Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Nature or nurture?

Why does anyone give to charity at all, when they could keep money for themselves and be “better off”? This question puzzles scholars the world over. Surprisingly the results are remarkably consistent across cultures. Some people give everywhere research has been done, albeit sometimes more or less often.

Why does anyone give? Increasing evidence suggests that it is an important form of social bonding. A recent article in The Economist summarizes it like this: “The benefits and chances of future encounters ….. [show] that it pays to be trusting, even though you will sometimes be cheated.”

But some people are either naturally distrustful or learn to be wary of others. A study in Israel found that people who did not give or gave very little in a laboratory game had a genetic variation compared with those who did.

A Center on Philanthropy analysis of charitable giving in three different years by the same people found that 15 percent of folks did not give at all in those years. Households that did not give tended to be lower income, so genetic variation does not necessarily play a role there. But maybe … if genetic variations are associated with trust, perhaps people whose genes lead them to low trust also have a harder time than others learning skills for, then finding and keeping a higher-paying job? A good research project for someone.

So what besides a possible genetic predisposition is associated with a lack of social trust? Basically, recent or persistent bad experiences. Alesina and La Ferrara found with U.S. data that people with low trust were likely to report any one or more of the following: recent trauma such as severe illness, job loss, or divorce; identification with a group historically subject to racism or bias; a low level of education or earnings; or residence in a community that is racially very diverse or in a community that includes people with very high income and people with low income. (Side note: Riots in parts of the U.K. this year and in France last year make a lot of sense in this context: those rioting are among the poorest in their societies and are often the victims of systematic bias.)

Psychologist Dacher Keltner's research finds that as a species, humans are Born to Be Good. However, experience shows that some people have more opportunities to act good--happy, compassionate, mirthful, etc.--than others.

Gretchen Rubin at The Happiness Project offers all of us, no matter what our genetic make-up and recent experiences seven tips for how to be happier in the next HOUR. One of them is "Do a good deed."

What will YOUR good deed be? It could be a charitable gift, contribution of volunteer time, making an appointment to give blood (and keeping it), or helping someone you know accomplish their own goal. Whatever it is, all research shows: do it and you'll feel better, and the world will be a bit better, too.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Indiana State Fair Remembrance Fund

I found out about this yesterday: The Central Indiana Community Foundation has established a special fund to collect contributions for the survivors of those who died and to help the injured. This link opens the donation window automatically.

I just made my contribution, and I will mail a gift today to the fund established at a church in memory of my friend's brother-in-law who died.



Monday, August 15, 2011

Life is Not Fair!

When we are moved, we often give. Americans gave more than $1.4 billion for relief and recovery in Haiti after the January 2010 earthquake and a combined several billion dollars after the 2004 “Boxing Day” tsunami and Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. We also gave several billion dollars after the attacks in 2001.

In response to a much less severe but still heart-wrenching tragedy, Indiana residents are grieving for five dead and scores injured after a temporary stage collapsed in a windstorm at our State Fair.

My initial response, on hearing the news, is “Where do I give memorial contributions?”

But WHY do I and so many others want to give money, or teddy bears, or water and other essentials when we hear of a tragedy?

Twenty years ago, I heard a phrase to describe philanthropy: “Money is me where I cannot be.” I associate it with a Lutheran bishop, but I am not sure why. Maybe you know? Whoever said it first, it captures perfectly my response. I cannot literally reach out to the survivors, the victims’ families, the witnesses and others directly affected by the events of Saturday night, but I can give a little as an expression of my empathy.

I think that is why we (and people around the world) GIVE in response to disaster. This is not strategic philanthropy to bring out widespread social change. This is not a steady series of contributions to support an organization’s operations or to make a statement about our personal values.

A gift after a disaster is a metaphorical embrace when you know someone else is in great pain.

Bob Payton, first full-time director of the Center on Philanthropy, called the study of philanthropy a study of the “social history of the moral imagination.” The sign of an active moral imagination is being able to feel what we think others feel in response to a shock or to joy.

Humans are not the only species to feel empathy (see Frans de Waal’s book The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society); however we are the species in which empathy has been extensively studied. There is no one answer about the origins of empathy, or whether it is learned or in-born (or some of each), although the complete absence of empathy is one trait of a psychopath.

