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.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Voluntourism = Vaniteerism?

This new phenomenon of voluntourism doesn't actually sit too well with me. So many of the newer programs out there are basically a two-week vacation in a developing country, where you spend the occasional afternoon painting a school or playing with orphans. To what end? So that you can tell the world what a wonderful person you are because you sacrificed 8 hours of your vacation to do something that didn't really need to be done by a foreign tourist? Third World poverty is not a freaking spectator sport!!

Now, I realize everyone benefits: charities get their projects funded by volunteer fees, the world's disadvantaged get the goods/services/etc that they desperately need, and First Worlders get a feelgood. As long as the middleman isn't taking a huge chunk in admin fees, this is a great deal all around.

What I don't like is the ego self-stroking benevolence that we export, or the sense that we First Worlders "know better". Well, unless you're a nurse or surgeon with Doctors Without Borders, chances are you don't. The locals know best how to make the most of readily-available and therefore sustainable resources, and our naive arrogance will be tolerated and graciously overlooked for the sake of the fistfuls of cash we hand over. But then I speak as someone who already has a decent grasp of other cultures and economies (I've lived long-term in three other countries and short-term in another three) ... is it too much to hope that most of the First Worlders leave with opened eyes and a desire to provide ongoing support for whatever cause they just discovered?

I personally have concluded that our best way to help the Third World is to contribute money to responsible charities. Now there are many programs that send goods and in-kind donations, but wouldn't it be better for their economy to buy things locally with donated money? I only see a point in sending things that are both necessary and for whatever reason not available locally, like cloth sanitary pads and at-home birthing kits. However, I, too, crave that personal connection, but would rather not foist my spoiled self on local staff, who no doubt have better things to do than babysit me. So my plan is to drop in for short visits at causes I've been supporting. Here's how it works for me...

I love to travel and am planning a trip to east Africa early next year. I started researching where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do there, and that means learning about the political and socio-economic climate - both the stuff that gets celebrity attention (genocide, AIDS) and the other stuff that doesn't really make headlines (infant mortality). Well, how do you go to a place like that "for fun", when so few people benefit from your tourist dollars? It makes me existentially uncomfortable. So I look at grassroots efforts and get involved from a distance first (meaning money) and then perhaps visit the project when I'm there if it doesn't put out the organizers too much. Ideally, I'd be bringing along a suitcase full of something they need.

I've mentioned before that I'm bringing stuff for two school supplies drives in Mexico...well, I'm focusing on bringing mostly bookbags, since they are, bizarrely, more expensive there than here. Yes, that's right, I can buy simple backpacks with padded straps and good zippers for $6 in Manhattan, but they go for $20 south of the border. WTF, right?

Sorry...today's blog rambled. It's meant to reflect the path my opinions on giving have traveled to get to where I am now, and that path clearly had a lot of branches.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

iGive...do uGive?

From time to time I've come across links on charity websites about shopping online in a way that somehow raises money for them, but it wasn't until I stumbled across iGive.com that I bothered to figure out what that actually entailed.

You sign up. You pick your charity. You download an invisible toolbar that detects when you're on a retail partner's site. You shop. The sites turn over a pre-determined percentage of your purchase to iGive, and that money is passed onto your charity of choice on a monthly basis. This is FREE. Totally and completely FREE. This is not money that you have the option of claiming for yourself, it's a FREE bonus. Did I mention it's FREE MONEY??

How this affects your computer....

You get an email from "Betty at iGive" a few times a week, announcing things like double donation days and stuff like that. I've noticed no increase or change in spam, and I've been registered for 5 months (you're welcome, Doctors Without Borders). You get a pop-up window whenever you visit an affiliated website that announces the contribution they make. Most of the biggies are on it, on both sides of the coin - Amazon, Overstock, Staples, eBay, Orbitz, etc. for the retailers, Anyway, that's it.

I've learned to shut up about most of my "adventures in charitable giving", as I explore the best fits for my personality. I get laughed at, or it makes people feel bad that they just don't care about this sort of thing. But this one gets a decent reception - even my mom didn't shoot me down in 5 seconds or less. I just sent her an online invitation. I mean, who doesn't like a completely effortless feelgood. And it's FREE.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

When is enough enough?

I'm working through a few ideas on how to determine the right level of financial giving (as opposed to time or in-kind donations). My situation is a little out-of-the-ordinary because my income can vary widely from week to week, and is only slightly predictable (which means I have a good idea when to take a vacation, but that's about it). It's going to take some doing to find a comfortable plan, and darn it, I want to make a game of it.

