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Stephanie L. Jones: “We must have live conversations with people”

The year my book launched, I keynoted a large fundraising event for a women’s giving fund. The following year, I had the opportunity to introduce the keynote speaker for the same event. After the event ended, an older woman approached me and introduced herself. She explained how she had heard me speak the prior year […]

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The year my book launched, I keynoted a large fundraising event for a women’s giving fund. The following year, I had the opportunity to introduce the keynote speaker for the same event. After the event ended, an older woman approached me and introduced herself. She explained how she had heard me speak the prior year and how my “giving challenge” changed her life. She told me that she did not give every day, but she looked for ways to help someone else on most days. She said the giving over the past year had changed her life for the better. She wanted to thank me for inspiring her, even at such a late age in life.

Another time, I partnered with a local senior living community for a book club. A large group from the community read my book, and then I came for a question-and-answer session. After the event ended, a man in his 80’s approached me. With tears in his eyes, he grabbed and cupped my hands in his. He shared with me how he had never learned about giving, and he was saddened that he was learning about it so late in life. He had read my book three times and was still learning. His sense of regret radiated the short distance between us. My heart broke for him, but I reassured him that it was never too late to start giving. We formed a special little bond, and I have eaten dinner with him on several occasions since.


As part of my series about “authors who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Stephanie L. Jones, a philanthropist, TEDx speaker, coach, podcaster, and author of the award-winning and best-selling book, The Giving Challenge and The Gratitude Challenge. Since graduating from Taylor University, Stephanie has lived a crazy life from a private investigator to a professional organizer, a police officer, and a senior manager at a Fortune 100 company. She is passionate about living out the big goals God has laid on her heart and challenges others to do the same. Stephanie lives in northwest Indiana with her husband, of 18 years, Mike, an Indiana State Trooper.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I am one of the lucky ones. I did not realize my fortune until college. I remember my senior trip, and classmates shared about struggles and tragedies with their parents. At that moment, it hit me not everyone had a childhood like mine.

In a small farming community in southern Indiana, my parents raised my younger sister and me with the love of God, attending church each Sunday, respect for our flag, first responders, the National Anthem, and the men and women of our armed forces. Serving and giving to those in our community were the top priorities.

We lived a simple life. Things were not significant, money did not grow on trees, but the time spent together, hiking at the local state park and gathered around the dinner table, were weekly priorities.

Both of my parents worked very hard. Neither of them attended college, but the work ethic they displayed and instilled in my sister and me passed down a principle no book could teach us. I had my first job at 13 and have not stopped working since. For the most part, if we wanted something, we were expected to buy it with our own money.

My parents were heavily involved in the community and had the same expectations for my sister and me. My father served as a volunteer firefighter, and it was common for him to leave us at the fire station when a call came in, or better than sitting at the fire station was sitting in the truck while he and the other volunteers battled the fires.

Besides serving on the fire department, my father would become sworn in and work nights and weekends as a police officer. Once again, serving his community in another honorable way. I can remember attending the local pumpkin festival, and a stranger walked up to my dad and thanked him. I asked my dad, “Who was that guy?” My dad responded, “Oh, I arrested that guy.”

My dad taught us to live by the golden rule. Do unto others as you would have done unto you. He treated those breaking the law just like he would his friends. If you stopped by his house and asked for food, gas, or to use the telephone, he would gladly say yes.

My mom served the community in other ways. She led the youth group at church, sang in the choir, and cooked meals and baked cookies for us to deliver to shut-ins, the elderly, and nursing homes. My sister and I joke that we spent much of our childhood with older people, as my mom often took us to visit those that had no family or none local.

I am beyond grateful to have been raised by loving parents that spent time investing in their children, setting high expectations, and providing an example of what it means to be an active member of the community and making a difference to everyone that crossed their path.

When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story about that?

When I was younger, my favorite book, which I still love, was Just for You by Mercer Mayer. The book is about the little critter trying to give to his mom, but something always goes wrong. In the end, the gift that works out is a simple hug.

For me, what changed my life, or at least the most significant lessons I learned, is that we can always keep trying. There are many ways to give, and sometimes how we want to give does not work out. If we keep trying, we will be successful. This lesson is not just about giving but for all aspects of our life.

The second lesson I learned is that gifts do not have to take a lot of time or money. A simple hug can have a big impact. And on my giving journey, I gave a lot of hugs!

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

As an author, I have made many mistakes throughout my career, but most of them were not funny and ended up being quite costly. Live and learn, I guess.

Looking back, though, I remember my first book signing. After a keynote, I had given a long line formed of those wanting to buy my book, chat, and have me sign their book — often personalizing it for them, a friend, or a family member.

Six months before publishing my first book, at the age of 39, I discovered I was dyslexic. Let us just say this discovery was quite a relief. Many little things in life had never made sense, and I could not comprehend, such as spelling, taking directions, and grammar rules.

