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?

 

A Peace Corp for Geeks

Call me inconsistent. I’m skeptical of the new national religion, data analysis, but a huge fan of Code for America, a Peace Corp for geeks. Code for America recruits young tech savvy entrepreneurs to improve government. Participants take a year-long leave from their IT positions and earn $35,000, way more than a Peace Corp volunteer, but way less than normal for them.

This ten minute NewsHour segment shows wonderfully diverse, socially aware people with serious technical chops solving real problems like helping homeless people find the services they most need.

A salve for my cynicism. Here’s hoping it achieves Peace Corp-like status some day.

Homeless Advocate Extraordinaire

There are 21,000 homeless students in Washington State and 1.3m nationwide.

Whenever I come across an article on homelessness, like a few days ago on the front page of the Huffington Post, I look for a reference to an inspiring high school friend of mine, Joel Roberts, who oversees the largest homeless organization in Los Angeles. The Huff Post article was titled, “Top Ten Advocates for the Homeless.” He has to be in there I thought to myself. Nah, oh wait, he wrote the piece. Cool.

When Joel was one, he was abandoned on a Hong Kong Street. Picked up by an American missionary, he was raised by a loving family in Long Beach, CA. We met early in high school and grew close through our participation in a church youth group.

At fifteen or sixteen, Joel was doing design work for an architectual firm. Driving around Long Beach in his nicer than normal car, he’d casually point to a tall building and matter of factly say, “I drew that.” He was always more interested in volunteering in Tijuana orphanages than architecture though. I helped him move into his Cal Poly San Louis Obispo dorm where he intended on studying architecture. Early in his SLO career he lost interest in architecture and committed instead to becoming a pastor.

After completing a Masters in Divinity, he became a successful pastor at a large mostly Asian American Church in Los Angeles. I think it was during this period that I introduced him to a woman who became his wife. The marriage, a dismal failure from the get-go, ended in divorce. Fortunately, he’s never held that against me. After a few years he left his church ministry to do what he’d always felt was his life purpose, help end homelessness.

Very proud to call him a friend. More than anyone I know, he’s living out the Beatitudes.