Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Goodbye Father Dollar Bill

Maurice Chase, AKA Father Dollar Bill, was an LA legend. A priest by training and a fundraiser by trade, Father Dollar Bill went to skid row every week to give money to the poor - $1 at a time. He didn't care how the money was spent, and he didn't withhold from anyone. When he had given away all his dollar bills (between $2,000-$2,500 on a normal Sunday, up to $15,000 on Christmas and Thanksgiving) he would return home. Father Dollar Bill died on Sunday, and it seems as if no one will step in to take him place. Would you?

Some have criticized Father Dollar Bill, that his actions fell short of doing real good or making lasting change. Can a dollar buy much? No, not much. But it can buy a bottle of clean water or some cheap food. And for those who have nothing, that's quite a lot. He had no overhead. He solicited directly from the rich and redistributed directly to the poor, counting Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra among his donors. Besides, Father Dollar Bill didn't care about the money, he was giving the gift of human love. From his obituary in the LA Times:

He began every trip to skid row with a prayer about serving the poor: "When you have done it to the least of men, you have done it to me." Then he prepared the stacks of new dollar bills he had withdrawn from the bank earlier. "Everything is so dirty on skid row," he told the Los Angeles Daily News in 2004. "I want to give them something fresh and new."

For those who criticize his methods I would ask "have you done more?" Though there may be flaws in his plan, Father Dollar Bill's actions were direct, easy to replicate, and honest. I am too selfish to do what Father Dollar Bill did, even though I am capable. I don't want to spend the time fundraising, nor do I want to stand on skid row with thousands of dollars in my pocket. I would fear for my safety, and I would feel uncomfortable surrounded by some many who need so much.

But I have hope that someone less selfish than me, perhaps someone who has their basic needs met through a large inheritance, will pick up where Father Dollar Bill left off to continue spreading hope and sharing wealth.

-Selfish Blogger

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Holiday Generosity

This fabulous little article from The Chronicle of Philanthropy warms my heart.  In the midst of a lousy economy, only 26% of Americans surveyed say they plan to reduce their charitable giving. And pay close attention to this stat: 79% would rather have a charitable donation made in their name than receive a gift they wouldn't use. As you're considering how to spend your money this holiday season, remember that most of your peers are shelling out to support good causes, and they'd like to see you do the same instead of regift that basket of smelly bath salts and lotions (you know the one I'm talking about).

Where should you send your gifts this year? Consider high performing nonprofits working to end poverty around the world, your local food bank, or the many great organizations working to protect animals.

How can you get your friends in on the action? Pick a charity or two and tell your friends and family to make a gift in your honor. You'll find that most causes allow your friend to make gifts through their website. If your favorite charity doesn't have and easy online giving option, or if you really want to keep track of how much money you're helping to raise, use a site like Shift My Gift to make it happen.

Here's to the beginning of an unselfish holiday season!

-Selfish Blogger

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Doing a Little is Not Enough, but Doing Nothing is Worse

When I was in high school I was a counselor for a couple of YMCA overnight camps. On the whole, this was a delightful experience. But there was one part of camp that really bothered me: wasting food. The camp directors scheduled activity after activity where making a mess with desserts, condiments, and sometimes full meals was the whole point. The most egregious example was an activity called Bat-O-Rama, where an athletic slugger, armed with a baseball bat, would smash food as it was pitched to him. Gallon jugs of milk, heads of cabbage, melons, and apples would turn into a shower of particles that covered the trash-bag-protected audience of squealing campers. One night of Bat-O-Rama easily consumed enough good food to feed a family of 4 for the day. On the final day of camp each year, the directors would stand up at camp fire and talk about how lucky we are: we have enough food to eat and we have parents that pay for us to go to camp. There are lots of kids in the world who don't get to eat every day, and they can't afford to go to camp. Then they'd encourage all the campers to give money to a charity that provides a camp experience and meals for poor kids in another country.

The hypocrisy of the ask - after a week of wasting food - was lost on the directors. At next year's interview for a counselor position, when asked "how would you improve camp", I brought it up. I said it seemed like we were sending mixed messages to the kids. One day we were saying that we need to do something to help poor children who don't have enough to eat. Yet in the same week, we'd waste all kinds of food - just for fun! It's as if we spent the whole week saying "We're so rich we can waste as much food as we want." I think that's insensitive and we should send a consistent message, I said. Let's play these games with something other than food.

I didn't get selected to go to camp that year. When I got my decline letter in the mail, I called up and asked why. "In your interview, you offended everyone in the room," I was told. When I asked for specifics, my comments about wasting food were the only complaints they could site.