GAME #1: My massage biz is mostly cash, so I decided to put all fives and tens into a jar earmarked for charitable donation. I mostly get twenties and higher - until I started doing this. I really thought it would be, like, $40 for the two weeks of the experiment, but it turned out to be $110. Okay, great, I'm sticking to my promise, but that represented 15% of my profits, which isn't really sustainable. Another problem is that the earmarked money is sitting here in cash, not conveniently in a bank account for check-writing. Sure, I could deposit it, but then it would just be part of the pool and not, y'know, distinct and special. So unless the charity benefiting is the panhandler on the corner (a 69-year-old drunk with high blood pressure, in case you're curious), this would need to be tweaked.

GAME #2: I figured out what my standard living expenses are (Manhattan rents, individual health insurance...it's ugly) as well as my First World financial needs (pension/IRA, rainy day savings). The plan for a couple of weeks is to donate 10% of any money I make over and above that amount, which could be anywhere from $0 to $80. Last week that figure was $445, so that means $45 goes to the greater good of the world. Perhaps that sounds a bit grandiose for an amount that wouldn't even cover my monthly cell phone bill, but that's how I'm feeling tonight. So wish me success in my work, since I'm not the only one who will benefit.

There will be more games and strategies as the weeks go on, while I find the perfect balance of fun and finance and filanthropy.

Charitable Act of the Day: Okay, it wasn't today, but over the weekend I saved a few bucks by getting to the train station in time to buy the ticket from the machine, thereby avoiding the on-board fee. So I took that $5 to The Bag Man on West 34th Street and bought a red knapsack for the school supply drive in Mexico that I'm planning to contribute to on vacation next month.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Sew WHAT???

I can't bring myself to tell anyone in the Real World what I'm up to. Many would think the concept was gross, others would roll their eyes at my weirdness. Most would do both and slowly back away without disturbing the odd creature standing before them.

The last time I attempted anything with needle and thread was about three decades ago, in Brownies. I learned the running stitch and the backstitch. But 10 days ago I found myself in a dollar store picking up needle, thread, and velcro dots, and then in a fabric store in the garment district buying up 99-cent flannel. I got the most horrified looks when I asked for PUL, the waterproof material in reuseable diapers. I couldn't bring myself to tell them what I was making - they were used to dealing with Project Runway types I guess. And they were men. And I was picking up the supplies for...wait for it...

Reusable cloth sanitary pads.

I can't even remember how I found this particular project, but I'm among the many skeptics who question the motives of P&G's Protecting Futures campaign, where they donate a tiny percentage of their profits from Tampax and Always to provide hygiene products for poor schoolgirls in Africa. I'm sure you've seen the commercials. Well, how viable and responsible is it to send disposable products to a part of the world that doesn't have nice things like sanitation/garbage collection? And it could be the next Nestle baby formula scenario: get the girls hooked on expensive imports from the moment they need such things, and then make them pay when they outgrow the scope of the program. You know that's on the cards.

Hello, Goods4Girls! Apparently, a domestic eco-goddess blogger started a program to donate reusable cloth pads to a few partner organizations in Kenya and Sudan. It's pretty fledgling at this point - you can either make pads, buy pads to donate from a few links on the Goods4Girls website, or you can donate cash for the purchase of supplies and postage through PayPal. Anyone with as little as $3 can send a pad to an adolescent orphan in Africa. That's less than a grande calorificcino at Starbucks.

Goods 4 Girls
Now, I question the value of sending something that can be produced locally. I mean, I'd rather fund a microloan through Kiva to a seamstress in Nairobi to respond to this need. But I figured that freebies were just a starting point, and one day I might find that loan opportunity on Kiva if African women decide they prefer this solution to whatever they've been doing (I won't gross you out with the details). In the meantime, donating pads through the links on Goods4Girls.org supports a cottage industry of work-from-home seamstresses right here in America. Now tell me how that's a bad thing.

I'm not a work-from-home seamstress, but I've had this urge over the past few years to learn how to sew. I have no domestic skills. Not one. I eat my own cooking, but I'd never subject another human being to it. I pay someone to clean my one-room studio twice a month. Oh wait - I can do laundry. Good thing too, considering how much is generated by my massage business. But I would like to be able to do things like hem a pair of pants and create specially-shaped covers for my massage equipment. I finally found a class but it's prohibitively expensive. My next step will be ordering a sewing machine, since my repertoire from age 7 is so limited. If I don't post new entries in my blog for a while, you'll know I've accidentally stitched my hand to a piece of scrap material.

Charitable Act of the Day: I dropped a pocketful of change into my favorite panhandler's cup. He thought the coins were all pennies and got annoyed, said he'd pass them on to someone who could use them. You mean there's some kind of caste system amongst the beggars?? Does that mean he's part of the "paper and large silver only" elite?