As the attendees stepped up and I asked them their name, I realized I often had to ask them to spell it several times. My dyslexic brain could not keep up. All I could do was laugh and ask for their patience.

I also realized that trying to think of a creative inscription for the reader was not my forte. Who knows what blubber I wrote in books during that first signing.

Now, I take sticky notes with me, pass them out to those in line, ask them to write their name, and hand it to me when it comes time to sign the book.

I have also created several catchphrases I use for the inscription, such as “Happy Giving!” and “Here’s to living a grateful life!”.

I learned that sometimes the smallest preparations and actions could relieve a lot of stress, make life, and book signings fun and less stressful!

Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your book?

My first book, The Giving Challenge, is full of short stories that challenge people to find ways every day to make a difference in someone else’s life. When one reads the book, the social impact ripple begins.

Both of my books have a giveback component. For every copy of The Giving Challenge I sell, I donate three meals, to children in need, through the nonprofit Rice Bowls. They serve children in orphanages around the world. To date, we have provided 30,000 plus meals!

For my second book, The Gratitude Challenge, I focus on saying thank you to our veterans. I had the opportunity to serve veterans at a monthly veterans breakfast at a local nonprofit, Pines Village Retirement Communities. Veterans of all ages and branches of service gather to share a meal, stories, and struggles. I had to be involved. The Gratitude Challenge helps offset the costs of coffee for the breakfasts. And boy, can our veterans drink a lot of coffee!

Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, the breakfasts are on pause, but we are ready to serve when they begin again.

We also have a way for the reader to get involved. They can buy a book for a veteran, and when I come across one that I think might enjoy or need the book, I give or send them a copy.

Can you share with us the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

In my book, The Giving Challenge, I share a story about giving away my birthday flowers.

Spending my birthday on a business trip in Washington, D.C., I was fortunate to be surrounded by caring coworkers who did a fabulous job of making my day special. But my heart tinged with sadness as I would not be spending the day with my hubby. Working long hours and attending back-to-back meetings made for an exhausting day. As I arrived back at the hotel, thoughts of my comfy bed danced in my head, but entering my room, an extravagant bouquet caught my eye. The vase overflowed with roses, daisies, sunflowers, and lilies in an array of colors. I could not contain my excitement. There was no need to read the card, as I knew they were from my husband. The flowers meant so much to me because he thought to do something while I was away.

He rarely gets me flowers, as he knows I think they are a waste of money, but today they were what I needed — the perfect gift. I spent the evening prepping my flowers for the journey home. The hotel staff joined in on the fun, bringing me paper towels that I drenched in water, plastic baggies to transfer the flowers from the vase, and rubber bands to make sure the baggie was secured tightly around the stems. I envisioned where the flowers would sit on my desk and decided to give the sunflowers to my sister, as they are her favorite flower.

If you want to draw attention to yourself at the airport, carry a large arrangement of flowers. You will receive countless stares. I wasn’t even sure flowers could be taken through security, but guess what? They can! Placing the flowers on the conveyor belt, they were scanned and came through the other side intact. Whew! After making it through security, I was on a mission to find a restroom. I approached the information booth and asked the attendant, an older gentleman, for directions. He pointed to the bathroom and commented on the beauty of my flowers. As I walked away, I thanked him, and I heard a little voice in my head say, giveaway your flowers.

What? I was not giving away my flowers. I loved them. I had spent time prepping them for travel and getting them through security, and I was taking them home! The bathroom was surprisingly empty. I set the flowers on the ledge above the sink and prayed someone would not steal them. Pathetic, I know. When I came out to wash my hands, they were still there. Praise the Lord! Again, I heard a little voice say, give away your flowers. Oh, snap! Most of the time, I found it easy to give, but occasionally I felt challenged to give gifts I did not want to give. Giving away my birthday flowers was a gift that I did not want to give. My character was being tested. Was I only giving when it was convenient and easy, or was I giving from the heart and being selfless?

As I walked out of the restroom, I met my coworker, who was still chatting with the information booth attendant. As I approached, the gentleman again commented, “Those are such beautiful flowers; my wife would love them. ”As he uttered those words, I knew I was supposed to give him my flowers. Stretching out my arm, I said, “Here you go; take them!”

Chuckling, he said, “I was just complimenting you on the flowers; I don’t want them.” I replied, “I know! Take these flowers and give them to your wife.” He was shocked and thrilled at the same time. He was getting off duty and said his wife would be so surprised. Watching me giveaway my birthday flowers, my coworker was in disbelief. But my heart was smiling, knowing I had done the right thing. What an opportunity for an intentional act of giving.

