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