Friday, December 19, 2008

Random Act of Kindness Thwarted

In my first ever post on this blog, I wrote that I thought the practice of picking up someone's tab (at McDonald's, a gas station, a grocery store, wherever) could too easily be interpreted as insulting and raise suspicion where I live - NYC. And I still believe that.

However, I had a rare opportunity to make someone's evening a little easier last night. I was picking up my take-out order at a local diner, and a woman (clearly a regular) stopped in to pick up a cup of tea with honey for her throat. She opened her wallet and realized she didn't have any cash, and the diner has a $10 minimum for debit cards. I tapped her on the shoulder and said "Merry Christmas", then turned to the cashier and told him to put it on my tab. Her jaw dropped - for a brief moment, I rendered a fellow New Yorker speechless...well, for a moment, she started going on about how she had every intention to perpetuate the gesture, how wonderful I was, etc. until the manager came over to see what the mild ruckus was, and chimes in "Your tea is on the house - what are friends for? You're here all the time."

I guess I set a little something in motion there, and it didn't cost anybody anything...well, maybe a few pennies to the diner for a teabag and honey packets.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Darn...pre-spent ThaiForGood $$

A massage therapist booked a ThaiForGood massage with me for her birthday about a month beforehand. She picked my brain for info about training up in the style, what kind of market there is for it, promised a "big tip" for my advice....and then cancelled by email the day before. I'm really not into counting chickens before they hatch, but I really thought this one would happen because it was a birthday self-treat. I guess she just wanted information? That was kind of mean. Foolishly(?), I "adopted" two families' kids for Secret Santa in addition to the one quoted in an earlier post, and shopped as if I'd already earned the money.

I think part of the reason there has been a lack of interest in my offer is that craiglist, where I advertise it, started charging $5 to post in the Erotic Services category, so all of the shady massage parlors have been inundating the Therapeutic page with their similarly-priced "massages" - though that $50 is just the desk fee and doesn't include what they're really there to buy. Ugh, what a disgusting industry to be confused with!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Playing Santa is a heartbreaker

In my last post, I quoted a craigslist ad posted by a woman trying to give her kids a Christmas. Well, on Friday morning, she showed up with her three adorable kids to pick up the box of goodies - arts & crafts supplies, plus a game of Clue - in my lobby. She started crying, in a tears-only, no-sobbing kind of way, and I may have gotten more than a little choked up myself. Here I'd spent the whole week freaking out about my lease renewal and lack of business, and meeting this little family gave me back some perspective.

Saturday, I took the train home to visit my mom and told her about the experience. When we got up in the morning, she was still curled up under the blanket when she said "I can't stop thinking about that mom and her kids". So we went shopping for another batch of presents for them...she really wanted to give them the ingredients for a nice Christmas breakfast (she's a huge fan of all breakfast food), but that just wasn't going to work logistically. Instead, we put together a very motherly care package amongst the toys - cold medicine, toothbrushes and toothpaste, shampoo, cake mix and candles for the next birthday in the family, dishwashing liquid and new sponges, odd things like that in addition to Twister, Uno, Hanna Montana bits, Krazy straws.

Years of living in Manhattan have made me averse to allowing new people into my life, and I normally would have avoided this type of situation in case it resulted in frequent requests for money or support. As a fledgling attempt to overcome my minor paranoia, it is so far working like a dream. I'm more likely to give when not being pushed, and I really do like knowing whose life I'm improving in some small way. I also caught an undercurrent during the brief meeting in my lobby that I was some kind of proof to her abused children that good people do exist. I wasn't looking for that...you know, I don't think I really thought through what I was doing at all. I just wanted the feelgood of giving someone a Christmas, but it has turned out to be so much more than that.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Playing Santa

Like just about everyone out there, I'm spending a bit less on Christmas. Well, sort of...I blew $570 back in August on a ticket to Aspen because if I didn't, I'd be spending the holiday alone in my apartment with my Christmas tree and the televised yule log. All because Mom scored a free ticket after being voluntarily bumped from a flight in July and immediately booked a peak season ticket before United hit their limit of freebies for that week. I'm shocked I got away with just $570 for a ticket that normally goes for twice that. I'm only going for 5 days though, because I suffer terribly from altitude sickness that doesn't go away after 48 hours the way it does for most people.

I normally spend $400-500 on my family, but this year I'm only parting with $300 + regifted $100 Pottery Barn card. I would like to "split the difference" and spend some of the saved money being Santa to a needy family. So, while figuring out where to donate my gift-wrapping skills, I stumbled across this request on the Craigslist Volunteer page:

Xmas???please help my children have one
Hello, I am writing this because my children and I lived in hell to the point they were molested by their father, we finaly we have a secure home but we can not have contact with our family that know dad, there is a order of protection involved and these are the only people who would help us, yes we recive public assistance but it just isn't enough after the bills 120.00 twice a month that just covers the light bill, and thankgod for section 8 the rent is paid, I am lined up to start work in a week but I am not sure I will have a check before christmas, anything used toys anything would be a blessing.
Since the mom states that she'd be happy with used toys, this passed my "is this a scam" test easily because (a) even charities don't want used toys, and (b) they have no resale value. So I emailed her for the ages and genders of her kids: boy 12, girl 10, boy 8. She's trying to send me a photo, but she's having trouble with that. They live on Staten Island, but pass through my neighborhood every week on their way to family therapy. I have an unused, still-in-plastic Scrabble game for starters. And I'll bet they could use some of my huge money-making Duracell haul from CVS too. The rest, well, we'll see how the wishlist turns out...I'm thinking artsy-craftsy stuff for the youngest, hair doo-dads for the girl, and maybe a hoodie for the older boy in case I get no guidelines.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Another Interesting Delivery to HYS

Last night I stuffed a wheelie bag with toiletries, batteries, milk, grapefruit and bananas and rolled it on down to the Homeless Youth Services / Sylvia's Place shelter. They hadn't put out a wish list in about 3 weeks, but I scrolled through some of their older lists that mention ongoing needs - like eggs, milk and fruit now that the Food Bank has cut those items out due to lack of funds. This morning, a new wish list appeared on their Yahoo Groups message board, and it made me smile - they're completely out of deodorant...or more accurately, they were when the list was first being assembled, because I dropped off 4 brand new solids last night (shout-out to CVS for their nearly-free deals on Right Guard, Soft & Dri, and Sure last month!).

Now, when I make these drops, there's usually the regular staff member and maybe a volunteer or two (or are they just long-term guests at the shelter who help out?), plus anywhere from 15 to 50 teenagers hanging around just dancing, talking, making out behind the door, watching TV and keeping warm. I don't want to be a bother to their stretched staff, so I just pull out the goodies and sort them into food v. non-food so that things don't spoil, then I dash off feeling slightly embarrassed. Not sure why. Am I embarrassed because, relatively speaking, I have so much more than they do and yet I'm giving so little? Maybe, but I think I'd be more embarrassed if I got, well, thanked.

Last night on my way out, there were about 5 older teenagers lingering just outside the door, and the neighborhood is kind of empty. One of them asked my name, so I told them as I dashed off. I'm not entirely sure what I'm afraid of... well, maybe I have some idea. I don't want to be asked for money, I don't want giving my name to become an excuse to be "walked home" - I went to Fordham in the Bronx in the late 80s, and the cafeteria staff used to feed off our middle-class guilt and youthful idealism to get invited to our parties and walk off with our electronics, leather, cash, etc. I worked in the security office, I know exactly what went on.

And yet I'm very contrary: just this past weekend, as I contemplated the possibility of moving to a new apartment, I thought about asking the woman who runs the shelter if she'd recommend one or two of the boys for a couple of hours' paid work helping me move. Because if I do move, it will be like 2 blocks down the road - do I even need a truck?? In midtown Manhattan, it would just get ticketed five times in three hours anyway, ouch.

I wonder if I'll ever make sense to myself.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Could it be a Wrapportunity??