Now, I'm sure as a 17 year old, I probably didn't use the most politically correct language to share my concerns about wasting food. But regardless, no one like to be told they've done something wrong. No one likes to hear that they are doing harm. Saving food from the Bat-O-Rama doesn't do a lot of good, but it does some good. It is better to try and stop the Bat-O-Rama than to do nothing. It is better to speak out against a culture of waste (even at the summer camp level) than to let it continue unchallenged. If we want change, we must act.

Food insecurity, the threat of starvation, is a growing problem. For the people living on our planet earning less than $1.25 a day, a small shift in grain prices determines whether or not they can afford to eat. The poorest amongst us get the bulk of their daily calories from grains. But the growing demand for meat and animal products from rich nations is driving grain prices higher and higher. Some 60% of the world's grain now goes to feed farmed animals. Drought and changing weather patterns are destroying crops. Nations that once had large grain reserves for food security have used them up. The crisis in Somalia, which has gotten little media attention, will not be the last major famine we'll see this decade.

The threat of starvation across the globe is a big problem. It feels like a problem far removed, something that you can't do anything to fix. But that's not true. You can help. You can help three times a day (or five if you're like me). Every time you sit down to eat, you choose your meal and, without intending to, you enter the global market for grain. So how much grain will you buy? How much will you take for yourself? If you choose to eat meat and animal products, you are taking a lot more for yourself than you need. You are taking food from others who need it - you are driving world grain prices higher. 48 lbs. of grain can be fed to a cow and produce enough calories to feed one person for one day. Or 48 lbs. of grain can be fed directly to people and provide enough calories to feed 30 persons for one day. By eating less meat and animal products, you can help keep the cost of grain down so that the poorest people have a better chance of feeding their families. You can take a small step to make things better by changing your diet, or you can do nothing and actively make things worse. Next time you're getting ready to order a burger or a steak, remember that you're taking more than you need: enough for 30 people. That's really selfish.

Eating a plant based diet doesn't solve food insecurity, but it helps. If you are waiting to find a big action that you can take to solve a wide spread global problem, you will always be waiting. Big problems are solved when lots of individuals take small actions. Doing a little to help is not enough to end the problem, but doing nothing is worse.

Check out this handy infographic to learn more about how your food choices can change the world.

-Selfish Blogger

Monday, September 12, 2011


This weekend PETA Pack volunteers put on a fabulous vegan bake sale outside the Silverlake Trader Joe's to raise money for PETA's investigation fund. I stopped by and picked up a few delicious goodies (the pumpkin muffins and chocolate coconut truffles were outstanding!). They raised close to $200 and, from what I could see, it only took about 5 people to pull it off.

No doubt, bake sales are a fun way to introduce your work to the public and get volunteers engaged. The nonprofit I run holds a bake sale each winter that brings in a similar sum, and it seems to be the favorite fundraising vehicle of parent groups everywhere.

But are bake sales productive fundraisers? Consider how much each baker spends on ingredients and packaging. It's easy for me to shell out $20 for the ingredients and cute little goody bags to whip up some tasty treats for a bake sale. Add in the hours spent to plan and organize, bake and wrap, set up and sell (some of which might be paid staff hours), and the price tag on this type of fundraiser quickly adds up.

If each volunteer donated the equivalent cash they spent on ingredients, the organization might come out about even. They'd save the money spent on staff time and probably get half the cash or more - especially if someone prices your cupcakes at $1 each without knowing they cost $1.50 to make (that's happened to me). If each volunteer, instead of baking for hours, took 30 minutes to place a few phone calls to people they know and ask for a donation, the organization would easily exceed bake sale revenues. Simple! Increased revenues from significantly reduced staff and volunteer hours, but something that few volunteers will sign up to do.

The fact that bake sales (and car washes and rummage sales and other labor-intensive fundraisers) are so popular says something about how we relate to money. More people are comfortable giving away proxies for money, like their time or a dozen cookies, than actual cash. And more people are comfortable asking someone to spend 3 hours working a bake sale than asking for a $50 check (even if that someone is a lawyer who could have billed $600 during her 3 hour bake sale shift). We believe it is better to earn money than ask for money, even if earning it is more expensive for the volunteer, even if it is more expensive for the organization. Dollar-for-dollar, hour-for-hour, these types of fundraisers are less productive than the alternative: directly asking for money.

Of course, there is more to be measured from a bake sale than dollars alone. It's a fun event, so people want to get involved, which builds your volunteer base and makes supporters feel more deeply connected to your cause: you'll be able to count on those people in the future. It's a great way to do outreach: what better way to teach someone about your cause than by getting them to buy cookies? In specific cases, it can actually help some groups fulfill their mission. This is true in the case of PETA, who used their bake sale to introduce the general public to veganism in a tangible (and tasty!) way. Their bake sale would have been worth it whether it made a dime or not.