Monday, April 14, 2008

Couch Cushion Coins

I have a thing for teeny tiny charities, because you just know the person behind the effort is putting their heart and soul into it. So when I stumbled across Feed Villages, it hit all of my happy buttons: 100% of the money goes to the program, one girl in Hawaii is behind the whole thing, there's a sustainability component involved, the onsite management is local not foreign, and most of the employment opportunities are focused on women. Oh yes, and they feed poor kids in Kenya for 50 cents. You read that right - 50 cents, and there's no minimum donation. You'll probably find at least that much change buried amongst your couch cushions.

Actually, that 50 cents does quite a lot more than provide a lunch. It supports the development of local organic farming co-operatives that grow food for the lunches and for income. This project is partnered with Village Volunteers, whose larger efforts train women in farming methods, provide microfinance, and all kinds of other admirable things. I like their sustainability approach and their preference for harnessing local talent, but it looks like a huge portion of their funding comes from fees for voluntourism programs. Just wait until I have a moment to expound upon the rise of that concept...the jury in my head is still out on whether the pros outweigh the cons. But I digress.

So I took a $10 bill out of my "To Be Donated" jar and mailed it off to Elana Greene in Hawaii with a note to treat 20 kids to lunch on me. She kindly confirmed receipt by email and updated me on the development of the program: a couple of acres of land have been purchased with the assistance of Village Volunteers to get a community garden going in the first step towards her goal to feed 200,000 African children (i.e. raise $100,000). I think I might have to treat 40 next time. Oh yes, there will be a next time for this one. Maybe a few next times.

Charitable Act of the Day: Ordered raw materials and practiced sewing for a project I will write about very soon. I haven't sewn since I was in the Brownies. The only thing I've learned so far is that I should get a sewing machine.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Farewell Fat Clothes

While I'm on vacation next month, I'll be illegally "subletting" my apartment to a Brazilian woman, and my mother reminded me that I'd need to do something about my piggy corners before then. A piggy-cornerer herself, she suggested that I clean out a closet and throw the piggy stuff into the newly-created space. So I finally got around to bagging up all the clothes that no longer fit, sizes 14-22. Oh, did I mention I once dipped my toe in the morbidly obese pool? Well, 78 lbs smaller, it's time to say farewell to the fat clothes - the ones I relatively liked and was hoarding in case I yo-yo'd back up to Size Lardass. And to help make sure I'd never need them again, I walked 15 lbs of donations 1.5 miles to a Housing Works thrift shop on the Upper Westside.

It was the wrong place to take my gently used size 18s. If the handles of my plastic bags hadn't been cutting into my moneymakers (a.k.a. hands - remember, I'm a massage therapist) for the past half hour, I'd have brought them back home and tried a church. What was so wrong about it? Well, my stuff came from stores like JC Penney and Old Navy, and it was larger than a size 10. This thrift store's demographic was rather obviously the fashionably fit under-40 crowd looking for a deal on mid-range designer gear. I only hope that they're the kind of place that sends its rejects to Goodwill, whose automated phone system put me on neverending hold.

So I take away a lesson about research and impulse. As admirable as my intentions were (in the past, all clothing went guiltily in the trash), I caused them some degree of hassle by giving them things they couldn't use. Had I clicked around their website a bit more, I'd probably have figured that out. But no, me and my tunnel vision just saw a place that was open and accepting donations right now, and off I went in pursuit of a selfish feelgood. There, I've rapped my own knuckles.

Friday, April 11, 2008

$1 At The Register

I don't like it when I'm checking out at a store and they pull out this pad of colorful shapes and hit me with "Would you like to make a $1 donation to [CharityOfOurChoice]?" It's always a children's charity, and it makes me feel like a cretin to say "No" after the cashier has just rung up all kinds of super-important items like hand sanitizer and discounted holiday chocolate. But I like to think about it, savor it (the donation prospect, not the chocolate!), make an informed decision...which is maybe too much thought for a dollar. I mean, really. A buck. Well then why doesn't the big megachain I'm shopping in just write a fat check if they want to support a particular charity? They've got way more money than I do. And it's not like they're even matching their customers' contributions. Hey, now there's an idea.

But this week I experienced a different spin on this model: I bought a big pack of batteries for an expensive gadget (that I still feel a little guilt for blowing so much money on, even though I swear it's worth every penny) at Rite Aid, and this came with a $1 donation - and a nifty balloon-shaped banner with my name on it for the fundraising wall - to Children's Miracle Network. I can't figure out why they asked for my approval since it cost me nada, maybe a legal thing?, but this nothing-out-of-your-pocket approach gets the nod from me.

Of course I googled the charity as soon as I got home. It was founded by the Osmond family, raises funds for 170 children's hospitals in the U.S. and gets 3 stars from CharityNavigator - definitely worth a dollar that didn't even come out of my pocket.

Charitable Act Of The Day: Bought a bargain bookbag ($5) to add to the pile for the programs in Mexico I'll be supporting on my vacation next month.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

$25 to a Man With a Can

Where it all started...