For the first time in my 5 years of living in this building, someone has organized a toy drive for Christmas on behalf of The Children's Aid Society. Unwrapped gifts are requested, and I'm thinking "well SOMEONE has to wrap them...why not me??" So tomorrow I'll bug the truly wonderful day shift doorman (who knows I have a wrapping fetish) for details and see if I can get in on this treasure trove of gifts desperately in need of pretty paper and curly ribbon!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Thanksgiving Giving

A few days before Thanksgiving, I contacted Homeless Youth Services about their request for prepared food for the holiday - I didn't want to bring something they make on premises or that lots of other people bring, but I'm not a great cook. I make great mashed potatoes, but that's such a staple that they wouldn't want it. Kate at HYS picked ye olde string bean casserole from my tiny list, which made me laugh because it's the biggest no-brainer recipe out there. So on Tuesday night, I prepared 10-15 servings' worth and planned to bring them first thing Thursday morning after putting my sister on a bus to the airport, since the shelter is near Port Authority.

Unfortunately, I woke up at 5am on Thanksgiving with the most abominable stomach pain, and spent the next 15 hours curled up on the bathroom floor. I don't remember ever being that sick. And there I was, with a larder packed with string bean casserole prepared and sealed long before I got sick, 2 dozen eggs and 6 lbs of bananas (apparently the food bank's cutbacks include milk, eggs and fresh fruit) for runaway teenagers. At 8:30pm, on my way to Penn Station with a pocketful of plastic bags to get sick in if needed, I had the taxi detour to the shelter to make the drop. I'm very glad I did...the shelter was packed out, and it looked like either dinner hadn't been served yet or it was the second seating. My dish might indeed have made it to the table in time! If not, I'm sure it did the following day.


Odd tidbit...I had told the cabbie that I was stopping at a homeless shelter, and he was greatly confused when we pulled up to see a few of the teenagers outside making out. He asked me "what kind of shelter is THAT??". It made me realize something...for homeless people, teenagers are pretty "normal". Sorry if that sounds judgmental, but most homeless adults that I run into either have substance abuse problems or mental health issues, both of which make me really uncomfortable. I'm not proud of feeling this way, but I haven't been able to change it - and I have tried more than a few times since the age of 14. As for the teenagers, they were rolling with the punches pretty well, just doing what kids their age do but in a different environment. Some of them even go on to vocational training and community college, so this organization must be doing something right, right?

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Delivering the Goods

A couple of days ago, I dragged a little wheelie bag full of partially used (shower gel, lotions, conditioner) and completely new (band-aids, deodorant, soap, socks, gloves, etc) toiletries to Homeless Youth Services. I'm not sure how I feel about that experience.

First, it's affiliated with a church, and I have mixed feelings about anything religious. However, it didn't look like a preachy situation, and quite honestly I totally believe in churches doing things like this because hey, they've got all that real estate - put it to real use! The program gets to use the basement after 6pm, and it's not a "finished" basement - it felt like a garage, which made me a little sad. The wish list for this week included sleeping bags, and I'm pretty sure they roll them out on the concrete floor and sleep right there.

I got there around 7pm on a bitter evening, but the basement was delightfully toasty. I saw about a dozen teenagers hanging out, chatting, teaching each other to dance (I thought that only happened in movies!). I asked the woman in charge how many kids they take care of, and she said now that it's so cold, about 30 sleep there and more stop by for food and a little relief from life on the streets.

It opened my eyes, but not in a "now I understand" kind of way...it was more like "wow, there's so much I don't understand".

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

This week's donation hemorrhage

I sent monthly checks off to two charities this evening: $70 to Thai Freedom House (sadly, I had just one ThaiForGood client), and $50 to The Baobab Home in Tanzania.

I've also been stockpiling coupon freebies for the past week or so, and I've finally identified a couple of tiny charities here in NYC that want what I've got...

Bottomless Closet helps disadvantaged women get into a decent job - interview workshops, budgeting seminars, second-hand interview and work clothes, etc. They also distribute a "goodie bag" of toiletries, so I'll be sending along the bargains I get on name-brand cosmetics, hair care products, deodorant, fem hygiene, etc.

Homeless Youth Services runs a shelter for teens in need, mostly LGBT runaways. I'm not a member of the LGBT community (I'm "S"), and indeed have very conflicted feelings about the T segment, but at the end of the day they're all just kids trying to survive. Apparently they're getting overspill from Covenant House, wow. This shelter's needs are sometimes so basic it breaks my heart. They post a weekly needs list in their yahoo group, and everything is really tiny - like milk because the food bank is so strained that they can't provide it anymore, moisturizer for one of the trans girls because her skin is so dry it hurts, plain felt Christmas stockings for the kids to decorate for themselves, OTC cold tablets. They don't mind donations of partially used shampoos and such - which is awesome, because I have some products that just don't suit me. They're also happy to accept prepared food for Thanksgiving dinner...I'm generally a lousy cook, but I make great mashed potatoes.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

It begins at home, Part 2

Well, extending my services free to my cousin went over like a lead balloon. Okay, maybe that's an exaggeration, but I emailed him over 24 hours ago and there's been no response. And he's online a lot. I wouldn't mind if he declined, but to have my offer met with silence makes me feel like I did something wrong. I hate making a social faux pas...I do it all the time apparently. I think I need to make friends with weirdos and avoid conventional types.

So I guess any attempts to give at a local level will have to be significantly less personal in nature, and more removed than a first cousin. I've recently felt inspired to give domestically, mostly because of all the hype about impending economic doom. Given my new coupon habit and CVS customer card, my plan involves getting name-brand toiletries (as opposed to dollar-store items, which tend to suck) for free or nearly free and making a monthly drop-off at a nearby women's shelter, state-funded convalescent home, or other organization that helps out people in need of soap, deodorant, that sort of thing.

Although I haven't yet identified a place to bring things, I kicked off my stockpiling with a free bottle of Garnier Fructis shampoo (sale price + store credit cashback + $1 coupon = free...well, 19 cents in sales tax). I know, it's just one thing and hardly worth blogging about, but there are many blogs and forums devoted to getting deals like this at major drugstores, and I need to check them out. Today I just did the obvious - and got the $2 in "recycled money" (my term for their "Earned Care Bucks" store credit) lined up for the next purchase.

Oh, and what little cash may be involved can come from the jar of money I saved from couponing that's earmarked for charitable donation anyway. I absolutely love finding ways to fund good work without laying out "real money". Because yes, my income as a self-employed massage therapist is experiencing exaggerated fluctuations, but I can get through a year of this insanity before I need to make any drastic changes.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

It begins at home, right?

My mom went to an early Thanksgiving dinner at her sister's last weekend, and was very upset to see how much pain my cousin is in. When he was 7 years old, he was struck by a car and got his leg broken in three places. Now he's 37 and has had several surgeries in recent years to clean out his now arthritic hip joint and messed-up knee, but still he's in constant pain. People think he's a primadonna taking taxis all the time, but apparently all the stairs up and down to the subway are torture.

Being a good aunt, my mother told him to call me whenever he's in midtown (he lives in Brooklyn), and that I'll work my Thai massage magic on him if I'm not busy. This is a huge compliment coming from my mother - she had a hard time believing that her brainiac child could do anything useful with her hands...until she had shoulder problems last summer from kayaking. She was the toughest nut to crack, and I completely won her over. Honestly, it should not have been that hard!