As donors and volunteers, I think it's important we start considering how we can be most productive and start being honest about when our time could do a lot more to help the causes we love. Look at the well-meaning groups who raise tens of thousands of dollars to fly themselves to poor countries so they can volunteer their time to build schools or dig wells. Without a doubt a new school makes a huge difference for a poor community. These groups are probably doing good work, and they usually bring one expert with them that this type of project needs. But just imagine how much that airfare - that tens of thousands of dollars - could do if it went to an established charity on the ground instead of the Airlines. It could certainly employ local workers to build schools or dig wells instead of college students, and that temporary employment could change outcomes for the families who benefit.

Is it better to do something than nothing? Almost certainly. Could we do more good if we focused on productivity instead of our own personal enjoyment? Absolutely. But in the example above, using the monies more productively by leaving the fundraisers at home means it's unlikely those monies would have been raised in the first place. It's a safe bet that traveling to a foreign country to make new friends and learn about other cultures was the driving motivator for many, and the driving motivator for their donors (mostly parents and friends no doubt). A similar fundraiser to employ local workers in a poor town unseen likely wouldn't have engaged people in the same way - it easily could have flopped and left the town with nothing.

So are the people who participate in these fundraiser selfish? Not anymore than the rest of us, and perhaps less than the general population. In the same way that most people don't think that buying a new car is a trade off for saving the lives of others (it is), those who help with a less-productive fundraiser don't think that they could run a more-productive fundraiser in it's place. Part of the blame for this rests with nonprofits that continue to run less-productive fundraisers while claiming the event is about raising money, instead of being honest that its purpose is volunteer engagement and outreach.

If we really care about a cause, and our goal is to raise money for that cause, it's time we start doing what it really takes: writing checks and asking our friends to do the same.

-Selfish Blogger

BTW, I'm running with PETA Pack. You can support my PETA Pack run here.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Even the Rich Want a Change

Perhaps you've already seen Warren Buffett's brilliant opinion piece in the New York Times called Stop Coddling the Super Rich. If not, it's worth a read (he asks for higher taxes on the rich - especially those who "earn" their money through investing alone!).

Warren Buffett is one of the super rich who has pledged to give away a substantial portion of his wealth to charity, like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, rather than pass all of it to his heirs. He's seen what happens to children that inherit all their wealth, and knows it's better for the poor and his heirs if his wealth passes to those who truly need help. Well done Mr. Buffett!

CREDO Action has released a petition asking the Senate to act on Warren Buffett's request for higher taxes on the rich. I signed it.

-Selfish Blogger

Tuesday, August 23, 2011


When I interned with Amnesty International, I was deeply moved when my supervisor told me that Amnesty does not prioritize one human rights violation over another. How can you weigh rape against false imprisonment? How do you choose between the rights of women and the rights of children? You can't. Every human rights violation is wrong; every violation needs to be stopped. What a compelling position. And yet, how very unrealistic.

We live in a world of limited resources, so organizations like Amnesty operate with limited resources too. The act of distributing those resources is an act of prioritization. The staff hours spent, the volunteers mobilized, the leaflets printed to stay that man's execution were staff hours and volunteers and leaflets that didn't go toward helping women in Juarez or ending the genocide in Sudan. The hope is that nonprofits think carefully about how to use their resources - using them in areas where they can be the most effective and make the most difference. Well established groups like Amnesty, with a highly qualified board of directors and professional staff, distribute their resources strategically and calculate where they can have the most impact (even as they believe that one human rights violation shouldn't have to be prioritized over another). We prioritize whether we want to or not, but hopefully we do so consciously.

If you measured where you spend your resources - your money, your time, and your influence with others - what would it reveal about your priorities (whether or not you've consciously chosen them)? My first priority is me, followed by the nonprofit I run... Minecraft probably lands in my top 10. The causes that I really care about could rank a lot higher if I thought more about my priorities. I wonder how many of us unintentionally prioritize coffee over feeding a hungry child, alcohol over safe drinking water for a family in a third world county, or new clothes over a life-altering surgery for a poor woman.

Props to my friends at PETA, who can honestly say that the majority of their personal resources go toward making real, lasting change in our world.

-Selfish Blogger

Thursday, August 11, 2011

1 > 0

In a post in April, I asked you for encouragement to give to the Fistula Foundation. It's common knowledge in the fundraising world that people are much more likely to give if they are asked by a friend, or if they know that their peers are giving. I was hoping that a flood of "make that gift!" comments would push me to do the right thing.