To the extent that we are moved to share joys and pains of our friends or even of those distantly connected to us, we are expressing our humanity – you could even say, we express our humaneness. I have not yet found a site to make memorial contributions for the five who died from injuries sustained Saturday. But I want to because it is one of the only ways I—as a stranger—can say to their families: we share your sorrow.

If you know anyone affected by Saturday's tragedy, please comment with the first name, so that readers can keep these people in their prayers and thoughts. Thank you.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The latest data

So this morning, I wrote 350 engaging words about research into WHY people give. If you want to read that, stay tuned for another day, because in the process of preparing that post, I discovered that last week the IRS released final data about charitable giving in 2009.

SO.....ta da. A quick look at what changed between 2008 and 2009 in the world of individual, itemized charitable contributions.

The short, short answer is that itemized giving fell -- as anticipated -- from 2008. The total decline for the amount claimed in charitable deductions was 9%.

Interestingly, though, tax returns with income UNDER $200,000 actually gave an AVERAGE amount that was 3% more than the average amount given in 2008. However, tax returns with income over $200,000 declined in number by 10%, saw a 20% drop in income overall, and reported 18% less in all itemized contributions -- and a 9% decline in the average charitable contribution.

The biggest drop overall, not shown on the table attached, was in gifts that count as "other than cash." Usually that means securities, and since the stock market in 2009 hadn't even started looking up yet, that isn't a surprise.

Word from my friends in fundraising is that many organizations have seen increases in charitable amounts received in the first half of 2011. What will happen with annual campaigns this fall? If you have thoughts, post them in the Comments area below.



Friday, August 5, 2011

Horn of Africa crisis

Nearly 50 U.S.-based charities working on Horn of Africa crisis are listed at this site, organized by Interaction. Determine your priorities and use the links provided to give.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Goosey Goosey Gander

Research shows over and over that women are more likely to give – and give more – than men after controlling for income and education. So imagine my surprise when twice last week, my spouse asked me to put gifts to organizations into our household budget. Typically, one of the kids or I propose the contribution.

It is said that men often expect something for their gifts. For some guys, it is football tickets….for my guy, it is free parking at an art museum. So, the gift goes out so he can go in.

The second gift was essentially a vote for his political perspective in a year without an election. The recipient is the research foundation associated with a partisan newsletter about public policy and shenanigans inside the Beltway. So, while this gift is not necessarily about impact or achieving meaningful change in our lifetimes, it satisfies his need to DO something already about the quagmire that Congress and the Executive branch are slogging through.

As for the four gooseys in this household, Ann asked for funding for an event tied to the start of school next week (yes, in Indiana, we start in early August!). Lia wants to keep supporting organizations that seek cures for AIDS and cancer. Elle is 17 and 3/4ths, so rolls her eyes and shrugs if I ask. I just made an admittedly token gift to alleviate some of my guilt at being an over-fed American when people in Africa and elsewhere (including here) are literally starving to death. The photo on the front page of a recent issue of New York Times was horrific to see. Sometimes, even if you know the drop is tiny in a huge ocean of need, you just have to do it.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Political gifts are not charitable, but charitable gifts can be political

Ants that our dogs chase on the driveway are part of a huge community that extends far past our lot. In a similar interconnectedness, our suburban lives link to an enormous system of trade and exchange within the U.S. and beyond. Just as our purchases are part of the global economy, our charitable gifts to U.S. organizations are inextricably part of the worldwide exchange, whether we are giving for international aid or not.

I’ve been wondering lately how to use our giving (in a small way) to help create jobs and grow the U.S. economy, just as I try to do by buying from local businesses and deliberately looking for Made in the USA labels. There are several approaches through which giving can stimulate employment. One is gifts to (re)training programs, so that people can develop skills in fields where hiring is on an increase. Another is support for projects like one-stop jobs centers that link people with existing skills to open positions.

But more important in the U.S. economy now than helping people find jobs is generating demand for goods and services, so that more companies and organizations need to hire. Nonprofits can help stimulate demand, too. One method is through nonprofit support for entrepreneurs, because new products and services create new demand (anyone buy an iPad or Kindle lately?) JumpStart, a successful Ohio program, recently announced plans to go national, with JumpStart America. The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation has many programs that support entrepreneurs, and many organizations, including universities, are setting up “social entrepreneurship” programs, to help create and market products or services that benefit people’s lives—things like micro-lending, water filters, safer cook stoves, “green” technologies, and so on.

