How to Get Started in Giving

A friend recently asked me how he and his wife could find a good charity to start funding.  It’s a good question and not one that’s easily answered.  Maybe it’s helpful to think of starting a giving program like starting an exercise program.  Both of them:

  • help you feel better about yourself
  • require commitment and effort
  • can be fun, but can also be painful
  • are things you “should” do for a well-rounded life

So how would you start an exercise program?  Well, I would look for friends who enjoy their exercise programs and imagine if I would like them too.  I am personally not a big outdoors person, so that eliminates a lot of options.  And I don’t like sweating or getting off the couch, so I guess I’m limited to squeezing hand grips while watching action shows.  But to focus on the positive, I do like sprinting and hitting things with sticks, so racquet sports usually work well for me.  The lesson for giving is that you can eliminate some broad areas but also find some things you care deeply about.  There are many types people in the world who are disadvantaged or subject to injustice.  Some questions to help narrow it down:

  • Do you care more about the local community, the country as a whole, or international issues?  International poverty is on a different scale than domestic, meaning they can be much poorer.  But because of the distance, they are also harder to reach effectively and work with directly.  Or maybe the possibility of traveling there is a plus for you?
  • Are there certain groups you feel for?  Children, homeless, immigrants, women, teenage moms, elderly, cancer patients, starving artists?  I’ve found that being a new parent opens my eyes to the benefits my child has, compared to many other children who live just a few miles away.  So it makes me more open to helping other kids, for example reading in classrooms.
  • How much interaction do you want?  Do you like other kids, but only at arms length (or farther)?  Or do you want to see gap-toothed smiles as you teach and play with them?  There’s a wide range of interaction from none (just writing checks) to regular meetings like being a Big Brother / Big Sister.

One aspect of giving I don’t like is that many charities will sell the names and addresses of their donors, which increases your junk mail.  To avoid this, you can give through a Charitable Gift Fund (CGF) which hides your address.  As an added bonus, it also helps simplify your taxes since you take a deduction when you put money in CGF, not when you disburse the fund’s money to individual charities.

Finally, I’ll list a few concrete suggestions:

Loans and Investments: by putting your money in these places, you are loaning rather than donating it.

  • Kiva: you make no interest, but can invest small amounts in individuals starting businesses
  • Microplace: you make a small amount of interest and can invest in larger amounts than Kiva.  Less hands-on interaction.
  • Prosper and LendingClub: rather than put money into a savings account earning 1% interest, you can loan at higher interest to fellow Americans who need loans.

Direct Donation: here are three places we featured on this blog for the Advent Challenge this past Christmas.

And one bonus: My New Red Shoes helps local Bay Area homeless families by providing shoes, clothes, and school supplies, packaged in bags that you sew yourself.  Crafty…

I hope this helps, and I’d be glad to answer any questions.  Happy giving!



A few weekends ago, June and I hosted a smallgroup.  One of the guys who came was in his early 40’s, a bit quiet, college-educated, lived in Boston, clean-shaven, wearing a sweatshirt and jeans and wire-rimmed glasses, an immigrant with accented English.  With the exception of being an immigrant, that could describe me.  Except our visitor was homeless.

It’s easy to stereotype the homeless with negative connotations, maybe from the media or maybe from contact with panhandlers.  In the same way, it’s easy to stereotype the rich and the poor.  Interestingly, most people in the U.S. think of themselves as middle-class — the “poor” are people who are worse-off, and the “rich” are people who live in mansions.  The danger of such thinking is that it fosters a territorial mentality.  It brings about such thoughts as “tax the rich” or “I don’t want to raise my kids in a poor school district.”

Another danger is that stereotypes erase individuality.  They prevent one from seeing people as unique children of God, with their own gifts and callings and personal histories.  It can be offensive to assume people are a certain way because of a stereotype.  “Hey Mr. Asian, can you help me with my math homework?”  The PC movement has helped raise awareness of such issues in racial stereotypes.  But money and class stereotypes are still strongly entrenched.  And buying into those stereotypes can blind us from seeing individual needs.  Maybe that trust fund kid has money struggles, while that poor retiree does not.  Not every homeless person is looking for a handout, or even a job.

I’m curious to hear about your experiences of being surprised by a “poor” person.  Did it change your way of thinking?

The Simple Living Challenge: Everyone Drinks the Same Water

In one of the most famous and memorable scenes from the Bible, Moses parts the Red Sea (with divine help) to lead the Israelites out of Egypt.  The Pharaoh’s army gives chase and is swallowed up by the waters as they crash back to their natural state.  If I were a soldier in Pharoh’s army, my thoughts would have gone like this:

  • These refugee slaves have no weapons nor fighting experience.  Capturing them will be a cinch.
  • Holy ****!  Did the Red Sea just open up for them?
  • I’m not going to follow them into *that* — are you kidding?  The sea could come back anytime, and in case you were wondering, my bronze breastplate does not double as a life preserver.
  • I wonder if I can sneak off before my fellow archers cut me down.
  • Well, everyone else is running onto the sea bed.  I guess I’ll take my chances.
  • <the sound of a thousand waterfalls>

But let’s say a few stragglers did manage to stay behind on dry land as they watched the rest of their army drown.  They’re separated from the Israelites by a sea of water.  Completely hopeless and demoralized, they had to trudge home with the fail story of a lifetime.