While I got some here (Thank You!), many more comments came in on my facebook page, and they were the opposite of what I had hoped to find. The general sentiment was this:

You already do so much, you deserve to spend some money on yourself. But do what makes you happy. Also, you're totally not selfish.

It's very sweet. My friends are so kind to me. While I may "deserve" to spend that money on myself, I have to ask - is it right? Is it right to spend money on a luxury instead of using it to help someone who is truly suffering? No. It's selfish. I do it all the time and I will continue to choose myself over others more often than not, but I'm trying to do it less.

Taking one right action is better than doing nothing. And if a few of us take the right action together, it's even better.

I gave to the Fistula Foundation in May. I gave enough to pay for the surgery of one woman, and hopefully change her life for the better. 1 > 0.

-Selfish Blogger

What do we owe the animals?

This week I had dinner with a large group - mostly friends of a friend - at a pretty pricey French restaurant. Maybe because I'm vegan or maybe because there was another vegetarian at the table, a few conversations broke out around the table about eating animals. I wasn't directly involved in any of those conversations, so I didn't jump in with my thoughts (every time I've jumped uninvited into a conversation about this topic, it's had opposite effect I want), but there was so much wrong with what was said.

"It's ok to eat veal now because they don't break their legs."
No, it's not. It's really not.

"If I couldn't eat the duck, I don't know WHAT I would do!" "You'd order the lamb! Ha ha ha!"

"The quick way we grow livestock is the greatest accomplishment of our farming system."
(By the way, free range/organic is not a solution.)

What do we owe the animals? Anyone who has lived with a doggie or kitty knows first hand that non-human animals avoid pain and seek pleasure like us. They have inner lives. Most of us haven't been able to live with cows, piggies, duckies, and chickens, but study after study finds that these animals are just as smart and caring as the animals who share our homes.

Let's be honest: buying products made from animals is a selfish decision. You are choosing your taste, your convenience, your sense of fashion, and the approval of your peers over the suffering and lives of others. And for those who try to defend their choices by claiming only "humanely raised"meat is in their fridge? The bottom line is you are willing to pay someone else to kill an animal, because the dead animal provides you with pleasure. That's selfish and it's cruel.

But you don't have to. Every meal you eat is your opportunity to be kind. I am so grateful to live in a time and place that allows me to live without taking the lives of animals. You can go vegan too, and there are lots of celebrities to help you on your way.

In the same way that giving $10,000 to charity does more than giving $100, going vegan does more than going vegetarian or just reducing your intake of meat. But does that mean we turn down the $100 gifts to charity? Of course not. Every action on your part makes a difference, for better or worse, for the animals who suffer to become food or fashion.

-Selfish Blogger

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1% Society:

Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1% Society:

An interesting read about why giving to the poor is good for the rich.

Pathological Altruism - When Does Caring Go Too Far?: A Lecture with Barbara Oakley

On Sunday April 17th I attended a lecture in the Feed Your Brain series at the Center for Inquiry in Hollywood. Dr. Barbara Oakley was speaking about her soon-to-be-release book titled "Pathological Altruism", clearly a topic that would be of interest to me. I plan to read her book, which I suspect will be quite good, but I took issue with her talk.

I expected to lecture to be filled with examples of people who do good to the point of hurting themselves: seniors who give away their entire savings to do "God's work"; parents' whose lives are consumed trying to "save" a child who won't get a job; animal rescuers who see too many dogs without homes, and so adopt them all, but provide good care to none. Instead, the lecture contained examples of people who feel concern for another based on bad information. The opening example she used was the story of a woman who has been horrifically tortured by her husband and then killed him in self-defense. Once Dr Oakley delved deeper into the story, we discovered that the woman had not been abused at all, was having an affair, and planned her husband's murder over a long period of time. Dr. Oakley labeled our initial pity for the woman as "pathological altruism."

To me, there was nothing pathological about the audience's feelings. It is normal and healthy to feel for a victim. Once we learned that she was not, in fact, a victim, the audience withdrew their feelings for her. What is pathological about that? I support the main messages of her lecture: use rationality and skepticism before become emotionally invested in a person or a cause; empathy may not always be good and we should study it. But I thought her definition of what counted as pathological altruism was lacking. She defined it as someone who is empathetic to the detriment of themselves and/or others. So under her definition, someone who gives to a charity that later turns out to be a scam is a pathological altruist (her example). I disagree. I don't think it is enough to do harm out of empathy to warrant the "pathological" label. Rather, you have to know you are doing harm and continue to do it before you can call it pathological. I would add to her definition: someone who is empathetic to the detriment of themselves and/or others and has access to information that demonstrates the harm and chooses to continue the behavior. In my definition, the person who gives to a phony charity, but cuts off their gifts when the scam is revealed is not a pathological altruist. The person who continues to give even after the scam is revealed would be.

