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

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.

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, 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!