I wish I could have been at that gentleman’s home when he gave his wife my flowers. I wonder if he told her the story of what happened. Did he pay it forward in some way? What, if any, difference did this act of kindness make in his life? I will never know the answers to those questions, but that day, I learned to listen to that tug on my heart, as opportunities to be generous are all around if we look and listen.

Do you know what is interesting? I have never missed those flowers. Years later, the gift I gave brings me more joy than flowers sitting on my desk for a couple of weeks and wilting away. Several weeks after that day at the airport, my coworker called me excited. He shared how giving away my flowers inspired him. He had been in Home Depot, and after conversing with the cashiers, he left the store, went and bought coffee, and returned to deliver it to the cashiers. The ladies to whom he gave the coffee, like the gentleman in the airport, were shocked and, of course, very grateful. No one had ever done something like that for them. His act of kindness is my goal of giving. To encourage others to give and to make a difference in the lives of people we know and to strangers, to create a ripple effect of giving that will change the world, one simple gift at a time.

Would you give away your flowers?

What was the “aha moment” or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?

I do not hate much in life, but I hated writing. I am terrible at grammar. I had to take a remedial writing class in college. Writing a book never crossed my mind or came across my radar.

On January 1, 2011, I started my giving journey. I set a goal to give a gift every day for a year. I cannot remember, and maybe there was not one; I started a blog to document my gifts. Every day I posted a short story about the gift I had given. The writing was questionable, but people loved my voice and authenticity.

Over time, people started saying, “You should write a book.”

I ignored the comments. I knew nothing about writing a book, how I would do that and who could help.

On October 4, 2012, I received a note from Barb Young, the Executive Director of the Porter County Community Foundation. Barb is one of the most respected women in our community. She gets things done; people listened to what she had to say, and she was someone I looked up to and admired.

The note, which I still have, said, “Dear Stephanie, I went to a book publisher’s preview for newly released books recently where they introduced “One Good Deed.” I immediately thought of you. I think you could have been the author. Enjoy!”

Along with the note, Barb gave me a copy of the book. I read it cover to cover. She was right. The book documented a journey like my giving journey. I thought, “If Barb thinks I can write a book, maybe I can write a book.”

It would take me nearly five more years to release my first book, The Giving Challenge: 40 Days to a More Generous Life. I would have written about all 522 days, but my editor did not think anyone would want to read all 522, so we settled on 40!

Without sharing specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

The year my book launched, I keynoted a large fundraising event for a women’s giving fund. The following year, I had the opportunity to introduce the keynote speaker for the same event. After the event ended, an older woman approached me and introduced herself. She explained how she had heard me speak the prior year and how my “giving challenge” changed her life. She told me that she did not give every day, but she looked for ways to help someone else on most days. She said the giving over the past year had changed her life for the better. She wanted to thank me for inspiring her, even at such a late age in life.

Another time, I partnered with a local senior living community for a book club. A large group from the community read my book, and then I came for a question-and-answer session. After the event ended, a man in his 80’s approached me. With tears in his eyes, he grabbed and cupped my hands in his. He shared with me how he had never learned about giving, and he was saddened that he was learning about it so late in life. He had read my book three times and was still learning. His sense of regret radiated the short distance between us. My heart broke for him, but I reassured him that it was never too late to start giving. We formed a special little bond, and I have eaten dinner with him on several occasions since.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

First, we must have live conversations with people. We are so stuck to our phones and hidden behind a social media handle that we forget how our words impact others. I am big on one-on-one in person, via video, or on the telephone communication.

Second, we need to get out of our way. There are many me’s, and I’s in the world, focusing on what is best for me, hidden behind a lot of talk. We must look at our neighbor, the stranger we cross paths with, our coworkers, family, and friends, and ask, “How can I make a difference in their life today?”

Third, act. I see many people posting and talking, but there are a lot of people who are not putting their money and/or time where their mouth is. If you are concerned about children in inner-city neighborhoods and their education, do you support the local boys and girls club? Are you donating your money? Becoming a mentor? Calling and asking them what their needs are and then having a drive with your friends and family to fulfill that need?

No matter who we are, where we live, where we come from, our socio-economic status, race, or the time we have available, we all can make a positive difference in others’ lives.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I do not believe leadership is one definition neatly tucked in a box and wrapped with a bow. Leadership is multifaceted, and depending on those that are following you, it is dynamic, and your actions change by the situation.

For example, I believe leadership does not just know those that are following you professionally but also personally. When I led a Fortune 100 company, the team took time to get to know what was going on in each of my employee’ families. But not just ask about their family at the beginning of a weekly one on one session; it remembered to check-in.

“How did your wife’s MRI go?”

“Is your husband recovering from his accident?”

“How did your daughter’s recital go?”