I'm sure some people see this blog as evidence of my own altruistic pathology. But I really have to disagree. I just had a $50 box of organic produce delivered to my front door. I'm sitting in my warm bed, on my foam mattress, under my expensive faux-feather comforter, typing on my relatively new MacBook, setting my iPhone4 to wake me so I can choose an outfit from my extensive wardrobe and go into my office job in the morning. I live a life of sheer luxury because I was lucky enough to be born white, to middle class parents, in an area with excellent public schools and health care. There is little reason to believe that I deserve this lifestyle more than a girl who, because of chance, was born black, to impoverished parents, in an area with no schools to teach her to read and no clinics to treat her debilitating illness or injury. I owe most of what I have to a lucky birth location.

I gave just over 1% of my lucky income to people living in unlucky poverty last year - what Peter Singer asks each of us to do to help eliminate world poverty. I don't see any kind of pathology in giving at least 1% toward a future in which birth location has little weight on success. But I do see pathology - a moral disease - in a society that has the means to do so much good for so many, but decides to spend almost every extra dollar on leisure and things.

Remember Singer's figure that for $125 billion we could cut world poverty in half, and American's spend $116 billion booze each year? That's moral pathology.

-Selfish Blogger

The Money That Flows to Religion

"What was the total amount given to charity last year?" is a familiar question to anyone who's done fundraising training, and a handy motivating tool for fundraising instructors. When the question is posed, those new to the fundraising game guess embarrassingly small numbers. "$10 million", "$2 billion", "$10 billion!!!!" while the instructor writes their guesses on the board. Finally, the answer is revealed to a (mostly) shocked audience. "Over $300 billion was given in the US last year. And guess what folks, this number doesn't drop much during a recession. Is $300 billion enough for you to do your work? Enough for everyone in this room to do their work?! Let's figure out how you can get some of that $300 billion!" And then comes the breakdown of where that money goes, in the form of a handy pie chart.

Obviously there are shifts each year, but in the 5 years I've been looking at these pie charts based on Giving USA studies, the shifts have been minimal. The pies I've seen have 10 slices, give or take. Education and health/human services are two of the largest slices of pie, around 15% each. Animals/Environment (always lumped together) usually fall to the very bottom with about 2%. The largest chunk is always the same, and it's always far above the rest. No less than 1/3 of all charitable giving in the US, more than $100 billion annually, goes to religion. And when I say religion, I don't mean Catholic universities (education) or Jewish hospitals (health), I mean proselytizing and church building.*

$100 billion is pretty darn close to what we need to cut world poverty in half, and it's not been easy to get it. Are mega churches and televangelist salaries the best way to spend our charitable dollars? Does the vatican need your money more than a hungry child? And when the "charitable" work of religion includes lies to prevent condom use in AIDS stricken regions of the planet, I hope most people will agree that at least some of that $100 billion is causing great harm by going to religion instead of going to reputable nonprofits who are providing life saving services.

When the fundraising classes discuss why religion dominates the charitable contributions in this country, lot's of ideas get thrown around. But the inevitable answer landed on is always "because they ask, and they ask every week". I'm not sure if this is the whole answer, but there is no doubt it's a big part of it. People give because they are asked. And churches never hesitate to pass the collection plate.

I wonder if we can grab on to religion's ability to ask and use it to do real good. Here's my idea for the readers: make your own collection plate. Take a dollar from your wallet each Sunday and set it aside for a good cause. Once a year, you've got $52 just waiting to help someone who really needs it.

I know not everyone will do this. But I've taken enough fundraising course to know one thing for certain: the top reason people don't give is because they are never asked. So I'm asking. I'm asking you. Will you give $52 more this year than you gave last year? Will you save $1 a week to help someone truly in need?

List of reputable charities to consider:

If you decide to give, tell us about it.

-Selfish Blogger

*I should mention that I've never actually read the Giving USA report myself - it costs money to get your hands on - so I can't be certain how they classify each category. I'm simply repeating the definitions that my fundraising instructors have used. I assume they are right.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Fighting My Selfish Drive

Last week I had two bummer moments: my TV died and someone hit my car.

I don't watch much TV and what little I do watch, I can get online. When I lived without a TV in the past, my house was cleaner, I got more sleep, and I read more books. If I'm honest with myself, I don't really want to replace my TV. But when I think about how other people will react, I change my mind. Professional 20-somethings are supposed to have a nice size flat screen in their home.

The damage to my car is minimal and entirely cosmetic. But no doubt it will eat up my $500 deductible to repair. It bugs me a little - seeing this "black eye" every time I get in the car. But it bugs me more to think about what other people think. Do other drivers look at me and wonder why I haven't gotten this fixed? Do they wonder if I'm poor? Do they think I'm a bad driver?