This morning, I dropped my cousin an email letting him know that I was totally cool with my mom extending the offer of my services. I also told him the only form of payment I would accept from him was a good cup of coffee. You see, like me, he's the "money guy" in his family and is constantly hit up for stuff by his mother and brother. I don't know if they openly ask or if they unload sob stories until he feels obligated -- he makes an insane amount of money doing voiceover work. So while picking up the tab for a few plane tickets or a piece of medical equipment for his handicapped nephew isn't financially a big deal to him, I understand more than most what it's like to feel like the family ATM. So I think it's really important that somebody in his family does something for him out of simple humanity.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Caped Coupon Crusader

Okay, so I was wearing a hoodie, not a cape, but that doesn't make me any less of a coupon crusader, in a Robin Hood(ie) kind of way.
For the Overseas Coupon Network, I chop up 20 copies of two different coupon inserts. Some of them seem kind of obscure to send along, or to send along so many of the same one. So this afternoon, I swung by CVS to pick up their weekly sales circular and tucked little piles of coupons into the shelves where the products were stocked (hair dye, cold meds, nutrition drinks). I figured in the economy, even us regular ol' New Yorkers could stand to keep an extra buck or two in our wallets.
I'd like to send a shout-out to my fellow 10-Day Give Challenge cohorts - one of them did this as part of the cahllenge, and I decided it was worth copycatting.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Christmas Giving Plans

At Christmastime, I prefer to do something more personal and interactive than just handing over money. I like to feel more...Christmas-y. One year, I spent a few afternoons with New York Cares, matching up Santa letters from poor kids with Secret Santa wannabes. It wasn't terribly "social", but I enjoyed the task anyway. My mom's first job at age 16 was handling this sort of thing at the local mall...and a year later she was unofficially managing the place because the manager and assistant manager died and no one bothered replacing them because she was ridiculously competent. Yup, at 17, she managed a huge mall all by herself working 3 hours a day. But I'm getting off the subject...

I would love to find a way to wrap presents for charity. Ideally, people could bring me their presents and I'd wrap them for a suggested donation, but that might require way too much trust for your typical New Yorker. Another possibility is offering to wrap for charities that collect gifts for kids and the elderly. I assume they have some kind of group wrapping session... I'll set myself an email reminder to look into it in 2 weeks, because I suspect it's too early for all that to be in place yet.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Still in "Giving" Mode

That 10-Day Give may have finished up 6 days ago, but I haven't completely slacked off the way I thought I would. So far this week...
  • On Thursday, I mailed $1080 worth of coupons to the US Air Force base in Okinawa. And today I collected dozens of coupon flyers and chopped them up. This week's selection was obnoxiously crappy, so the yield for the Overseas Coupon Program was pitiful.
  • I made another Kiva loan, this time to a seamstress in Cambodia. What can I say, I envy her skills!
  • Today I mailed the $245 I raised with charity massages to Thai Freedom House, which is currently struggling with a bad landlord situation, inflation, blossoming enrollment, and reduced contributions due to the economy.
  • This afternoon I will be doing another charity massage, and the money from this one will go towards a joint project by Feed Villages and Village Volunteers, earmarked for the construction of grain/produce storage facilities to keep the food supply from the Community Garden Project available for their feeding programs year-round. They need $3100 to pull it off.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Day 10 of the 10-Day Give

I was busy on Day 10...

First, I raided the paper recycling bins on 28 floors of my building and fished out about a dozen coupon inserts to chop up for the Overseas Coupon Program - 2 hours and $250 worth. I'll be swinging by the post office tomorrow morning to mail three week's worth of snippings: $1080.

Second, I gave a rather odd looking old man one of my half-price Thai massages - that's another $50 for Thai Freedom House. At the post office tomorrow, I'll be buying and sending a money order to them for $245: $165 worth of massage donations + $40 tip donations + $40 from my matching offer. I'm not getting as much interest in this offer as I'd hoped - I was willing and able to do twice as many. So I'm thinking of starting a blog-that-looks-like-a-website for it. I don't want to put a link to my regular business website because it has my phone number on it, and I don't want calls at 3am from idiots who think "Thai massage" is a euphemism for prostitution.

And today, I cashed in two coupons on sale items at the pharmacy for a total savings of $9 - which I put into the little Japanese jar I've earmarked for monthly donations to The Baobab Home in Tanzania. What can I say, the name of this blog is "CheapCharity", so why shouldn't a charity benefit from me being cheap??

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Days 7-9 of The 10-Day Give

Got a little catching up to do here...

Day 7: Doubled the contents of the "Snowflake Savings" jar earmarked for The Baobab Home.

Day 8: Nothing - I've got two things lined up for Day 10 that really can't be done any other day. If you've been following my new giving habits, you can probably guess what they both are...

Day 9: Another Kiva loan, this time an unusual opportunity - a consortium of impoverished first-timers in the Dominican Republic with no history of entrepreneurship or successful past loans. Most loans are to tiny businesses that already exist, to give them the cashflow to expand, so I reckon the chances of default on this one are significantly higher than usual.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Day 6 of The 10-Day Give

I've been sitting on a pile of Kiva credit since they released $10M in partial repayments. With so much money going around the system at the moment, there have been days where all loans were fully funded or maybe there were 3 to choose from. I'm not complaining - I think it's wonderful all around!

But this evening, as Day 6 of the challenge had less than an hour left, I had a peek - 154 to pick from, woohoo! I was a little tempted by the herbal medicine venture of a Peruvian clairvoyant, but she wasn't terribly indigenous-looking. Having been to Peru, I know how the class system works, and I want to help the descendants of the Incas, not the descendants of the Conquistadors. Hm, I just reread that...I hope I sound fun-cerebral-weird and not like a complete nutjob.


Anyway, I reached out to Patience Moore, an egg seller in Ghana because (a) I think bringing a healthy source of protein to the local market is a good thing (many Kiva retailers are selling cosmetics and soda, which I don't consider essential), and (b) it's very unusual to find a 31yo African woman with no husband or kids - you know there's a story there. Good luck, Patience, I'll be tracking your progress over the next 8 months and rooting for your success!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Day 5 of The 10-Day Give

Yesterday's GIVE was to start a jar of "snowflakes" (a term coined by personal finance guru Dave Ramsey), whereby any money I save through coupon usage is physically stashed away for a monthly donation to The Baobab Home. With the exception of a few months in 2000, I've never been a coupon user, so this really is "found money". Now it has a purpose. To give the contents of the jar a boost, I also added in the money I saved by purposely choosing items from the weekly sale circular.

Today's give was pretty small - I picked up a snack at my local drug store and they were selling paper sneakers for a $1 donation to the JDRF's Walk to Cure Diabetes...checked it on Charity Navigator - it's a 4-star charity with an enormous budget - like 3-4 digits beyond the norm for my tastes. I also gave $1 to one of the local homeless.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Day 4 of The 10-Day Give

I stumbled on Saturday, Day 2. I went for a 2-mile walk around midtown Manhattan in search of a homeless old person to give $5, but didn't run into anyone who fit the bill. Why am I being so picky? My rationale is that they're too old to work, they've lived through some awfully tough times (WW2, segregation, The Great Depression, etc), and things must be really bad either in their families or in their brain chemistry if this is what they're reduced to at their age.

So I made up for it by doubling my efforts with coupon clipping for the Overseas Coupon Program. Instead of one round of the paper recycling bins on 27 floors of my building, I did two - and that worked out superbly: I hit the motherload on the 11th floor. Someone reads a lot of different Sunday papers and hadn't thrown them out for a couple of weeks - I got multiples of RedPlum, SmartSourch and P&G. Last Sunday, I clipped $202 worth of coupons and it took an hour to snip, sort into two piles, and add up the value. This week it took 3 hours and yielded $629. I could have artificially boosted the total by including coupons that I suspect are useless (do you really think they stock $50 bags of organic dog food or gourmet Amish pasta at the Air Force base commissary in Okinawa??).

I also got another lovely email from Terri @ The Baobab Home yesterday. I'm planning to go to Kenya and Tanzania for my first ever trip to Africa, and I'm wondering how possible it would be to drop in and maybe bring hard-to-find-locally supplies. Apparently they've got a fundraising auction in TriBeCa next month, how cool is that!

Lisa @ Thai Freedom House also contacted me this morning, letting me know that the $120 I sent a few weeks ago plus $100 that a yoga instructor raised in a similar fashion helped her school/food programs through a rough patch last month. Between global inflation and the growth of her charity, their monthly expenses are currently $1500 instead of the outdated figure of $1000 mentioned on her website. So far I've raised $195 and am hoping that I'll do one more massage-for-charity before I mail her a check at the end of the week.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Day 2 of The 10-Day Give

I haven't yet decided what form today's act of giving will take. It was going to be a Kiva loan, but ever since they decided to disburse small sums each time a borrower made a repayment instead of waiting for the loan to be fully paid off, there has been a dearth of loans. I will update this post later when I figure out what to do.