Another strategy is to give enough to nonprofits that they can create jobs in their own organizations. However, in recent years, funding for new initiatives and capital projects has generally lagged giving for operations and immediate needs. With recent state actions and budget crises, plus proposed cuts in domestic spending at the federal level, nonprofit organizations are in a world of hurt that philanthropy alone will not heal.

Still, even small donations can make a difference, according Give A Little by Wendy Smith. The "butterfly effect" instructs us that even small acts in complex systems have consequences. In addition to thinking about a match between our values and a program's mission, the organization's capacity to address the issue(s), and its impact, I will be adding another criterion to our charitable choices: might it help boost demand in the U.S., leading in some tiny way to more employment?

Monday, June 27, 2011


This week’s mail included three direct mail appeals and three invitations to buy term life insurance. Do AAA, AARP, and TIAA-CREF know something about me that I don’t know? Or is June just a good time for this kind of sales to people in their early 50s?

I had already realized that I need life insurance before those offers arrived, so I actually opened these and read them. The plans are similar and the costs are roughly comparable, but interestingly, TIAA-CREF includes a “no cost” option to designate an educational or research institution as an additional beneficiary. That is, without paying extra for it, as long as I buy life insurance from them, I could make a charitable gift after my death to my alma mater, or my husband’s current employer, or some other qualified organization.

Kevin and I are already part of the 8 to 10 percent of adults that include a charitable bequest in our wills. The life insurance offers reminded me that it is long past time for us to review our estate plans. This got me to thinking about what charity or charities we might designate now and for how much.

We give regularly to six charities, plus to other opportunities that come up during the year. I’m not sure I want to make a bequest to each of those six. For a charity that I do want to benefit after my certain and eventual death, it would be good to “endow” our annual gift. A specific bequest equal to 20 times our annual gift, if invested, would allow the charity to withdraw 5 percent a year for at least 20 years, and longer if investment returns are high enough.

But how to decide the organization(s) to put in our will? Our alma mater is an easy choice: It is nearly 100 years old and will be around for decades and perhaps centuries longer. But we don’t make an annual gift there. However, Kevin’s professional library might be something a liberal arts college would be able to use. That, however, is probably a question we should ask before we put that in writing. There is no point in creating a gift that would be a burden. I mean, do YOU want to sort through 7,000+ history books to figure out which are of value to faculty or students these days, with iPads and e-books, etc.?

We support some local organizations that serve missions we care about, but the organizations themselves might not last forever. We could make a gift to the Central Indiana Community Foundation, but would a low four-figure endowment be large enough for them to bother with? And should I reward poor stewardship with a bequest gift (see Pay Day = Give Day)?

I want to arrange charitable bequests, but this will require more thought and discussion with Kevin and our kids. This is definitely not a gift to make on a whim, unlike Saturday’s $1 cash-register donation at our pharmacy to help find a cure for ALS/Lou Gehrig’s Disease

* According to Wikipedia, Will-o-the-Wisp is 'the folklore term for a ghostly light sometimes seen at night or twilight over bogs, swamps, and marshes. It resembles a flickering lamp and is sometimes said to recede if approached.'

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Pet peeves in appeals

Daughters Elle and Lia and I returned Saturday from a trip to see my dad. When we got home, sitting in the stack of mail were three credit card offers, four attempts to get me to subscribe to magazines, and two requests for funds from nonprofit organizations.

One of those is a renewal request from an organization we last gave to three or four years ago; the second is the third or fourth acquisition appeal from the same organization since I started tracking in May. I’m not giving to that one – again. I don’t take myself off of lists but if you want to cut down on wasting paper, you could request that you be removed from direct mail lists. Warning, though: It isn't easy or sure-fire.

The renewal request intrigued me. They are doing the right thing to invest in retaining prior donors. That is the most cost-effective way to raise funds, according to the Fundraising Effectiveness Project, among others.

The request itself looks like an invitation. This organization is using many tried and true approaches to get readers to open the envelope and then to boost response rate: a stamp on the envelope; “handwriting” font used – in blue – for the address; “handwriting” font crossing out “Dear Friend” and “writing” our names to make it look more personal; plus adding a “handwritten” post-script and signature.