I'm a big fan of a hand up rather than a hand-out because even broke folks have pride. Between that and the fear of finding out that I'd been patronizing a large organization that kept half my contribution for their costs, I resisted the whole charity thing for most of my adult life.

And then I heard about Kiva. I realize most people have heard of this one by now thanks to Bill Clinton's book and The Oprah Winfrey Show, but for those of you who haven't, this is a very personalized form of microlending. You pick a struggling, ambitious entrepreneur in a developing country based on their business or picture or name or whatever-criteria-you-like and lend them $25. A bunch of other people like you kick in $25 chunks until the total loan request is met. A big selling point for me is that I can claw back my money whenever a loan is repaid - being self-employed in a teetering economy, it's nice to have this option. Oh, and the cleverest part of all this is how Kiva funds itself. Sure, it accepts direct contributions to its expenses, but get this: it doesn't reimburse us lenders until the loan is repaid in full, which allows them to benefit from the interest on the partially repaid balances of thousands of loans.

My first loan was to a couple that runs a fuel store in Azerbaijan - how could I resist this HappyHelpfulHusband photo? And now my portfolio reads like a United Nations of gutsy, industrious women: a Nicaraguan cheesemaker, an Ecuadorian seamstress, a Peruvian food retailer, an Indonesian green bean chef-on-a-moped, a 4-pack of Vietnamese chicken farmers, and pharmacists in Tanzania
and Cambodia. What can I say, as someone who never envisioned working for herself, this concept and these people speak to me.

Then I began to wonder, what else speaks to me ...

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Oprah ... Dope-rah??

Don't get me wrong, I think Oprah is a very inspirational and well-intentioned icon who uses her fame and influence to inspire us to improve ourselves and the world around us. BUT she is not infallible (a quality I actually like about her). Curious about her Angel Network because she picks up the tab for all of the admin costs, I came across this article about getting involved at different $ levels. I was struck by how fluffy some of them were - treat a homeless woman to a day spa??

Others could be downright dangerous: pick up the bill for a family's dinner at a restaurant - how is that not publicly insulting to the family, as you are essentially saying "I think you're too poor to afford this"??
Then there's the suggestion that you pay for a stranger's tank of gas. Well, I would think the person offering to buy me gas was either hitting on me or completely off their rocker, especially at today's pump prices. Maybe it's just my Manhattan skepticism, but these things sound wonderful in an ideal world that I definitely don't live in and you probably don't either. Now let's look at the ones I do know something about...

Buy lunch for a homeless person
I haven't done this, but I know people who've done it and, in three memorable instances, observed people doing this. Got news for you: the homeless don't like other people deciding what they should eat, so be prepared to take their order (which is often highly entertaining). And never give them your doggy-bag unless you want to wear it.

Give someone a transit card with a few trips on it
I did that once with an unlimited day card at 4pm - lots of time left. I headed for the rather long line for purchasing Metrocards. The non-New Yorkers looked at me with fear and suspicion (it was a Saturday, they were the majority), and finally I found a native who was delighted to score a freebie in this pricey town. Yes, I enjoyed making her day but not sure it was worth first being made to feel like a fearsome freak by the 3 people behind her.

Make a family's holidays a little brighter by buying all their holiday gifts
This was a last-minute burst of Christmas spirit just a few months ago. I basically packed 3 of the fixed-price priority mail boxes with everything I could cram in for families whose shelter Santa ran out of gifts. I got a thank-you email from one of them and I was shocked at how much $25 worth of little presents could mean to someone in this country. You know it's bad when the #1 thing on their list is "socks for a 6-month-old". A six-pack of socks is like $5. I also learned the meaning of "the working poor". Wow.

Buy school supplies for a needy school
I'm actually stockpiling school supplies for my trip to Mexico next month. I have a thing (which will rear its head on here from time to time) about the social lessons we teach people from poorer countries when we go there for cheap vacations. Do you think it's right that a teenage girl makes more selling one item of overpriced crap to tourists than her father does as a 16-hour-a-day trail porter in the Andes? Well, I don't. So I avoid buying street crap I don't want for the sake of putting money in the coffers of a local. However, I came across an orphanage in Cozumel and an organized collection for donations of school bags (apparently way overpriced down there) and supplies. That seems like a more responsible way to handle the First World Guilt.

I tried a few things through NY Cares after attending their orientation a couple of years ago, but volunteering 'round these parts seems to be a singles scene for newcomers to the big city. Weird vibe. I also think I need to feel a connection to the cause rather than just volunteering because I need a break from my hermitude [Note: I have an MA in linguistics and therefore a right to invent new words for dramatic effect]. I've got my eye on a gift bag stuffing event for a United Cerebral Palsy lunch in a couple of weeks, in honor of a dear friend who has a son afflicted with CP. We'll see how that goes.