In the meantime, I'd like to share the thank-you email I got this afternoon from the director of The Baobab Home (yesterday's recipient):

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Thank you so much for donating! We are so busy and so grateful for new donors.

This past week we took in a new baby girl found in a bus station. She seems fat and healthy and we are hoping for a good HIV answer soon. We call her Laura Baraka. And Last night we received two orphaned boys ages 13 and 6. They are the sweetest boys- rail thin and need of a lot of restoration to health, but a delight to be with.

Please let us know how you heard about us!

Best wishes,
Terri Place
Director, The Baobab Home

www.tzkids.org

Friday, October 10, 2008

Day 1 of The 10-Day Give

Would you believe it took me ages to nail down a worthy recipient? Sometimes I surprise myself with my pickiness, but I guess that's the downside of ferreting out a small, non-religious charity that accepts donations through PayPal (2.9% fee) and not Network For Good (4.75% fee).
So I rounded down my PayPal cash balance to $100 even by donating $15.64 to The Baobab Home in Bagamoyo, Tanzania, which started out as an orphanage run by a New Jersey anthropologist and her Tanzanian husband, and has since expanded to include a number of local programs - a school, a farm, a breakfast club, etc.

Will I become a regular contributor? Too soon to say, but Tanzania is on my Hit List 2009 for a two-week odyssey, and I thought it might make my experience more significant if I create a connection and awareness in advance. I've started something similar with Kenya by contributing to Feed Villages and Goods4Girls, but this will be my first foray into Tanzania, where I anticipate spending the majority of any trip I take to East Africa.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Matching Mayhem & Clipping Craziness

This past Saturday, I gave a charity Thai massage to a fellow Thai masseuse - someone who's actually Thai and is technically a competitor. We advertise in the same places, but we have different catchment areas in NYC with only a tiny overlap. I almost didn't respond to her inquiry for that reason, but decided I was being a whole lot picker than Thai Freedom House would be about where their donations come from. I'm very glad I did, because not only did she turn out to be a lovely person, but she paid $90 - that's the $50 minimum plus an additional $40, which I match when the time comes to mail my monthly donation in. I told my mother about this, and she said "who would know if you didn't match it? heck, who would even know if you kept or sent the money?" (she was just playing devil's advocate - it wasn't actually a suggestion!). I said that karma would hit me back so freaking hard I'd metaphorically find myself with a fat lip and a black eye. She laughed and totally agreed. Anyway, between the annoying guy on Thursday, this Thai woman, and my matching, TFH can expect no less than $195 this month.

Last night, I raided the recycling bins in my building and collected 4 sets of the same Sunday coupon insert. I figure that this plus whatever I scrounge up next week will count towards one of my 10-Day Give activities. So far, my ideas for that challenge are:
  • Kiva loan
  • Thai Freedom House donation
  • Overseas Coupon Program
  • Women For Women (maybe) sign-up and start

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Clipping for Corporals

I just discovered the Overseas Coupon Program, where you mail your expired manufacturers coupons to certain participating U.S. military bases, listed on their barebones website (which I interpret as a sign that they don't waste much time with administration). Apparently, the expiration dates are extended by 6 months for foreign commissaries, though of course you can send current coupons. I guess the idea is that it can be a "no effort" way of saving our not-poor-but-not-comfortable military families a significant chunk of change.

I'm planning to select an Air Force base in a wealthy country like Japan or England, where the dollar doesn't go very far at all. Why Air Force? Because my dad served in the USAF during the Vietnam War. But even if he hadn't, I'd still do this program - I just wouldn't be picky about which branch I was sending to.

The cost to me is limited to domestic postage. And hey, there's a slight "green" aspect to this too - I don't buy newspapers, but many of my neighbors in this 38-story building do. So on Sunday evenings, all I have to do is rummage through a few dozen paper recycling bins, pull out the Smart Source inserts, and have at it with my scissors during whatever TV show I watch that night.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Will the 10-Day Give accept this atheist?

You may recall from past posts that I don't like to give to/through religious organizations. However, I recently stumbled across the Christian Personal Finance blog, where writer Bob is organizing The 10-Day Give October 10-19. This might be just the inspiration I need to seek out new grassroots charities.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Two More Thai

The Thai-for-Thailand massage idea is going fairly well. The only real problem has been one minor league jackass who insisted on being naked and getting more than an hour (at least he paid for it, but there's a reason I limited the offer to 60 minutes). Maybe I should specify "no banker-bodybuilders" in my advertising - that's a double-whammy of unpleasantness. On Saturday, I have a fellow Thai practitioner coming in for a donation session...almost didn't respond to her inquiry because she's technically a competitor, but decided to set aside my hyper self-preservation instincts for the sake of a $50 donation. I'm secretly hoping that we get along and can exchange in the future. I miss getting Thai massage for myself.

I emailed Lisa from Thai Freedom House to let her know that the first check for $120 was on its way, and she responded, "Thank you so much for continuing to think of us and support us! We really appreciate it. It has been extremely hard to get any donations lately and everything helps a great deal." I'd heard that charities were suffering - understandably - in this economy, so I hope my timing helps pick up the slack for a bit.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Oh Brother

I finally got someone to show me what I was doing wrong with the Brother sewing machine I bought several months ago for the purpose of making simple little things for my massage business, e.g. cases for eye pillows, and reusable cloth pads for Goods4Girls. Thank you, Aunt Jayne! Aunt Jayne is the best nurse on the east coast, can build a deck and finish a basement, and operate a 40-year-old Singer like she was born to it (apparently, sewing lessons by her mother were mandatory in her house - lucky for me!). I knew I was just making stupid little mistakes that a pro like her could easily set me straight on - I was right. Hm, is it a good thing to be right in thinking that you're stupid? Anyway, now I'm amped to give it a shot tonight. I'll start with a couple of little pillowcases, and if they go well, I'll attempt a pad on Sunday. With any luck, it'll end up looking a little like this...

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Weekly Thai Total

I just finished my second "Thai for Thai Freedom House" session 20 minutes ago, so that's another $50 for the underserved Hill Tribes of northern Thailand. I'll see if I get any nibbles for this weekend, and then send a check for the total on Monday. As it stands, they're getting $120...not too shabby for a charity that needs $1000/month to fund its programs.

My original plan to do this once a month is kind of out the window - I'm enjoying this more than I'd anticipated. It's not taxing my body or energy levels to the detriment of my income, and I'm getting to meet some unusual people. I can easily do this weekly if I can generate enough interest in my off-peak offer.

So I just might google my fool head off this afternoon to seek out another tiny Thai (or at least Southeast Asian) charity to support with my service-by-donation dollars.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Opposite of a Jinx

Yesterday, I did my first Thai massage-for-charity session, and I might be doing a second one tomorrow morning. The minimum donation is $50 (about half my regular fee), and Alessandro gave me $60...I match anything over the minimum, so this means at least $70 for Thai Freedom House this month, maybe even twice that if Participant #2, Jack, comes through this week.

Now here's an odd little twist...I first started advertising this on Craigslist last Saturday, Sept 6, and I was swamped with business that Sunday - regular business, not charity stuff. In fact, I didn't get a single enquiry for the half-price Thai session for the first 5 days I advertised it. Now, Sunday is usually a very quiet work day for me, maybe 1-2 clients if any, and would normally be an ideal day for a "donated" session. Last Sunday I did 7 back-breaking hours, and yesterday I did 6, one of which was the charity session. In my 5 years as a massage therapist, this is unprecedented. It's like I put the opposite of a jinx on myself with this idea. Sweeeeeet.

Friday, September 12, 2008

More Hush Money

Just before I left for vacation in late August, I had more work-related awkwardness. Actually, that's a really mild way of describing the situation... let's just say I must have been wearing my Cloak of Irresistibility that day. So last night, I got in touch with the girl behind Feed Villages to see if she was still actively fundraising for her super-smart communal gardening project in Kenya. She is, so that's where this little "apology tip" is going.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Rainy Saturday Updates

It's a gloomy, gray, wet Saturday, and no one - myself included - has much inclination to set foot outside. That means zero business and lots of time for introspection and initiative. And naps.