I have money in my checking account to replace my TV and fix my car. I could take care of both of these problems with no strain on my budget. But if I have that much money just sitting around - not in a retirement account, not set aside for emergencies - why on earth haven't I given it to people who really need it?

If I feel so much shame over a broken TV and a dinged up car, but I can only imagine the emotions felt by a women living with a fistula. A fistula is a hole between the vagina and the bladder, often caused by early childbearing or violent rape, and 2,000,000 women in the developing world have them. A fistula means a lifetime of urine constantly dribbling from the vagina, where you can never get clean, where you always smell foul. A woman with an untreated fistula will never be married or will be left by her husband: she will have no financial stability. Each of these 2,000,000 women in the developing world live a life of incredible suffering and shame due to untreated fistulas, forced into lifelong poverty because they were forced into sex or forced into pregnancy before their bodies had fully developed. The reason we don't hear about fistulas in developed countries is that they are easily treatable through surgery.

The surgery costs $450.

I am sick to my stomach that I know about this problem, I know how to help, and I'm still thinking about fixing a cosmetic problem on a car. Is there one good reason, one sound argument, why I should choose to repair a car instead of repairing a human life? And if there is, does it make it right? Does it make it moral? Does it help me be the person I think I should be?

I'm disgusted at my own selfishness - that I've been thinking about this choice for a week, and haven't acted in the way that I know to be right. I can't help but think that this would be easier if I lived in a culture that valued action over appearance, that valued lives over things.

I think I just need some encouragement. Tell me to give!!!

If you want to learn more, NOVA did an incredible documentary called "A Walk to Beautiful" on this issue.

If you want to help, consider giving to The Fistula Foundation, a highly ranked, transparent, and effective nonprofit funding doctors and hospitals that repair fistulas. That's where I know I need to give, if I can just find the moral courage to do it.

-Selfish Blogger

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Let's Hear it for the Death Tax

It's about time someone stood up for the estate tax - that fairly painless bringer of equality, insurer of social mobility, and bane of the Republican party.

Repealing the federal estate tax, often assigned the pejorative term "death tax", was a top priority for George W. Bush. In 1997, the federal estate tax rate was 55%, with a deduction of $600,000. In other words, if a loved one died and left me $600,001, I would pay $0.55 in federal estate tax. Laws signed by Bush gradually brought that rate down to 35% and the deduction up to $5,000,000, until the estate tax was eliminated all together in 2010.

What's wrong with no estate tax? Shouldn't hardworking individuals be able to leave their wealth to their children? After all, these people didn't work all their lives to give money to the government. That's true, but let's consider how much unearned wealth is being transferred.

With $5,000,000, I could draw a $50,000 annual salary for 100 years. A family could comfortably live off the interest of this inheritance for generations, without ever working for a paycheck or contributing to society. Look no farther than the celebrity socialites of rich parents, and you can make the case that it is actually harmful to be the recipient of large sums of unearned wealth.

What happens to our society if large sums of wealth pass from family to family, without ever requiring these people to work, and where their livelihood is secured through inherited ownership? What does it mean for democracy and social mobility if there are generations of families who, simply through lucky birth, are ensured a life of leisure and luxury through no efforts of their own? I can't help but be reminded of feudalism in medieval Europe, or the deeply impoverished countries with a handful of super wealthy families that we see today.

Rather than opposing such a tax, I think the ultra-rich should be proud to pay their fair share into a system that created space for their success. Our government provides a legal system to enforce their contracts, a patent office to protect their intellectual property, and officers of the peace to prevent theft of their belongings. In lawless lands where ideas and money can be stolen without consequence or the opportunity for recourse, it is doubtful that our mega-rich neighbors would have accumulated the wealth and power they now possess. The chance for upward mobility and personal wealth is unique to those places that have strong government infrastructure and (relatively) low corruption. Those wealthy enough to pay this tax (we're talking about 5,500 families in 2009) owe this country for their success, and should be honored to ensure the continued stability of our system through one last payment.

If you don't think that's a good enough reason, then think of the children. I for one would be embarrassed to create children or grandchildren in the mold of Paris Hilton by giving them seemingly endless amounts of money. And I think the hardworking builders of personal fortune would feel the same.

For 2011, the estate tax has returned with a $1,000,000 deduction and rates between 41-55%. I for one am glad to see it back. It's fair, it's good for the country, and it's good for the children.

