Our breath hangs in the air, the snow hangs on the branches, and strings of tiny lights appear around town like so many earthbound constellations. The shops are bustling, and the Salvation Army bell ringers are back with their clamorous call for pocket change.
Whenever I encounter a plea for charity, I feel somewhat perplexed. I find myself wishing I had a more well defined personal strategy of generosity, so I could easily and confidently determine the answer “yes” or “no.” Ideally this philosophy would span gracefully across family, friends, strangers near and far, cultures, ecosystems and the entire calendar year. But how? How much? What is the best way to give? Apparently it is like everything else. You just have to start somewhere.
“Do you give money to those Salvation Army bell ringers?” was a thread I found online. More than half of the 15 respondents did, at least some of the time. Reasons for not giving included mistrust, never having cash, objection to the SA stance on gay marriage, always being broke, and being too annoyed.
I like giving to the Salvation Army bell ringers because I think they do good work, they don’t ask for your name, and any tiny amount is cheerfully accepted. I like that they don’t even ask you, they just stand there and ring their bells. But I never really looked into how well they stack up against other charities.
Understand Your Charity
Charity Watch and Charity Navigator help you learn key information like how much charities spend on fundraising, how much their CEOs are paid, and how efficiently they achieve their goals. They also have easy to understand rating systems, top ten lists, and philanthropic tips to help you find the most useful ways to give. I was surprised to learn, for instance, that donating your car is discouraged by Charity Watch, because so little of the money actually gets to charities. Read about car donations.
They also strongly discourage giving cash–hmmm a strike against dollars in those red kettles. But I was glad to see the Salvation Army earned a respectable A- rating. And they are getting hip–now you can even text-to-give.
Environmental Non Profits
Of the many worthwhile environmental action agencies, I wanted to give special props to two with outstanding ratings.
The Conservation Fund works hard and smart at land conservation, fueled by a Revolving Fund which allows them to help agencies like the National Park Service to protect high priority lands. They use their fund to purchase the land, and allow the agency to buy it back when they are able. At that point the money is returned to the revolving fund. They earned an exceptional A+ rating on the Charity Watch site.
The Sierra Club also boasts an A+ rating, and works toward comprehensive environmental goals from clean energy, clean water, preserving endangered species, combating climate change, addressing global population, to educating people around world about the environment. I love what they do.
Another way to give to the environment is to buy carbon offsets which help reverse your contribution to climate change. The offsets work by planting trees and investing in green energy. Terra Pass will help you estimate offsets for driving, air travel and household use. They were voted the best carbon offset service by Treehugger two years in a row, so you can have confidence in their efficacy.
After passing the bell ringers by for a couple weeks, thinking “I don’t want to dig my wallet out” or “I’ll get them next time” I decided to equip my pocket with a small wad of $1 bills and stroll down Nicollet Mall over lunch giving a dollar to anyone who asked. It cost me $7. One guy’s sign read “I NEED A COLD BEER.”
Panhandlers: To Give or Not to Give?
I used to be a person who rarely gave to panhandlers; only if they happened to catch me off guard or in a weak moment. The main reason for not giving was having no control over the way they would spend it, and also a feeling of being lied to. I remember getting the same running-out-of-gas story from the same guy on different days. Another fellow said he needed bus fare but tried to talk me out of giving him the remainder of my bus card because he preferred cash money. Why were they lying about what they need the money for, and why would I want to support that?
At some point I read an essay that presented the matter from the perspective of what lessons the writer– a mother, wanted to teach to her son. Her son witnessed her giving to one man but denying another, and asked her about it. The first man fit the classic description of the dirty, disheveled long term vagrant, while the second was a pale, thin, younger guy who she presumed was strung out. Her son’s naive question illuminated the judgements present in her patterns of giving. Whether the judgements were right or wrong, she wasn’t sure that was the primary lesson she wanted to pass down. Going forward she made it her policy to try to give something, no matter how small, to anyone who asked.
The essay made me realize that whether or not the money enabled dissolute behavior, there is also a separate transaction happening–the simple act of responding to the request of another person rather than ignoring it; which perhaps makes the giver and recipient both feel more human. When I don’t give to panhandlers, I notice myself wanting to avoid eye contact and it feels weird, like pretending they don’t exist. Recognizing the need to acknowledge their humanity makes me feel less closed off and more open-minded to each situation. If I feel like giving, I give, with acceptance that I may not like what they do with it, but with hope that the gesture could possibly do more good than harm.
This approach seems like an improvement over fostering a blanket callousness toward panhandlers. But neither is it totally satisfying. As an act of compassion, it feels feeble. Homeless charities usually urge people NOT to give money to panhandlers, because direct experience and data both show a majority of the money will directly support drug abuse. One shelter worker called it “misguided generosity.”
Instead, they encourage the public to engage with people who beg on the street; buy them food or a cup of tea. Giving your time, a kind word, or some personal attention to a group of people who often feel sub-human seems better than tossing them a buck. But as a shy, reserved person I’ve never found a way past my own apprehensions and awkwardness to make this kind of gesture. And I’ve never really taken the time.
The Homeless Experiment
Someone who took some time to explore the issue of homelessness directly is financial blogger Neville Medhora, who decided to become homeless to for 5 days and write about the experience.
In The Homeless Experiment, Neville observed that homeless people’s need for food is usually met through soup kitchens, food shelves and savvy dumpster diving (entire pizzas are being thrown out, packaged, untouched, still hot at restaurant closing time); the vast majority of panhandled money is used for what people can’t get from the shelters: drugs, cigarettes, and in his experience, mainly beer. He met lots of homeless people who never panhandle and stresses that most people who have temporarily fallen on hard times rarely ask for money in this way.
What if the giving is more goal oriented than a handful of pocket change? The Good Culture post Giving to the Homeless Might Actually Work highlights a new way of approaching long-term homelessness. Outreach workers selected 15 of the hardest to reach homeless people, asked them what it was they needed to change their lives, and bought it for them. The participants agreed to choose a personal “broker” to help them create a budget. The pilot program was shockingly effective at getting the longterm homeless (up to 45 years!) off the street.
What if houses cost less than homelessness? With Roseanne Haggerty’s well-designed, community based affordable housing, they already do!
“We show communities that it’s not just morally or clinically right, but it’s also less expensive to solve homelessness than to manage it. We show how to identify patterns of homelessness and how to create sustainable housing options for less than what they’ve been spending on shelters, hospitals, jails and other band-aids that don’t solve the problem. It’s really about the data.”
Haggerty’s non-profit Common Ground develops permanent housing that costs $36/night to operate; significantly cheaper than homeless shelters, jail cells, or hospital beds. Read here why houses cost less than homelessness.
On with the giving!
So far I’ve done a lot of pondering, and only $7 of giving. But I’m starting to get my wallet pointed in the right direction. My first stop: Terra Pass to buy a carbon offset for Brian and my Christmas trip to San Diego.
A few parting tips from Charity Navigator:
Eliminate the middle man by hanging up the phone. Give directly to your charity, to avoid the percentages earned by telemarketing services.
Concentrate your giving to a few charities that truly inspire your confidence and passion. This will simplify your life and de-clutter your mail box.
Commit to a longterm giving plan which is more efficient for you and your charity to manage.
Happy Holidays from the Wednesday Post. I’m taking a short vacation from blogging, but will be back before you know it on January 4th. As always, thanks for reading!