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 Life Built on Service and Saving

If my ticket gets punched sometime soon, I’ll have lived a life filled to the brim. Almost disorientingly so. I’ve crouched in the final passageway of a West African slave fort, been drenched by Victoria Fall’s mist, walked on the Great Wall of China, ran around the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, hiked in Chiapas, and cross country skied in Norway. I’ve lived in the Midwest, the West, the Southeast, and as one six year old here says, “the Specific Northwest”. I’ve interacted with thousands of young people, the vast majority who appreciated my efforts on their behalf. I’ve cycled up and down mountains in the Western United States. I’ve taught guest lessons in my daughters’ elementary classrooms. I’ve been blessed to know lots of people more selfless than me, some who will read this today. I’ve been loved by caring, generous parents, and been privileged to know my wife and daughters and their friends.

My life has been so full that I tend to think about whatever my future holds as extra credit. Everything from here on out is a bonus.

Maybe I don’t look forward to too much anymore because my cup has been overflowing for some time. Apart from a story well told and nature, not a lot moves me these days.

So getting choked up in church yesterday, during the announcements of all things, was totally unexpected. A guest was invited to the front to make a surprise announcement. A tall, dapper man in his late 30’s began describing his relationship with ChuckB, a member who had passed away a few months ago. He had been Chuck’s financial planner for eight years.

I didn’t know Chuck until I attended a celebration of his life that was planned nine months ago after the church community learned of his terminal illness. He worked as a forester for the Department of Ecology for a few decades and kept a low profile at church, driving the van, tutoring after school, doing whatever was needed behind the scenes. At his celebration I was struck by how everyone described him as one of the most humble, caring, and giving people they had ever known. He lived a simple life in a modest neighborhood that revolved around participating in church activities.

The financial planner announced that Chuck and his wife, who had passed away previously, were leaving the church $925,000, divided four ways, the largest portion for international aide, another for local charities, another for Lutheran World Relief specifically, and about $220,000 in the church’s unrestricted fund to use as the Council sees fit. A Council that has been seeking about $35,000 to fund a half-time position dedicated to strengthening our ties to local people in need.

There was an audible gasp. Two people stood and began applauding and soon everyone followed. My favorite part, and probably what moved me so much, was that Chuck wasn’t there for his standing ovation. Shortly before he died, he confided to one member that he was leaving “the bulk of his estate to the church,” but that person said she had “no idea it was anywhere near that much money.” No one did.

The most beautiful and moving part to me is that Chuck intentionally passed on his standing ovation. He didn’t need it. A life filled with service and saving was more than enough. Blessed be his memory.

 

 

A New Philanthropy

My university’s decision to sell its public radio station (KPLU) to Seattle’s (KUOW), has upset lots of KPLU listeners both on and off campus. You can read the PLU president’s rationale here and decide for yourself how persuasive it is.

The sale is being reported as $8m, but it’s really $7m since $1m is $100k worth of radio advertising for ten consecutive years. At a recent faculty meeting the president said young adult radio listening is down 41% which prompted me to ask him why then the $1m in advertising.

Tacoma’s newspaper puts the sale in a larger context:

What’s happening to KPLU’s news team has been happening across the United States for the last decade. Battered by the Great Recession and the migration of audiences to the Internet, America’s traditional news operations . . . have collectively been forced to shed many thousands of professional journalism jobs.

That would merely be tough luck for those companies if new digital media were picking up the slack. Many traditional media companies . . . have successfully migrated to the Internet themselves. But online news rarely attracts the kind of advertising revenue that the old media once enjoyed.

It’s not just lost advertising revenue, it’s Craigslist and other on-line publications which have siphoned off classified revenue, another critical stream.

The Tacoma paper predicts what will happen next:

Shrunken newsrooms and fewer reporters and news editors. With fewer reporters, there’s less news. Pardon the sarcasm, but it’s remarkable how much less scandal there is in government and the corporate world now that fewer journalists are on the lookout for it.

The Web creates an illusion of abundant news. There is in fact an abundance of commentary about the news; political websites and blogs are saturated with punditry and ideological spin. There’s also a lot of news that’s been recycled, aggregated, tweeted, repurposed and attached to ads on the Web. But there’s less real bedrock information out there than it appears.