-Selfish Blogger

Monday, March 28, 2011

Share a Cup of Coffee

My first fundraising job was for a university. For three hours each night (during dinner time) I called university alumni and asked them for money. Sometimes it was difficult, but I was pretty good at it, and I learned a lot about why people give and how to successfully ask for that gift - skills that are essential now that I'm the Executive Director of a nonprofit.

The year I started making those calls, the university set the goal of increasing the alumni giving rate from a tiny 7% to a more respectable 13%. It didn't matter how big the gifts were, we just needed to get more alumni to become donors. (Most people don't know this, but the US New and World Report rankings of universities include alumni giving rates. Increasing our rate wasn't so much a goal for increasing income, but rather a goal for improving our national ranking).

Our campaign was ingenious, and a concept I have used since. One alumnus conceived of and paid for the whole campaign, and it went something like this:

Share a Cup of Coffee with Your University
Think of how much you spend on those fancy coffees. Would you be willing to share a cup of coffee each month with your university? Save the money you spend on one cup of coffee each month, and at the end of the year that's a substantial $25 gift. Share a cup of coffee with the university by making a $25 contribution to support our annual fund.

It worked. In about 18 months we had nearly doubled our annual giving rate to 13%.

There's something I really like about this campaign. It presents the idea of simple sacrifice as a way to give. You don't have to have extra money laying around to make a gift (who does!?), you just have to reallocate some of the money you're already spending. It subtly shows that we actually do have extra money laying around! If you spend $3 on a cup of coffee, when you could make that coffee at home? That's extra money. If you buy a soda with your meals out when you could get water for free? That's extra money. If you are having meals out at all! That's extra money, and you can afford to give to charity.

When I volunteered to do training for a chapter of my sorority, I put it to the test. Speaking to 70 college women attending a state school, I showed that they had money to give to our philanthropy using the coffee example. Instead of falling on deaf ears, the sorority engaged in a lively discussion about where else they could make cuts in their budget in order to make meaningful gifts to charity. Designer bags, weekly manicures, alcohol, everything was on the table. Rather than feeling put out at the suggestion they should give up something they enjoy to give to charity, they felt empowered. As "poor" (I use the term loosely) college students, they had more money than they knew to help an important cause.

When you feel like to you don't have money to give to charity, remember this example. There are things you buy - yearly, monthly, maybe daily? - that are extras. They are luxuries. And when set against the backdrop of our world, where children die because they don't have enough food or clean water, those luxuries are selfish.

Here's a stagering figure that Peter Singer presents: for $125 billion, we could cut world poverty in half. $116 billion is what American's spend on booze annually.

What are you willing to give up to save a life?

-Selfish Blogger

Paying Taxes

I've just finished that dreaded American past time: filing annual income taxes. It wasn't painful, especially because I'll be getting both a federal and state refund.

For the first time this year, I noticed some extra boxes on the CA state tax form. CA gives you the option to give some of your tax refund to agencies you care about - those serving seniors, low-income families, animals, and the environment. I'm sure those boxes have been there before, I've probably just never noticed them.

My CA state tax refund was $645. I decided to give $100 back. $50 went to endangered species, $50 went to feeding hungry families. What a simple and painless process for giving! I'm still getting a generous $545 tax refund, and since the money is already out of my pocket, I don't feel the "sticker shock" of writing a check that size. I'm sure I wouldn't have given to these agencies without this simple option.

You can (rightly) make the argument that this isn't giving, it's more taxes. Fine. You're right. But think about how giving vehicles like this would go a long way toward increasing dollars that flow to worthy causes?

There are other, even better, vehicles that make giving easy. Think about credit cards that give your purchase rewards to good causes. Peter Singer writes about corporations that use an optional giving plan on employee paychecks: 1% of your wages automatically goes toward helping people in poverty. The 1% gift is default, you don't have to sign-up for it, but you can opt out if you choose. Most people don't opt out, and so each employee gives a much higher annual gift to charity than they would if there were asked to write a check once a year.

If we ask for more of these kinds of giving options, imagine the impact. They make giving a more present part of our daily lives, and they get money to people in need.

-Selfish Blogger

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Are you rich enough?

If you ever start to feel like you're poor, maybe because you can't afford a bigger apartment or because you have to decline a night out with friends to stay on budget, remember that most of the world has much, much less than you.

I'm in the top 3.1% of the richest people in the world. Where do you fall? Find out here

-Selfish Blogger

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Jay Leno: Philanthropic Hero or Materialistic Villain?