I can not tell you how much it meant to my employees that I cared and showed concern for what was going on in their lives. These simple actions grew to trust me, and they never hesitated to share with me what may be going on at home. When we understand what is going on personally with our employees, we can support them better professionally. Show them grace, be flexible, pitch in and help where needed, and let them know, there is more to life than the bottom line.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

As I continue to write books, a new lesson pops up that I feel led to share with others coming up behind me. As I reflected on my first book’s writing, these are the five lessons that rose to the top.

  1. Think long-term. The Giving Challenge took me about five years to write and launch. Success does not happen overnight. Do not get frustrated if you aren’t moving as quickly as you would like. Keep plugging along, and over time you will pick up wins and momentum. The book took me so long because I had no clue what I was doing. And I quit many times. I vividly remember a night after editing where I went and laid on the bed in my spare bedroom and sobbed. I was having a “whoa is me moment.” My husband uttered some kind words and told me to get up and get back to writing. I rolled out of bed and went back to work.
  2. Only get advice from people who have been there, done that. This lesson seems like common sense advice, but we often let people who have never done what we are trying to influence our decisions. When it comes to my books, I have a small team of experts who provide advice and guidance in their expertise. As I shared about writing my book, people often gave unsolicited advice. I had a lady message me on social media telling me I should not be sharing the gifts I was giving. I shared my giving stories to inspire others to give. To show people that giving comes in all different forms. She was a negative Nancy and had nothing better to do than rain on my positive parade. Unfortunately, I almost let her shut my parade down. I am grateful I didn’t listen to her, but I believe many dreams are unfulfilled because we allow opinions to create doubt on a calling on our life.
  3. Put perfectionism in a drawer. Are you a perfectionist? If so, your perfectionist tendencies may prevent you from accomplishing a project or goal you are pursuing. I got stuck in the perfectionist wheel for quite some time. That is why my book took forever to complete. I kept swapping out stories and editing and reediting. At some point, what you are working on must be good enough, and you must get the darn thing completed. I still cringe when I find a mistake in my book, but then I remember that even James Patterson made mistakes in his books. I know because I have caught them, and they make me feel just a little bit better. No one is perfect!
  4. Not everyone is going to support your big dream. It is hard when friends or family members do not show any interest in a project you are working on. It is easy to spiral into negative thoughts of why someone is not supporting you. Focus on the people that do help you. Please give them your gratitude and appreciation. For instance, my husband yet to read either of my books. At first, this hurt my feelings, but he is not a reader. He often jokes, “I love the stories. I do not need to read about them again.” Turn the tables. I know there have been numerous projects, due to schedule, conflicts, etc., that I could not help someone on. It was not anything personal; I could not commit. Remember, usually, their lack of support has nothing to do with you or your project.
  5. It is okay to go back and make improvements. On the first version of The Giving Challenge, I must admit that I had no idea what I was doing. I had some connections in the industry, but they were few and far between. Also, I was not the best writer. But over the years, I attended writing conferences, developed relationships with experts, and even received an endorsement from Dave Ramsey. Instead of being satisfied with my first book in the original form, I went back and made improvements. The stories have more depth. The writing improved. Resources were created. And the cover got a facelift. Total makeovers are not always necessary, but if you feel like you need to make improvements to get you to the next level, by all means, go for it!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I am a lover of quotes. They are scattered on walls throughout my house. It is so hard to choose a favorite. But I love this quote by Helen Keller, as it is relevant to the topic of giving.

“Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.”

Repeatedly, I am reminded of the power of my simple challenge of finding a way to make a difference in one other person’s life. I spent about a half of a year tracking my impact. Before I knew it, the compound effect led to impacting thousands of lives.

When I gave my TEDx talk, I challenged the audience to take the challenge. If you think about Helen’s quote, if I just take the challenge, let us say for 40 days, at a minimum, I impact 40 people. If the entire audience of 250 people took the challenge in a little over a month, we would affect 10,000 people! That is the power of “together we can do so much.”

Is there a person in the world, or in the U.S. with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Over the years, I have been inspired following Sara Blakey’s journey. Right now, I would like to have a private lunch or breakfast with her because I am coming out with a children’s book series, and I see it is much more than just a book series, but a product line. I have no clue what I am doing, and neither did Sara when she started Spanx. We have similar personalities where we rely on our gut to make decisions, go against the grain often, and march to our drumbeat. She has also kept 100% ownership of her company, and when given a chance to have an agent and sell my children’s book series, I choose to do it on my own. I would love to learn more about that decision and how it has benefited her over the years, and if she started over, what would she do differently?

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I love to connect with my readers. They can always check out my website and subscribe to my weekly newsletter at www.GivingGal.com. I have a podcast, Giving Your Best Life, that can be found wherever one listens to podcasts, such as Apple iTunes and iHeartRadio. I am on Instagram @Giving_Gal and Facebook.com/GivingGal. If people want to connect with me professionally, I am on www.linkedin.com/in/stephanieleejones.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!


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