The Good Wife and I went a little cray cray last weekend and went to two movies. One of those, Spotlight, is the story of the Boston Globe’s 2000-2002 reporting on the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal.

Even though the story happened only 14-15 years ago, it felt like much longer. Almost like entering a time capsule. It’s a last gasp salvo against the march of the internet, an engaging case study of important investigative reporting. Unbelievably, the editors kept slowing down the journalists, telling them to take more time, meaning using more resources.

Since power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, a vibrant democracy depends in large part on a free and tenacious press that repeatedly asks challenging questions of people in power. Legions of journalists are sounding a warning, saying few media entities have the financial wherewithal to do original, excellent investigative reporting.

But I’m unaware of journalists thinking creatively about alternative revenue streams. So I will offer an idea. What if super wealthy philanthropists gave less to the (normally) already super wealthy universities they attended, and instead, made seven and eight figure gifts to our once great newspapers, or their newer online competitors, to create endowments for them, just like colleges and universities have, so that they can count on the revenue those endowments would generate.

And what about endowing journalists more specifically, like an endowed chair at a college or university? The Daniel Pearl Chair of Southeast Asian Reporting. The David Carr Chair of Media Studies. Seems to me this idea might appeal to super wealthy lefties and right wing nutters since the resulting investigative light would shine on scoundrels of every conceivable ideological bent.

Postscript/Administrivia:

• Thanks to Adele for filling in for me last week.

• I just don’t get the Kobe worship (Rest in Peace moms). He’s shooting 31%! If he cared about the Laker’s future half as much as he does himself, he’d retire right now.

• Happy to report that I ran the Seattle Half Marathon Sunday without either calf rebelling. My time suggests what I’ve suspected, I’m getting older. My brother informs me my time was five minutes slower than his personal record. Forgets to mention Grease was the top grossing movie when he ran that race.

 

 

 

I Need Your Help

At a dinner at my university recently, I was seated next to a nice guy from our Development office. That means he asks wealthy people for money for a living. Wooing wealthy donors entails nonstop travel and an uncanny ability to feign interest in rich strangers’ lives. I would rather work in China retrieving cell phones from shit-filled porta-potties.

This Saturday I’m cycling from Portland to the Pacific Ocean on a ride designed to raise money for the American Lung Association. To participate, I had to raise at least $100. Instead of asking you my loyal readers to consider chipping in at so many cents a mile, I paid the $100 myself.

That’s not to say I don’t ever need other people’s help. The truth of the matter is I need something else from you—a female Democratic candidate capable of winning the 2016 Presidential election. Not named Clinton. We desperately need to shatter the political glass ceiling once and for all, but count me among the “Can’t we be more creative than Bush v Clinton?” contingent.

Clinton’s smart and progressive, but her public persona really rubs me the wrong way. No, that probably shouldn’t matter, but it does. Of course it’s impossible to be a Presidential candidate if you’re not hyper-ambitious. With Clinton though I don’t get a sense that her intense desire to be president is motivated by even a semi-selfless sense of public service, instead it seems like pure, unadulterated personal ambition.

Can’t wait for eldest daughter, who is going to work for her campaign, to write on Facebook or here, “You would never say a male candidate’s public persona rubs you the wrong way.” Save it sister. Ever seen Al Gore in a debate? Detached stiffness personified.

Before you attempt to help by suggesting Elizabeth Warren, know that she has been consistent in saying she isn’t running. If she did, I’d support her in a heartbeat. So someone Elizabeth Warren-like.

I’m counting on you. Thank you in advance.

This is who I thought eldest daughter would work.

This is who I thought eldest daughter would work.

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.

In Praise of Anonymous Giving

We’re living in the Age of Self Promotion. That’s why this recent headline, “Secret Admirers Give University $100m,” is so refreshing. Thank you to the anonymous “Kalamazoo Promise” donors.

The magnitude and non-Ivy League nature of their generosity are both inspiring, but their counter-cultural selflessness even more so. Appears as if the donors were honest about a few strings or conditions that accompanied their gift. “If you accept this gift, you can’t name the medical school after us, you can’t allow us to influence your construction and operation of the medical school, and you can never reveal our identities to anyone.”