Yesterday I had the chance to watch a taping of The Tonight Show. Tapings aren't particularly exciting if you've grown up in LA. They usually involve long lines and 6 hour waits without access to food (or bathrooms). But this taping was a different story.  We had VIP tickets, allowing us to skip the morning line-up and waltz in at 2:30 for a 4:00 taping. Once we were in the studio, the audience warm-up started (a normal part of the live taping experience) where a series of comedians, upbeat staffers, and musical performances got the audience fired up and ready to laugh when the real show began! When Bryan Branly, backstage host at The Tonight Show, came out to get us going, he said something that piqued my interest. There's a website about Jay Leno's garage and, whether you're a gear-head or not he said, everyone should check it out. So I did. 

It should be no surprise to Leno's fans that he has a massive car collection of rare, custom, and antique automobiles. Leno is known for regularly driving cars from the collection on the streets of LA because, as the website says, "Jay makes his purchases not as museum pieces, but because he enjoys driving the cars and motorcycles… all of them!"

What are we to make of Jay's extravagant collection that consists of over 100 cars and motorcycles in his 17,000 sq ft garage? His collection obviously does some good: it brings joy to individuals, preserves history, and provides a handful of undoubtedly well-paid jobs for specialize mechanics. But does that outweigh the good that his collection could do? What if Jay sold his collection and used the proceeds to educate girls in Africa, to make micro-loans to women in India, to build and staff health clinics in the poorest regions of the world? There are measurable, effective, inexpensive ways to change lives, to bring people out of poverty, and Jay has the resources to fund some of them. Certainly Jay Leno has the right to spend his own money as he wishes, but his choice to spend excess wealth on cars is a selfish choice - one that places individual pleasure above the suffering of many.

Yet Jay gives generously to charity, sometimes out of his garage! In 2009, Jay auctioned off one of his custom motorcycles for $120,000 to support Bailey's Cafe, an inner city arts program in New York. Bailey's serves a community in great need, even if the poverty of inner city youth in New York is nothing compared to the third world, where poverty can mean no clean water, no clinics, no food stamps, and no police protection. But Jay gives to charities that work around the world too, like the Starkey Hearing Foundation, which provides hearing devices world wide in countries like Rwanda and Burundi. Jay donates to a whole list of worthy causes that work to make the world better. Is it fair to criticize a rich man for buying a few toys when he gives so much to others?

So Jay Leno: Philanthropic Hero or Materialistic Villain? Probably neither; maybe a little bit of both. I think we should praise the real good he is doing in the world. Jay gives far more than I will ever be capable of giving, and so likely does more good than I will ever be capable of doing. But I think it is equally fair to look at his extravagant collection and recognize that he is choosing to use his wealth on fun and status at the cost of feeding hungry children or providing life-saving vaccines. By promoting this kind of materialism through his celebrity and website, Leno acts as another voice supporting the consumer culture that makes ownership of possessions more enticing than truly important acts that change lives and save lives. 

I challenge the philanthropic, generous-spirited Jay Leno to make a bold, public step in his giving: for each dollar you spend adding to your collection, announce an equal sized gift to a charity that lifts people out of poverty. By making your gift publicly, you will encourage others to give too and help encourage a culture that values generosity and equality.

Remember: If you can afford more than one car, you can definitely afford to save lives.

-Selfish Blogger

P.S. Jay, in case you don't know where to start, this list of charities has been vetted and reflects only those who have demonstrated high effectiveness in their work with the world's poorest populations.

The Life You Can Save... if you care to try

The Life You Can Save by Peter Singer changed my life. And that was by design.

My best friend, the common catalyst for most of my moral-lifestyle-shifts, gave me her copy of The Life You Can Save in December. I read through it quickly, often fighting back tears as Singer carefully lays out a solid case for giving to the world's poorest people. The commonly heard arguments against giving (like aid creates dependency and aid encourages poor people have more babies) are honestly and fairly addressed. Before I was half way through the book, one thing was entirely clear to me: my daily choices are unforgivably selfish.

The opportunity cost of my lifestyle, my spending choices, is a human life. Every dollar I spend in a restaurant, on faster internet, or for new clothes is a dollar spent with heartlessness, because I don't need any of those things. I live in a world where 10 million children die each year from poverty - and I am in a position to help. How can I justify what I spend to maintain my comfortable middle-class lifestyle when I could instead pay for oral rehydration therapy (some salt and sugar dissolved in water) and save one of the 3 million who die of diarrhea each year? What kind of a person am I if I have the ability to save someone's life, but choose to turn away?

This blog is an exploration of a consumer culture that tells us to define personal worth by accumulation of wealth rather than good deeds; institutions and religions that claims to serve the poor but whose actions say otherwise; the giving and spending habits of the mega-rich, celebrities, and politicians; and my own morality.

It is my hope that a thoughtful, public discussion of the issues surrounding poverty and the role of the wealthy (that's us) will encourage me to do more, and encourage others to join me.

-Selfish Blogger