Thai Freedom House
Today I posted an ad on Craigslist offering one half-price Thai massage this weekend, with all of the proceeds going to Thai Freedom House. I should have advertised it earlier this week, but I thought I was going to have some minor surgery on my leg this morning, which requires two days off from work. No nibbles yet...I blame the weather. There's always next weekend if this one doesn't pan out.

Goods4Girls
I need a lesson on how to use a sewing machine and what the little "insider" tricks are for getting things to line up right. Next Saturday I won't have any water at all from 4am to 8pm, so I'm heading to NJ to visit my mother, who said she'd see if her very-skilled best friend would be willing to spend an hour with me over a sewing machine.

Kiva
I made my second loan to an African entrepreneur - well, a group of entrepreneurs. I have trouble finding ones I like because either (a) the microlending institution has a religious backer, or (b) the loans are to Nigerians, who've just run too many scams for me to feel charitable towards, or (c) they're polygamous, which just makes me feel weird.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Krazy for Kiva Kredits

A few days ago, my favorite microfinance charity, Kiva, rolled out a new procedure: instead of giving you back your $25 when the loan is fully repaid, you get your little piece of the repaid installment as soon as they do. They used to hold onto it until the very end, using the interest to fund their expenses. I thought this was a terrific plan.

I'm not sure what they're doing to meet those expenses now, but I can see what inspired this change. The past few months has seen an explosion of loan requests - from a daily average of 60 to an average of 600 - and there were frequent issues with time running out before a loan got fully funded. This new system will alleviate that, at least initially, and it doesn't just benefit the borrowers. As a lender with 10 x $25 increments in the microfinance pipeline, this means I can make a new loan more frequently and regularly. Now that may not sound exciting to a lot of folks, but most of us find it "fun" to sift through borrowers for someone whose story or business strikes a chord. It also benefits Kiva - existing lenders will be visiting the site more often, giving more thought to microlending, and very likely talking about it more with the people in their lives.

E.g. this morning I got in on a loan to a 63-year-old coffee grower in Peru who wants to expand the size of her orchard (I guess that's what you call it when it's too small to be classified as a plantation). Why did I pick that loan? For odd reasons, that make total sense when I describe them to the people who know me...

- I've been to Peru and have seen first-hand how prevalent the poverty is amongst the descendants of the Incas.
- I'm writing this from a B&B in Argentina, so there's this feeling of being "in the neighborhood"
- I discovered that I like coffee just 20 months ago - after 25 years of being a committed tea-only drinker
- 14 years ago, I worked for a fair trade coffee co-op (CafeDirect) in the UK, and know how tempting it is for people this poor to grow coca for the drug cartels
- She's 63. Instead of retiring, she's expanding. I want that motivation when I'm her age!

The point of mentioning all this is that I'll probably mention it to my mother or sister or a client purely for its conversational value. However, you never know when an amusing story will be filed in the back of someone's mind and retrieved later.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Thai for Thai Freedom?

On and off for the past few years, I have tried to think up a way to link my massage work with charity, but those attempts never panned out. In 2004, I tried volunteering my services to organizations that helped assault victims and 9/11 survivors, but they weren't interested. In 2005, I contemplated organizing an event with other practitioners, but as much as they put forth that they were all about spirituality and compassion and universal energy, they just didn't walk the walk.

So now that I've found a Thai charity (thanks for the lovely comment, Lisa!) that does something I wish I was out there doing myself, I'm thinking about giving it another go. Since Thai Freedom House's greatest need is reliable funding, I've come up with a possibility...

Once a month, I could offer one hour of Thai massage at an off-peak time for a minimum donation of $50 (regular charge is nearly twice that). Anything over that $50 minimum, I match. What can I say - I like the idea of using what Thailand has given me to give back to Thailand.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Thai Ties

I fully acknowledge that I'm a bit "backwards" in terms of what makes me comfortable or even interested in giving. While most people prefer large organizations with thorough oversight and accountability, I'm a huge fan of the tiniest operations out there - I like supporting causes that are run by someone who's in it heart and soul. That's not to say that I don't think massive charities like Unicef, Doctors Without Borders, World Vision, etc. aren't doing amazing work and benefiting from economies of scale - I just think they're better off pursuing bigger donors than little ol' me. My little $25 donation is hardly worth the time and stationery involved in sending me a receipt that I don't even want.

Anyway, I think I may have found a charity that satisfies more criteria than I can count, all of which I've touched on in previous posts...

- I mentioned wanting to do something for the Burmese after the initial post-cyclone burst of aid, especially given the colossal mismanagement by their despotic government.
- I've been to Thailand a few times and have been casting about for a specific way to help their most neglected populations (sex workers, hill tribes, etc).
- My father always had a special place in his heart and conscience for southeast Asia, having spent over a year there as a tourist immediately following his discharge from the Air Force during the Vietnam War in the late 60s.

The charity is Thai Freedom House, and it's a one-(wo)man band operation. This one has an additional super-personal angle for me: the focus is on education with an emphasis on language. I have an MSc in Applied Linguistics and the Cambridge TEFL certificate, and I taught English in Spain and Japan back in the 90s (I hated teaching and was at best mediocre).

Lisa Nesser, the woman behind all this, recognized that the Burmese refugees and hill tribe people of northern Thailand have almost no chance of improving their circumstances - the same circumstances that lead to human/sex trafficking - if they can't speak the national language. She runs classes for children and adults to learn Thai and, to a lesser extent, English. She also feeds them, since things like nutrition and sustenance are not fixtures in their lives. Her goal is to get 40 donors to commit to monthly donations of $25 to keep things going, and I have a feeling I'm going to join that club.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Hush Money

Two weeks ago, I had a new massage client who briefly misbehaved and apologized with a huge tip. I found that morally confusing, because although I did absolutely nothing illegal or unethical and his transgression was pretty mild compared to some of the crap I've had to deal with, it felt like I was sending the message that "it's okay to mistreat me as long as you pay for the privilege".

The next morning, I took the exact bill that he'd stuffed in my purse to the post office, bought a money order for that amount, and sent it to one of the charities I've mentioned in previous blog posts - the Nepalese Youth Opportunities Foundation. I asked that it be directed toward either their original program of rescuing little girls from bonded servitude or the college scholarship fund for "dalit" (untouchable caste) girls.

I got what I needed from that donation - it cleared my over-sensitive conscience, and it helped a cause I'd been planning to support this year in a more lucrative way than I might otherwise have been able to.

Monday, July 7, 2008

A Soft Spot for Cambodia

A couple of years ago, I wrote a brochure for a charity whose main project at the time was assisting young Cambodian survivors of human trafficking (a slightly nicer term for forced prostitution) in their recovery by funding psychology services and vocational training. I learned that Cambodia is a really hard place to donate safely, because there are too many shady people - no doubt the same shady people that promise nice jobs to teenage girls and then sell them into sex slavery in Bangkok - who make a business out of tricking foreign NGOs. Seriously, they will put together a fake brothel full of fake child prostitutes for official visits and solicit funds to save them.

So when I see a decent loan on Kiva to a Cambodian, I snap it up. A couple of my micro-borrowers finished repaying their loans - Congratulations to Marta the Dominican vegetable fryer and Estela the Peruvian grain-seller!! So welcome to my portfolio for the next 8 months, Try Kan, and best of luck with the expansion of your vegetable farm :)

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Uncharitable Feelings

This past week I've been feeling less than charitable to my fellow man, because they've been treating me pretty shabbily. I'm a self-employed massage therapist, so there's no way to NOT take it personally when clients do things like pull a no-show (an existing client, not a newbie playing nasty games) or create an opportunity to not pay me. Now have both of those things happen on the same day, when they rarely even happen in the same year. I felt stupid, used, and worthless. It's been a week and I'm still recovering...yeah, I know, I'm way too sensitive for a Manhattan 30-something, but I'd like to think that's part of what makes me good at what I do.

