh Grocer, was a little apprehensive when she approached a young woman shopping in the produce department with her two daughters. Spross handed the woman $20 to help pay for her groceries, along with a card that said, "Pay It Forward."

The woman hugged Spross tearfully, telling her how hard things had been lately. She had been standing there calculating what she could afford to buy. As Spross walked away, she heard one of the daughters say, "Did that lady just give you $20? That's so awesome!"

Hal Real, CEO of World Cafe Live, gave a cash gift to a young couple after watching them help a struggling older woman carry her large suitcase down steep stairs at a SEPTA stop. Penny Bach of the Fairmount Park Art Association gave a cash gift to Stanford Thompson at "Play On, Philly!" to buy 100 reeds for the children playing wind instruments. My staff is fretting over the best way to donate their $50 gift, as are my children. Where is this extra kindness coming from?

Leadership Philadelphia, a nonprofit organization that mobilizes people to serve, decided to amplify the Christmas spirit this year by promoting the concept of Pay It Forward. The phrase is the title of Catherine Ryan Hyde's novel, which was made into a movie of the same name. The lead character, a young boy, decides to increase the goodness of the world by doing unobtrusive acts of kindness. He doesn't want to be paid back, but urges recipients to "pay it forward."

We jump-started this movement in Philadelphia by giving small cash gifts to 100 members of our leadership class and to another 100 community leaders. All were told to find someone locally who needed the money and donate it to him or her. The goal is to help people become attuned to the needs of those around them. It's about presence, not presents.

Why does kindness matter? According to a Knight Foundation report, civic attachment leads to economic growth. Attachment is a function of several factors, including the way a city's people treat one another. The report says Philadelphians don't think Philadelphians care about one another. We want to counter this perception. We are starting with small cash gifts, but the true currency is kindness. Hyde has even sent her foundation president, Charley Johnson, to Philadelphia to learn more about this effort.

We teach leadership. In order to lead, you must understand the wants and needs of your followers. Inspiring leaders - the kind who make us want to do more and be more - take action to meet the needs of others without expecting anything in return. They're not about pay to play, but like Carly, Hal, and Penny, they are about paying it forward.

A farmer, Nelson Henderson, once advised his son on graduation day, "The meaning of life is to plant a tree under whose shade you don't expect to sit." As you turn your attention to your New Year's resolutions, consider resolving to pay it forward - to be more attentive to the needs of those around you, and step up to fulfill them. It's not about the money. It's about acting on the impulse to serve. It's about living up to our potential as the City of Brotherly Love.

For more information, e-mail Liz Dow at edow@leadershipphiladelphia.org, or visit www.leadershipphiladelphia.org.