Inside is a very well done appeal letter. The letter is brief and fits inside the two panels of a 6” x 8.5” card. It contains:
a) An emotional “word picture” to break the silence – suffering people caught in manmade or natural disasters.
b) Five examples of results or impact this organization claims for last year’s work.
c) A transition, asking us to fix our gaze on this year, listing countries where disasters and their aftermath continue.
d) A request for our help.
e) A closing paragraph with the organization’s tag line included seamlessly in the text.
f) The aforementioned P.S. in “handwriting” with a specific dollar amount mentioned.
g) A postage-paid return envelope, eliminating the need for me to find a stamp along with five minutes and a pen.

The little form is printed with our names and address, and it gives us options for amounts to contribute. The organization accepts four different credit cards and on the back, all of the required registrations by state are listed. A website is provided, but I’m not invited to go there to make a gift. Maybe I’m supposed to know that I can do that, if I prefer?

And then the clincher for me. I admit that this is a pet peeve. The response slip DOES NOT FIT easily in the return envelope. Maybe response goes up when people have to fold the slip to fit in the envelope, but to me it looks like bad planning.

We are not giving to this organization right now. I won’t even keep the appeal to consider later, since I’m 100% certain they’ll send several more in weeks and months to come. Maybe the envelope and reply device will go together next time.

What is YOUR pet peeve in fundraising appeals?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A "Roamin' Holiday"

Twins Ann and Elle and I travelled to the Bonnaroo festival, and while they camped, I spent time in and around Winchester, TN. This community of about 7,000 residents boasts two famous native offspring: Sir John Templeton (1912-2008), financier and philanthropist, and Dinah Shore (1916-1994), entertainer and member of the World Golf Hall of Fame.

Other than their namesake streets, it is difficult to see any lasting imprint of these wealthy individuals on their hometown.* Winchester, like many rural communities, appears little-touched by outside philanthropy.

Dinah Shore’s philanthropy is not well-publicized, but other people, often those affiliated with the LPGA, have honored her. These initiatives include naming charity golf events after her and awarding scholarships with her name.

According to Wikipedia, Templeton funded a library in nearby Sewanee, TN and left an estimated $1 billion in several philanthropic programs. One of those institutions, the John Templeton Foundation, supports research into a number of “Big Ideas.” Grants made a few years ago, for example, support research about the origins, manifestations, and consequences of philanthropy, as part of an exploration of character development.

Results from those studies are still under review. But even before that work is done, there are insights into the origins of charitable giving. In an award-winning study, Eleanor Brown (no relation) of Pomona College and James Ferris of the University of Southern California showed the importance of social networks as a determinant (cause) of volunteering and giving. Basically, the more groups—formal or informal—a person belongs to, the more likely he or she is to give or volunteer. There isn’t a 100% correlation, but using data about thousands of people, this is the trend. So why do people give or volunteer when they know more people?

Because it feels good. Scholars say there really is no giving without SOME kind of return. At a minimum, donors get a “warm glow”. Which might be a “warm glow” for helping a friend meet a fundraising goal for a walkathon, even if the cause itself is not so important to you. It might also be the pretty cool “rush” you can get knowing that your money has been able to transform someone else’s life in a substantial way.

One of my brothers, for example, supports a program called Summer Search, which has some pretty impressive stats about its impact for the high school students the group selects and mentors. So, I while I didn’t leave any money behind for charity in Winchester, I’m learning about Summer Search and proposing it for our family's line-up of regular monthly donations. That gets me a double “warm glow” : helping my brother with one of his strong interests and funding, in a small way, transformative experiences for kids the age of my kids. Stay tuned….

* Despite some people’s preferences to have buildings named after them, most philanthropy leaves little physical trace. Templeton or Shore could have left a trust, scholarship fund, or other philanthropic contribution in a way that was not visible as I walked and drove through the community.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Payday = Give Day

My family gives every month to four charities. Each gift is relatively small, but over the course of a year, we give more than 1 percent of our income. One gift is charged automatically to a credit card; three are paid by our bank after I set them up as recurring “bill payments.” Interestingly, only one charity regularly sends a gift acknowledgement.

Gleaners Food Bank sends a letter and an envelope for another gift each month. Thank you!

Doctors Without Borders sends “updates,” which include appeals for more gifts. They also sell or trade their mailing list to numerous other groups, which is a common practice.