Here's the thing: all of the people who have refused to pay (mostly because I wouldn't provide prostitution services) were overtly religious. Most of them couldn't shut up about what a good fill-in-the-religion person they were, and always wore something that visibly shouted their faith to the world. Last week's jackass left behind his ugly resin bracelet where each little square had an image of Jesus or Mary. This is a man I lent dry clothes to, built up a sweat manipulating the heavy limbs on his 6'5" frame, loaned my phone to, and then sent off with a bottle of water and a thank-you. I won't go into how I didn't get my fee, but I will say that I think he had every intention of paying (my intuition on this is excellent), but saw a chance to stiff me and took it. It was very personal and very hurtful.

What does this have to do with charitable giving, you might ask. Well, I have historically not donated to any charitable work done by religious organizations. I do things in the name of humanity, not some concept of god, and I don't want the disadvantaged of the world to feel that they only deserve help if they sign up to someone else's belief system, or at least suffer through some pointless, self-serving sermon and nod as if they give a crap in order to get food, clothing, school tuition, whatever. But I have come across some specific work that is only or most efficiently done by a church, and felt tempted to give despite my feelings on the subject. Then things like this happen to remind me of the many reasons why I don't, and the purse snaps shut. Hypocrisy should not go unpunished.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

PenaltyFee for ChariTee

I've recently put the wheels in motion to start a new little business sideline, "TreadMate Kate" (Kate = me). While it's certainly not a charitable venture, there are a couple of elements of giving back wrapped into the plan. One is that I'm only charging half the market rate for the service, which is along the lines of personal training, because after conquering near-morbid obesity, I sincerely want to help others begin that fight and stay the course. The second is more relevant to this blog: the cancellation fee.

I suck at being a hardass about things like late arrivals and last-minute cancellations, but it's essential for the service I'm offering. I know the gamut of seemingly valid excuses we make to ourselves and to others for not squeezing in a little exercise, so it is absolutely essential to the service that I enforce a policy. Well, what better way to make it more palatable than to earmark $5 of each fee (which runs from $10 to the whole enchilada) for charity?

Then there's the matter of choosing a charity. I didn't want one that was too big or too small, or that might not have wide appeal. So for the moment, I'm going with one of my stand-bys, Kiva. No, not because I can claw back the money one day - but I can send my truant clients a link to the microloan recipient's information so that they can see what some of their thrown-away money is accomplishing. It may even encourage then to become a lender.

Now how's that for a win-win-win situation?

Friday, June 20, 2008

Locally v. Globally

Inspired by a recent comment from Chris F....

I'm not a big fan of giving within my community. My "community" is New York City, and it has always felt to me like everyone is working a scam of some sort, no matter what the context. Also, I grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey, where it seems every town councilor in charge of the recreation program embezzled huge chunks of their funding. Then there was grandma, giving her local church thousands for the roof fund, the mortgage fund, the new organ fund - and then they had the sanctimonious balls to reject my aunt's request to be married there because at 46, she wouldn't be producing new Catholics to fill the pews. Oh, and let's throw in that she's mentally retarded and wouldn't have been able to safely raise children anyway. When it comes to local giving, the one thing I have always stepped up for has been blood donation in the name of someone ill or recently deceased - unfortunately, I had to give that up a few years back when the phleboto-nurses warned me that my veins were difficult and I should save them for my own future medical needs.

But the main reason I give outside of the USA rather than within: what passes for poverty here is wildly rich and stable by the standards of more than half the world. So I indulge in "economic triage", targeting those teetering on the edge. From my cushy vantage point, those that have less than nothing are living proof of the human spirit and the indomitable will to survive in the face of hardship beyond my comprehension. It's why I've put off travel to Africa for so long - fear of staring mortal poverty in the eye and feeling utterly helpless, guilty, overwhelmed, ashamed. So with my tentative plans to go there early next year, that part of the world has featured prominently in my Adventures in Giving. It would feature more in my Kiva lending as well except that so many of the loans for African applicants are in Nigeria, and I still hold it against them for fleecing me out of $35 in their scholarship scam in the 1980s.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Yay, Rosario!

Rosario Coronado is a cheesemaker in Nicaragua. I like cheese. I'd probably like Nicaragua. So on that basis, I contributed to her Kiva loan request back in February and she just paid it off yesterday. That gives her a better repayment record than anyone in my FAMILY (three loans outstanding with the Bank of Big Sister, one of them for nearly 5 years). I immediately reloaned the $25 chunk to Delfina, an herbal medicine maker in Ayacucho, Peru.

I have a strange relationship with Peru. I hiked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in 2006 and saw a particularly bitter form of poverty. I dropped change out of my pocket, and old ladies swarmed to pick it up and run away with it. I dealt with 12-year-old stall vendors who pouted and sneered at my attempts to bargain (I hate doing that, but for god's sake they were charging more than the airport for something half as nice!). I had a shoeshine boy inflate the price of his unwanted services by a factor of 25 (I agreed to a factor of 15 and still felt fleeced). I gave money to a few beggar kids - 30 cents, which had the buying power of $1 there - who bitched me out for not giving them more, until I threatened to take the coins back. The camp porters while on the trek had to stand guard over us at night because the locals would steal our shoes or worse if no one was watching. I do not like bargaining with people who sleep one layer above dirt, but I also don't like having them laugh at another stupid American for paying a week of their wages for a piece of pottery. I felt like shit for being shoved into a position where I resented and deplored the seriously poor, thanks to the palpable, unabashed disdain of said poor.

As such, I have no interest in returning to their country. I won't even consider pan-South American tours that include Peru. However, I will help from a distance and hope that I'm lending to people who don't secretly despise the source of their funding. What can I say? I think it's disgusting that the descendants of one of the greatest empires of the New World have been brought so low. So to Delfina the Medicine Maker and Estela the Grain Seller (due to complete her loan in a couple of weeks) - you go, girls!

Friday, June 13, 2008

Mixed 'Motions, Part 2

Shame on me for not blogging for 2 weeks. Shame on me for sitting on my little pile of money to donate, paralyzed by what you could call an excessive angst about getting it wrong.

I'm a big fan of Crunchy Chicken's blog even though I'm not an eco-warrior type, and I felt awful reading about how she'd been duped by an online donation site (registered as a non-profit, to boot) and lost about 1/3 of the money she had raised for a cancer charity. Being an athiest, I can only hope that what goes around comes around. Anyway, my point is that it's just too easy, despite one's best efforts, to find yourself on the wrong side of a scam.

I understand that one of the more popular theories of how to make your donations count is to contribute to one charity. But I view this as a portfolio, so the risk is spread. It really would break my heart to find that a charity I'd given all my donor dollars to was mismanaged, had financial irregularities, etc. But if it's "only" 1/5 of the money I give away, there'd be some comfort in still having 4/5 out there doing what it's supposed to be doing.

And still, that trip to Mexico is weighing on me, as are those heartbreaking reports from Burma. It's really important to me to know that the money and help are getting to the people who really need it, not just the people who are convenient.

I registered for email newsletters from the Nepalese Youth Opportunities Foundation, and got both automated and personal confirmation emails very quickly. Their big campaign to rescue children from bonded servitude is timed for the January labor-contracting "events", so I've got funds earmarked for them in November. I think there's a semi-commitment to keep funding the rescued child until they're out of school, so I won't go nuts with that one. I am, however, tempted to bump up plans to go to Nepal so I can maybe meet the retired Californian lawyer who started all this...she's in her 80s now, who knows how much longer she'll be able to keep up her half-year in Nepal, half-year in the US travel habit. I'll bet she's cool as hell.

Speaking of travel habits, I've started giving thought to my next big trip, planned for November. An interesting dichotomy has arisen: most of the countries I'm considering are not ones I wish to support on a charitable basis. Specifically, I'm thinking India - rather than work on the dire poverty that the majority of their population lives in, their government spends money on a nuclear weapons program in a big ol' pissing contest with Pakistan. Why should I pick up their foolish slack and appease their obligations, what kind of lesson does that teach? And the other one is Egypt - as someone who was living in NYC on 9/11 and watched the towers tumble live and in the streets, I can't forgive the widely-televised glee they demonstrated in the aftermath. I've been putting that destination off for years because I can't reconcile my interest in their ancient culture with my abhorrence of their contemporary one. Wouldn't that make me a hypocrite?

