Help Me

Help others.

When Mother Dear died two years ago, my brothers, sister, and I inherited what was left in her charitable foundation. Meaning every four years I get to give away some money. This year it’s my turn and I’m not sure whom I should give the money to. Leaning towards a few non-profits that work with the homeless in our fair city.

How do you decide whom to give to? My thinking is guided by two important things. First, the gifts have to be ones moms would’ve made. Second, the gifts should have a lasting impact.

The first principle is a breeze because Mother Dear was profoundly generous. Unlike me, she didn’t overthink things. Instead, she instinctively gave when made aware of obvious needs. No paralysis by analysis.

The second principle is where I need your help. Consider this philanthropic case study. Tom and Christy Lee deserve lots of credit for their selflessness and for helping me refine my philosophy of philanthropy. Consider the math, $5,495 donated to forgive the school lunch debts of 262 families. An average of $21 per family.

It’s possible that an unexpected $21, like tiny micro-loans that have received so much positive press, could make a meaningful difference in a low-income family’s struggle to turn an economic corner. But if the families who received the unexpected loan forgiveness don’t address any of the underlying causes that resulted in them falling behind on their children’s school meals, won’t they be in the exact same place in a year’s time? Does the $21 have a lasting impact? I’m skeptical.

And isn’t the same conundrum even more pronounced for the organizations I’m considering giving to? If the organizations I’m considering giving to feed, clothe, and shelter the most vulnerable members of our community, but don’t also provide substance abuse and mental health counseling or job training and low income housing, won’t the numbers of homeless continue to tick upwards?

So is the answer to give to “both/and” organizations, non-profits that both meet the immediate needs of the most vulnerable and work equally hard to remedy one or more of the underlying causes of institutional homelessness?

Also, how do I assess the relative efficiency of the local organizations I’m considering? The overhead of medium and large sized non-profits are carefully scrutinized by excellent websites, but not smaller, grass-roots ones. How can I know whether 50 or 90 cents of every dollar ends up directly benefitting those in need?

Ultimately, how might I maximize the long-term benefits of these gifts, honor my mom, and extend her legacy?

 

Tired

I used to be more like Bill Gates, my sister, Jon Kitna, and my wife. I wanted to help people improve their lives. Volunteer time in my community. Change the world for the better.

Now, Stoic sensibilities make it unlikely you’ll see me in a street protest near you. When I read essays like Gates’ recent one titled “My Plan to Fix the World’s Biggest Problems,” I marvel at his ambition. Twenty years ago I could have written a decent essay with that same title, but not now.

Saving any subset of the world requires endless teaming with others. Which makes me wonder. Or makes me worry. Being an introvert, and having taught for three decades, am I bumping up against my optimal number of lifetime interpersonal interactions?

Just because my gray-bearded self is less activist than my younger self, it doesn’t necessarily mean I’m more selfish. I still care about teaching well. And I’ve enjoyed helping other teachers refine their craft this academic year. And I hope this blog occasionally entertains, informs, or enlightens. And I vote (in most elections), try to encourage my family and friends, help old ladies across the street, and never litter.

I don’t begrudge the World Changers anything, I just don’t feel as much camaraderie with them as in the past. This isn’t flattering to write at all, but compared to the past, I’m more accepting of many of my community’s, country’s, or world’s long-standing problems. More content to study and try to understand the root causes of problems. When I try to tap some sense of righteous indignation, all I get is Buddhist detachment. More honest and authentic. Less a role model.

No, I was not the male lead in Silver Lining Playbook, but I can understand your confusion.

No, I was not the male lead in Silver Lining Playbook, but I can understand your confusion.

How to Tap People’s Generosity

Through detailed, well told personal stories of individuals dealing with identifiable difficulties.

Exhibit A—The grandmama bus monitor who endured bullying at the hands of marauding middle schoolers. The national media shined their light on her plight and a few days later people, moved by her predicament, had sent her $650,000+.

Exhibit B—The young East L.A. boy who built an arcade at his dad’s auto supply storefront. No one knew or cared until one person told his story on-line. Next thing you know his college education was paid for by an army of people moved by his creativity and lack of business success.

Exhibit C—A Mexican-American Seattle resident whose story was told—as part of a series on the recession—on Seattle’s National Public Radio station. Raised in a poor Mexican family. Emigrated to the U.S. Got an engineering degree and a good job with a Seattle firm. He helped his firm determine how much buildings would cost to build. When the recession hit and building ceased, he lost his job. So he opened a taco truck with his brother, but it was a struggle. Until his story was told on the radio. The next day a long line of customers weaved around the block. By mid-afternoon, they had run out of food. While the taco truck took off, other listeners offered him good jobs. In the end, building picked back up and his original employer offered him his job back. He took it.

Forget generic pleas to fight ageism, or the cost of higher education, or economic dislocation. People want to feel like their donation is helping a specific person.

The problem with this of course is that the most vulnerable people, who are the most in need, rarely have their stories told by the media.

A related question is how can governments, whether local, state, or the federal government, leverage this element of human nature to get people to see the potential benefits of selective tax increases? Governments would be well served by telling compelling stories of how individual people, families, or communities benefit from public spending.

Bill Gates and the Poor Widow

Forbes is out with its “Most Wealthy” lists. Bill Gates’s wealth is estimated at $54b. He has reportedly given away $28b so far. $28b out of what would have been $82b is 34%. The $28b is an eye-popping figure, but maybe the percentage figure is even more impressive because the wealthier people become, the more focused they seem on becoming even more wealthy. A lot of credit goes to Warren Buffet and David Rockefeller for inspiring him and providing his wife and him a model for their foundation.

Often very wealthy people get lots of credit for large flashy gifts when in actuality their gifts are usually a small percentage of their net worth and they serve as needed tax deductions. [An aside. I’m looking forward to the Facebook movie coming out next week. Zuckerburg, Mr. Facebook, is reportedly furious at how he’s portrayed in the film. Yesterday he gave $100m to the Newark Public Schools. Coincidental timing?]

Then there’s Luke 21, verses 1-4. “As he looked up, Jesus saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. ‘I tell you the truth,’ he said, ‘this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.'”

Gates’s example doesn’t rise to the level of the poor widow, but it’s similarly inspiring.

This BGIII mugshot (taken in 1977 following a traffic violation) is pretty funny. His smile suggests he’s confident things will turn out okay in the end even if his insurance premiums go up.

File:Bill Gates mugshot.png