Indiana Youth Group (IYG) sent a sort-of thank you at the end of 2010, which was really an appeal for more money. This is the first time we’ve heard from them since starting our contributions in fall 2009. Not even a newsletter in more than a year.

The executive director of Ensemble Music Society contacted us after our first gift, also in fall 2009, to ask for the full amount of our “pledge” to the capital campaign. Since the gift is unrestricted with no end date, I couldn’t answer his question.

So, you might ask, WHY do we keep giving to these groups. Mostly it gets down to mission and how these groups work toward goals that we hold as individuals. While research says giving is irrational, I see our donations as “votes” for our values.

As I’ve said before, we are committed to trying to assure better food security, so the Gleaners gift is a no-brainer for us. The gifts to Doctors without Borders reflect daughter Ann’s interests. Plus I like all of the address labels, gift wrap and note cards from the other groups that buy or rent that list! IYG ties to the other daughters’ volunteer work, first Elle and now Lia, with the high school Gay Straight Alliance. The Ensemble Music Society reflects my husband’s strong interest in high culture, even though he no longer attends their concerts.

Our secular giving is about average. American donor households give one percent of their income to secular causes. Households that participate in worship services give two percent of their income to religion, on average.

I’d love to double our giving to secular causes so that we could give 2 or even 3 percent of our income in total, going even further than the Foundation Beyond Belief. We’d probably add more charities, rather than increase the gifts we make now. The stack of requests just keeps growing – four more last week by mail.

Just writing this makes me realize that it is time we re-evaluate the organizations we give to. We set up those automatic payments more than 18 months ago. If we are “voting” for our values, we need to check in with each other about what might have changed since then. My husband will probably have the same choices, but the teens' preferences have likely shifted, and our giving should reflect those.

P.S. In addition to the automatic withdrawals, last week we wrote checks to Relay for Life for the June 4 event. This week, I’ll make our contributions by credit card in memory of Bob Payton, $88 to Center on Philanthropy Scholarship Fund and $22 to Payton Library, following the votes on the poll. Thanks!

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

One two, buckle my shoe

They are called micro-gifts, and they add up. We had requests at Costco, PetSmart, and our local grocery in the past week to add a dollar (or five or ten) to a purchase to give to a charity. There is even “an app for that,” developed by three teens, although it isn’t clear how they vet charities to fit the marketing line that they are "carefully selected service organizations”

I asked my teens Ann, Elle, and Lia what they think about this form of giving. They all said that these gifts are a good thing for the charities because they can raise more money from lots of small donations. They liked that the amounts requested fit easily within their income or allowance.

But they also said that such giving does not teach care for others. Instead, the donors are likely already people who give (two-thirds of households in the U.S. are donors) or are literally acting on impulse, like buying a bag of chips or a candy bar at the check-out line.

Ann said it was like an electronic version of the Salvation Army bell ringers – you drop a little money in, but you don’t really think about the needs. Elle wondered how the checkout personnel feel in the campaigns where they have to ask, “Do you want to give a dollar to….?” She wants to follow-up with her friends who work in retail because she is concerned that they might develop negative attitudes to charitable giving in general through a requirement of their jobs. Lia pointed out that people who do not like this kind of request might go shop elsewhere. I suspect there are no studies about that unintended consequence.

Our daughters thought that if someone acted on impulse, that was better than not giving, but it would be even better if they acted from principle, from knowing that giving was the right thing to do. Without coaching from me, these 15- and 17-year olds differentiated giving motives identified by Rene Bekkers and Mark Wilhelm in a very well-done study of motives. Basically, empathy is good but the “principle of care” is fundamental to helping others.

As for us, we picked up the card at the market to give to the food pantry, but we did not add a dollar for the local children’s hospital or funding for homeless pets. Basically, we used micro-gifts to support causes that we already support. I wonder how many others do the same.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The owl looked up to the stars above*

It’s only Thursday, and we’ve received ten appeals since Monday by mail and one at our door. Plus Bob Payton died and a memorial gift is suggested in his obituary.

We do not respond to direct mail, so those are easily set aside. Kevin—contrary to statistical trends identified by John List—told the young, attractive, tall blond woman speaking for Save the Children that we do not give at the door.

The dilemma comes from the Payton family’s request. We both worked with Bob and value his many contributions. We understand why he and Polly created the Joseph and Matthew Payton Philanthropic Studies Library and why the family requests gifts to it. However, much as we value the library and its staff, we still aren’t certain that we should make our gift in his memory there.