Sigh. I should just cut a check to Doctors Without Borders and call it a day, right?

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Mixed Mexican 'Motions

Last week, at the start of my vacation on the Mayan Riviera (a disappointing destination that will not be repeated), I dropped off a bunch of little backpacks, school supplies and toys with a small local charity run by transplanted New Yorkers. I wish I had waited...

Playa del Carmen is a very cute tourist trap. I resented paying full American and even near-Manhattan prices for pretty much everything, trying to sign up for day trips only to find out it was a timeshare pitch in disguise, and being hassled to buy silver jewelry every time I set foot out my door. I've come to the conclusion that the smart Mexicans did an illegal stint here in the US, got fluent in English, and went back to fleece tourists. I did not see poverty...

...Until the drive back from Chichen Itza. On the way there, we took a pricey toll highway and decided to save the $25 and take the free road back, since reports I'd read said it only took about half an hour longer (lie - it took an extra 2 hours). But I'm glad we took that road because otherwise I wouldn't have seen the Third World destitution that is hidden from those who never leave beach resorts or cling closely to the bus tours. Holy cow. Despite having seen lots of businesses on Kiva that are run from the front room of someone's home, it was very different to see it in front of you. The homes were concrete blocks the size of a one-car garage, and by "front room", I mean the front half of the only room. Doors were open, and next to the refrigerated drinks or cell phone display case, you could see hammocks where the families slept and the thatched hut out back where they, I don't know, ate? bathed? In a couple of the towns, when cars slowed down for the vicious and plentiful speedbumps, entrepreneurial kids would come to the window offering oranges. And it was at those moments that I wish I had the little kites and paint sets and bookbags and checkerboards to hand out on the spot.

Ultimately, I felt the tourism industry in Mexico was creating a wealth/class gap that I felt very uncomfortable contributing to. Besides, beach vacations never really were my style. Lesson learned.

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Perfect Portfolio

The more I look for the perfect giving opportunity, the pickier I get. I often wonder if there's something so inherently selfish in my pickiness that I barely break even in the karma stakes. However, what really stands out at this point is how this reflects my attitude towards money in general. I have this fear of being duped, ripped off, taken advantage of because it has happened before. On a small scale, I got suckered out of $35 by that Nigerian college scholarship scam in the late 80s (which is why you will never find me donating to any causes in that country). On a slightly larger scale, I had an uncle embezzle 90% of the family fortune right out from under everyone's noses, which is why I refer to that side of the family as The Moneytards. But I digress. So, what do I need a charity to be, to do, to offer in order to feel comfortable handing over my hard-earned greenbacks? Let's see...

Size DOES Matter
I like 'em small. I just can't get jazzed up about organizations with multimillion dollar budgets and broad-sweep goals like bringing clean water to the Third World. I totally get the importance of doing that, but I feel that a project that huge and general is going to be way more oriented towards attracting the sponsorship of large corporations and foundations. This isn't a bad thing - I think that's a very efficient way to expend their (hopefully) limited fundraising resources. But a check for $30 from little me hardly seems worth the effort to deposit, y'know? Now find me someone who got their heartstrings tugged on a trip to Ghana and wants to pull together $15,000 for a filtration and distribution system for a village of 500 households, and I'm totally on board. My tiny $30 all of the sudden equals a one-family share of clean drinking water and doesn't feel so insignificant anymore.

Offer More Than a Band-Aid
There's nothing I like more than seeing a creative twist to a solution - it's what can turn a tiny charity into a phenomenon. My favorite example of this is the growth in popularity of microlending, a concept that didn't hit the mainstream until 2-3 years ago. People who need a personal connection can do it through Kiva, those who don't or would rather help those at the bottom rung of the borrowing ladder can do it through FINCA. I've lent about $200 to businesses in South America, Central America, Southeast and Central Asia, and Africa, and every time I get an email informing me that their monthly payment has been made, I think "yes, they're succeeding! and it took so little!"

I particularly like it when a project solves both an immediate problem and builds in an ongoing solution - bonus points for being a little bit bizarre (pigs, seed exchanges, etc). I actively look for odd opportunities, like funding vocational training in tie-dyeing for a girl who has escaped human trafficking or contributing towards a village orchard by buying 10 fruit trees.

Don't Show Us Your Money
We all know that TV commercials and magazine advertising aren't free - to the contrary, they're exhorbitant. And by now, we also know that badgering us by telephone should be classified as a scam. Mailings? All that postage and paper and glossy stuff costs money, aka "fundraising costs", and we don't like that. You want more of my donor dollars? Send a bulk email when you're close to your goal or when you start a new project, but don't send me a begging note disguised as a newsletter every freaking week.

Get Personal
Some charities take this to an impractical extreme, like those sponsor-a-child deals. Can you imagine the resources it takes to send regular pictures and progress reports? How much of that $30/month goes towards making the donors feel good?

But there is a happy medium, and more than one way to achieve it...
... Tell me your goal is to vaccinate 50,000 Sudanese children against the measles and give them the first check-up of their lives @ $3 a child. I'll take 20 kids, please! And hey, while you're at it, put up a little progress ticker so we can see how close the project is to its goal.
... Blog or frequently update a current news page. I want to hear the ups and downs of what it takes to get the job done. I want to see pictures of school kids showing off the bikes we just bought them to give them access to school, I want to see at-home birthing kits being distributed to expectant mothers (but I don't need a picture of the exact 5 mothers whose kits I sponsored).

Two of the three charities I'm actively supporting have got it right: Kiva and Feed Villages. Goods4Girls is really close and will probably improve once the founder's husband gets through an aggressive round of treatment for his cancer (she doesn't get all TMI on the G4G website - I happen to read her very popular eco-blog). I look forward to finding a few more for my Portfolio for a Better World.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Updated Bits 'n' Pieces

Goods4Girls
I finally have everything I need - sewing machine, donated materials, specialty fabric, fasteners, and the one thing that's kept me from getting started: a basic how-to book, which just arrived this afternoon. It's time to figure out how to fire up the machine and what knobs and levers do what. My goal is to be proficient enough to produce a couple of donate-able pads before I leave for Mexico on the 21st, so that I can get feedback from the woman running the program as to whether they're good enough by the time I get back. Then I'll become an unstoppable sewing maniac! Oh, and a shout-out to the nice Freecyclers of Manhattan who let me take their old towels and unwanted flannel off their hands for this project.

Feed Villages
Elana Greene's goal is to raise $100,000 to fund a community garden/farm, train people in sustainable eco-farming techniques so they can turn a profit and provide school lunches for hundreds of kids. She has passed the $3K mark and funded the purchase of 9 acres of farmland, and I forwarded $50 to her a week ago.

Burma
I wish my prediction on the 6th had been way off base and that the powermad f*ckwits running Burma had opened their borders to humanitarian aid. I need to stop reading the news items about this, it's just too upsetting. Give it another 10 days and there won't be much point trying to help...I guess time will tell if there will be any point in following through with my intention to contribute to follow-up efforts in a few months.

My Little Giving Game
I had a great week of business last week, netting $89 for my giving fund. Half will be stored for future donation to bigger projects assuming business continues to flourish, and the other half will go towards...hm, so many choices. Watch this space.

Leftover Luggage Space For Good
This is not an official program (hence no clickable link), just a new habit I'd like to form: bring suitable in-kind donations to local orphanages and organizations in developing countries. Next week I head to the Mayan Riviera for a vacation and will be donating school supplies and toys to Give-A-Toy-Get-A-Smile and maybe the literacy library in Akumal (if for no other reason than the adventure of taking a local bus to a minimally-touristed destination).

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Enough - Part 2

I still like the 10% giving game I formulated a few weeks ago (10% of my disposable income rather than gross income), but a few hitches have arisen. One is that the advertising source that brings in nearly all my business is undergoing a major overhaul and, while I'm benefiting from it at the moment, I can see how it could all go wrong for me within a few weeks. Two is that I've never been through a down-swing in the economy before, and I have no idea how it will affect me.