Once in the past, we made a memorial gift to an Evangelical church, following the wishes of the family, though our beliefs are different. But there, our loyalties were to surviving family members who are close to us. In this case, we are not friends of Bob’s heirs, and we have strong feelings about where our mite might have the most enduring impact.

While director at the Center on Philanthropy, Bob secured funding that supported creation of a faculty and enrollment of students for an MA in Philanthropic Studies. For the biggest long-term change, it feels like we should make the memorial gift to a scholarship fund for that program.

The Payton library will receive Bob’s books and surely needs funds to accession those thousands of volumes. Plus the librarian happily orders most materials that my husband requests for his students’ research and his own. Further, she fields questions from around the world, providing service far beyond the campus. There is no doubt that our gift would be used and used well.

But the library is at least partially funded by the University, whereas the Center relies very heavily on donations and revenue other than state funding. Scholarships would attract even more highly-qualified students to the MA in Philanthropic Studies, which further strengthens the field that Bob helped create. And with more students, there will be more demand for the library, not to mention the revenue impact for the campus of having candidates in a degree program.

Of course, we could do both, but not right now. We will have to choose one or the other – or make two miniscule contributions of token significance only. Since payday is next week, I guess we'll have some more time to sleep on it.

* Bob Payton took this medal with an owl as his personal symbol.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Jack be nimble, Jack be quick

This week, we will give for disaster relief, and we will not restrict our gift in any way. Why not? Organizations need operating expenses to remain open and ready for disasters. Without preparedness, there is no rapid response, no search teams for Joplin, MO, no volunteer network to help set up shelters. All of those take people to organize, and those people need telephones, offices, copies, custodial services, insurance, and accounting services. All of those are overhead or operating costs.

Many donors prefer not to support operating expenses. A former supervisor told me that the notion of low overhead costs for charitable organizations started in 1997, when Ted Turner pledged $1 billion over 10 years to create the United Nations Foundation. My boss said Turner pounded the table and said, “Not one penny for operating costs.”

I did a little research and learned that the administrative costs Mr. Turner refused to pay were not those of the United Nations Foundation, which his gift created, but those of the United Nations itself, as reported by legal scholar Stacy Williams in the Georgia Journal of International & Comparative Law (1998-99, p. 425-456).

The UN Foundation does have operating costs, very low ones. The organization reports that 94 cents of every dollar spent went directly to support UN programs and causes. The other 6 percent paid for services that almost all functioning charities need to fund. When nearly 100% of your operating budget comes from one donor and you do not yourself implement many programs, keeping overhead costs low is pretty easy.

The BBB Wise Giving Alliance publishes a guideline that 35 percent of total expenditures is typically acceptable for overhead (which includes management, fundraising, operations and more). The alliance makes allowances for variations from that, reflecting the findings of a major, multi-year overhead cost study project released in 2005 by the Urban Institute and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.

In fact, there is no “one size fits all” ratio for overhead costs. Management expenses vary along several dimensions, including the organization’s age, operating budget, reach (local or international), and specific type of service such as for short-term assistance or long-term change.

The Bridgespan Group took the Cost Study work further in 2008 and found “organizations and their funders are locked in a vicious cycle in which nonprofits are pressured to under-invest in overhead and to under-report their true overhead costs. . . In the short-term, staff members struggle to ‘do more with less.’ Ultimately, though, it’s the beneficiaries who suffer.”

Despite these research findings, some donors still insist on "not one penny for overhead." Most recently, I've seen the claime made by groups fundraising for relief in Japan, and we will almost certainly see it for relief in Joplin.

We prefer to follow an older adage than “not one penny for overhead," a Latin phrase for a fundamental precept of emergency care: Primum non nocere: First do no harm. So when we give to an organization for disaster relief, our gift is completely unrestricted because we know when disasters hit, we want the responding organization to be there and ready.

Monday, May 23, 2011

One potato, two potato

Counting rhymes help determine who is “it” or whether to eat the apple chunk or the pear slice in the fruit salad, but they are not much help in deciding where to give charitable contributions. Because we think it is important to give intentionally, our three daughters started early to learn how and why to give.