So I'm tweaking the plan slightly...10% is still earmarked for charity, but only half of it will be distributed immediately. Then, if things are still going well in a few months, I'll use the other half to sponsor something bigger. I mean "bigger" in a relative sense, relative to my current $5-100 dribbles.

I've had my eye on Outreach Asia's scholarship program in the Philippines, sort of in memory of my father. He was placed at a bank in Manila for half a year when I was 4 years old - old enough to remember quite a bit about monsoon season, nursery school, the China Sea beaches, the fruit markets, the monstrous cockroaches, and even half of the national anthem in Tagalog. I would call that the high point of my father's life, though he lived 30 years beyond that. Anyway, we had two Filipino nannies (at $20/month each, why not have two for three kids?), who were working to put their brothers through college and occasionally asked for an additional $5 to help them. I think it would be a fitting memorial to put up $210/year to put one of these sidelined girls through college themselves.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Cyclonic Consternation

I'm not sure how I feel about giving to emergency relief funds after seeing - without even trying - examples of monumental idiocy in their use. First, there was the $1.7m payouts to the families of 9/11 victims, like a shared lottery win. Am I the only one who thought that was weird? And then in the fiasco that was the Katrina recovery, $2000 debit cards were briefly handed out to a lucky few before the powers that be realized what a dumbass idea that was (was that the American Red Cross? I don't quite remember that detail). It kept me from contributing to the donation drive in the wake of the tsunami in 2005, but I did later do some work-in-kind for a charity that was rebuilding a school in India that had been wiped out, along with 50 of its students.

So now there's this cyclone in a part of the world I nearly visited last summer as part of my training trip to Thailand. Curse curse CURSE that case of tropical pneumonia that felt like food poisoning and kept from doing a number of things I really wanted to, including a day trip border crossing to Burma. Anyway, there are a few dilemmas I have with the prospect of giving to the relief efforts:

1) I somehow doubt that their government will allow anywhere near as much aid into the country as will be offered.

2) It takes funds away from other very worthy causes that just don't have anything to do with this. Though biggies like International Medical Corps, Relief International, and Unicef do kind of push my buttons.

3) It feels pathetic to send $25 to help rebuild 25% of an entire nation.

4) I just plain old prefer to give to tiny charities with a singular focus. An odd approach to a problem makes it extra attractive.

So I think I'll just sit back and let the dust settle on the Burmese nightmare, and step up when others have moved on to the newest hot cause. In an ideal world, foreign aid organizations will be allowed to remain in larger numbers, and a few grassroots projects will blossom in the aftermath. Then maybe my $25 can replant a rice paddy or replace a tin roof.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Putting the 'person' in 'personal'

Last month, I mentioned a tiny charity called Feed Villages ["Couch Cushion Change"] that I sent a few bucks to since I can't resist an original, practical grassroots approach. At my suggestion, the woman in charge started a blog to keep information on the project current and newsy. Now she's applying for grants to fund the project and sent me a copy of the proposal - as a reply to an old email, not as part of a mass email - with all the information I could possibly want about the goals and the steps needed to achieve them. I was really touched, since I'd only sent $10 and there's no way she could know that I just bought a $50 money order earmarked for Feed Villages.

I'm also getting geared up to sew cloth pads for Goods4Girls, so a few days ago I posted an ad on Freecycle to get my hands on unwanted towels and cotton flannel. So far I've hoofed it down to Chelsea to collect a large shopping bag of assorted goodies from a nice woman who works at a shelter; I've arranged to have another woman drop off some old flannel pj's with my doorman; and I'll be picking up some more supplies from someone who does cat rescue volunteer work next weekend. Tomorrow I will attempt to turn on and thread my new sewing machine, which I must admit is pathetically intimidating. I'm truly afraid of accidentally stitching my hand to the mat.

It hasn't been a busy week for my massage biz, so the best I can hope for at this point is to put $10 in the donation jar. Oh well, here's hoping for a busier week!

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Is PayPal YourPal?

Just a short one today, about a pet peeve...

I am all about avoiding unnecessary fees, in all parts of my life. Like if a website offers free or flat-rate shipping, I'm more likely to be a customer. I wouldn't dream of carrying a balance on my credit card or banking with a place that charges account maintenance fees. I curse all of the mandatory taxes and fees on my airplane tickets that sometimes amount to 1/3 of the price.

Now, I use PayPal in my line of work, so I know that to accept a credit card transaction costs 2.9% plus 30 cents. I don't mind sucking that up too much, since most folks who opt for this wouldn't use my services otherwise and are usually after premium services, like a housecall. So whenever I see the "Donate" button on a charity's website and it takes me to PayPal, I hesitate. Some charities, e.g. Kiva, have gotten PayPal to waive their fees, while others haven't. Very few sites mention their PayPal arrangements, and I appreciate it when they state something along the lines of "For the greatest impact, send your donation by check to avoid a piece of it being taken for mandatory processing fees".

If any of you are reading this, please put a little footnote to that effect on your "How to Donate" page. Some of us smaller givers want to make as much impact as possible.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Giving is PERSONAL

I love when a charity tells you what $XX buys, and I love it even more when you can choose exactly what your contribution buys. Sounds like I repeated myself, doesn't it. To illustrate the difference, donations to FINCA go into a microloan fund, whereas with Kiva, you can pick exactly which fledgling business you want to loan to. There are other differences between them (donation v. refundable loan, $50 first-time borrowers v. $500 borrowers with a history, etc), but today I'm focusing on how satisfying I find it to sponsor a specific person or small project, and below is a review of some of my favorite ideas, some of which I've given to while others are on deck. I think I developed a penchant for this kind of giving back in elementary school, when they handed out the little cardboard ricebowls for us to assemble and put our small change in...I remember that in 1977, $5 could feed a family in Bangladesh for a week. Call it my first lesson in the value of a dollar.

There is a large "charity warehouse" site that is a true joy for me to leaf through - GlobalGiving. You can pile up your selections in a shopping cart, and there's lots of information about the projects you're supporting, including the charity of origin. The founders are a pair of problem-solvers formerly affiliated with the World Bank. The downside: they take a 10% cut for their operating expenses. The upside: quite a few of the charities are so small and volunteer-driven that it's hard for them to put the manpower into fund-raising, so a site like this puts them on the donor map, and that 10% is well-spent. I also just discovered that GlobalGiving has a blog, so I'll be catching up on that this week. If you want to cut out this middleman, you can check out each charity's website on your own and see if you can send an earmarked donation that way, but I found that most are just set up for contributions to end up in a general fund. Another plus for this site: you can make a difference with as little as $10. Like, you can pay for the training of a Ugandan woman to produce therapeutic food that large charities buy for their emergency starvation projects in Africa...provides income for the woman and a local source of a much-needed product, saving on shipping and promoting sustainability - a project spearheaded by the International Medical Corps. Yeah, $10 doesn't even buy a martini in my 'hood these days.

Even biggies like UNICEF offer this option, labeled "Inspired Gifts" - like $15 for two mosquito nets to help fight malaria, and $17 for 50 liters of therapeutic milk formula for emergency measures to fight starvation.

AfricaAid lets you buy a portion of a project, and fills in each little piece with the donor's name, whether you're contributing $10 to educate 10 kids for a week or $400 for the lunch cook's annual salary. I kinda like this one, especially for a donation gift in someone else's name.

Here's one I'm saving up for: the Nepalese Youth Opportunity Fund, where $100 saves a little girl from bonded servitude, pays her school fees, and provides her family with an income-generating pig. Can you tell how much I love the pig part?

The more grassroots, the better. I like seeing one person or one couple out there trying to make a dent in the problems and imbalances in the world. You just know that if you handed them cash and said "it's for your charity", they wouldn't dream of putting it in their own pocket. That's the kind of people I want to deal with, and their causes are heartfelt and often creative because they answer to no one but their conscience. Yup, my kind of people.