The year Ann and Elle turned seven, adults in my extended family decided to give to charity instead of exchanging holiday gifts. We involved the girls, too: each could pick a charity, and we would give $25 to it. How do you help a seven-year old (or five–year old, as Lia was) pick a charity?

We played a game like Twenty Questions, turning it into a grade-school level, secular discernment process. First query: “Do you want to help people, nature, or animals?” Ann wanted to help people, Elle was interested in nature, and Lia said animals.

So we asked, “Do you want to help a group you belong to or a different group?” Here or somewhere else in the world? Something new that is being tested or an activity that people already know works? And so on.

Ann picked helping people who need food, starting our long-term commitment to Gleaners Food Bank. Elle selected the Nature Conservancy. For Lia’s preference to help horses, I checked GuideStar.org to find an organization that also met parental expectations for accountability. This led us to Days End Farm Horse Rescue in Maryland.

We gave our children choices about their giving early, and our money has followed. Now, even their own money follows, showing perhaps a little success from our methods. But our money still keeps following their giving preferences, and the process is not confined to December.

This week, as the academic year winds down, we have made a pledge to the Gay Straight Alliance, which advocates respect and tolerance. The local chapter just elected Lia as an officer for next year, so we want to show support for the social justice mission of this high school program.

We are also writing checks for the twins’ fundraising as part of the 24-hour Relay For Life to benefit the American Cancer Society. This engagement stems from multiple motivations—memorial and tribute purposes to honor people we know, plus a desire to bring about change so fewer children die. But also note that Ann and Elle will accrue hours toward community service, which is required for their academic program. This last is important for why we are supporting this cause right now.

Would we give to this organization at the beginning of summer, when my husband’s academic pay stops for two months, if our children were not involved? Probably not.

Our gift is one of millions, so it even though we give a little, it adds up. Yet, we are giving up something else to do this.

In the end, we decided that giving matters as an example, because of the good it can do, and because it forces us to consider our choices and how we express our values on a day-to-day basis. We can find flowers on sale later to fill the window boxes, but we will not have the same chance to be part of our children's promise to their team mates and themselves to do something good.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Baa baa black sheep, have you any wool?

Three bags full…..that’s what we’ve been asked for — bags of food, clothing, and money. To paraphrase lyrics from Smash Mouth’s “All Star” — the requests start coming, and they don’t stop coming.

We cannot give to everything, so we have to choose. In the spirit of blogs that share the path to happiness, how to be a better (or at least different) parent, or even how to write a blog, this blog is about how and why this family makes choices about charitable giving and volunteering. Not that we are especially important donors, but that thinking about the process, and sharing some of those thoughts, will have benefits for us and maybe for you.

First some background. Our five-person household is one of the two-thirds of U.S. households that give to charity in a year. Some of us are also in the roughly one-third of individuals in the U.S. who volunteer in a year. Plus, more than ten years ago, my extended family decided to stop exchanging holiday gifts and give money to charities instead. As further incentive to reflect on our giving, both my spouse and I are affiliated with the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. Perhaps more than many, we discuss the how and why of charitable giving at dinner, during “car time” with the kids, and even long-distance with our parents and siblings.

Now, back to those bags. This past week, after sorting the many appeals received, it took no effort to decide to clean the pantry and fill the plastic grocery bag for the Letter Carriers’food drive and sort through a closet to pack a parcel of clothing for Goodwill. These “gifts” cost us only a few minutes of time. These donations are also consistent with our on-going commitments to local organizations that meet basic needs.

The tough choice comes with the request to give money for homeless services provided by Volunteers of America. The appeal is clever, with the letter printed on a lunch-size paper sack folded as a “self-mailer.” The bag itself contains some printed information and a gift form and envelope. I like clever, so I am tempted to give to reward creativity.

However, this charity would be a new one for us—and that doesn’t work just now, as my business just begins. Further, except for tossing a little into Salvation Army red kettles in December, I feel like a traitor supporting homelessness services other than the Homeless Initiative Program, where I worked in the late 1990s.

We also very seldom respond to direct mail (or email) or telephone appeals. Even a clever appeal asks for an emotional response, rather than an intentional commitment to an organization whose work we’ve checked out (or know first-hand).

So, we gave two bags full, not three, to our household’s priorities for the most fundamental of needs on Maslow’s hierarchy: food and shelter. For now, we’ve set aside about a dozen other appeals received to consider someday soon. And the requests keep coming--there were six more in today's mail.