Fast forward a few thousand years.  Water is again dividing two groups of people, but now they are the rich and the poor.  The rich live in luxury, so much that drinking clean tap water is considered declasse.  The poor, on the other hand, are literally dying from lack of clean water.  The very same water that is not good enough for you and me, is out of reach for many of the world’s poor.  I wonder if Jesus walked the Earth today, instead of turning water into wine, he would be turning HFCS soft drinks into water for the poor to drink.

But perhaps we can take matters into our own hands.  For this upcoming season of Lent, let’s do our part to cross this clean-water divide.  The idea is very simple: Everyone Drinks the Same Water.  The rich socialite who doesn’t think twice about dropping $5 for a half double decaffeinated half-caf, with a twist of lemon — he can drink the same water as the homeless earthquake survivor in Haiti.

How will we do this?  During Lent, those with access to clean tap water will step down their tastes and refrain from any other drinks.  And those without such access, well they need… wells.  So let’s help them build wells by saving the money we normally might have spent on other drinks.  In addition, let’s find sponsors to donate for each day we drink only water.  If you’d like to join us or even if you’re just curious, please visit our Simple Living Challenge signup page.  We’ll kick off the Challenge at sunrise on Tuesday, March 15.

This past Advent we ran the Just Giving Challenge, inviting you readers to give as much to the poor as you spent on Christmas gifts.  With our matching grant, we gave $12,100 to a variety of worthy causes.  Quite an inspirational way to reclaim Christmas.  I hope we can reclaim Easter in the same way, and make Lent a meaningful season for people on both sides of the clean-water sea.

Define Success

Fill in the blank: Chris is a successful __________ .

What word did you think of?  For me, it was “businessman.”  Maybe it’s because I live in money-centric Silicon Valley, or maybe that’s the zeitgeist of the entire U.S.  Maybe you filled in a different word, like pastor.  What connotes a successful pastor?  I think of “big congregation” / “famous” / “multimillion-dollar budget.”  I doubt these are God’s values, but they are society’s idea of success.  How about “successful philanthropist”?  To most people, it means someone who was successful at making a lot of money, and then gave it away as an afterthought.  Not someone who was good at giving money away effectively.  Perhaps it’s just hard to measure effective giving, or there’s not a lot of competition in the field.

Another common phrase is “trappings of success.”  Google “trappings” and you get: The outward signs, features, or objects associated with a particular situation, role, or thing: “I had the trappings of success”. In my mind I picture it as rich gold epaulettes or a cape over your shoulders.  That’s right — this bling *shows* I’m successful.  But consider how people acquire material objects to show success, and how much it traps­ them through care and upkeep.  Home ownership is the most common example — new homeowners are often shocked by the amount of time and money it takes to maintain and upgrade their property.

What does it mean to be a successful spouse or parent?  Few would argue that these roles are less important than our jobs, but the word success doesn’t go well with them.  At best, a successful parent is one who raises successful kids.  But can I be a successful husband?  Does it come with a performance-based executive compensation bonus plan?

In my opinion, the most insidious part of success is its insatiable appetite.  The New York Times recently ran an article with the insightful line:

Hence the cliché: law school is a pie-eating contest where the first prize is more pie.

The reward for success is generally the opportunity for more work and more difficult challenges, which recalls the wisdom from Bladerunner: “The candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long.”

When I think about my emotional investments and compare them with my ideal values, I find I’m overweighted in success.  I’d like to lead a more balanced life, with more compassion, fellowship, laughter, and memorable experiences.  What about you — would you like to have more or less of a focus on “success” in your life?

Democracy, Protests, and Economic Growth

Sometimes I feel that personal giving is not enough.  No matter how much I myself give, it’s a drop in the ocean of poverty.  Even if the entire developed world gave 0.7% or 1%, no one has any idea how it can be distributed to reach the global poor.  In addition, there is the problem of corruption.  Government officials or militias (sometimes there’s no difference) can intercept food before it gets to civilians.  It makes me think of the Think of the Children problem, in which you can’t help needy kids without dealing with their primary caretakers who can subvert the intended aid.

That’s why I’m encouraged these past few weeks to see protests around the world, local people rising up against harsh dictators and corrupt governments.  I’m also encouraged that technology companies like Google, Twitter, and Facebook have helped spread the ideas that better government is possible.  It makes me feel better about working in tech, which can sometimes feel very disconnected from helping the poor.  And I wonder if these tech companies have been more influential than traditional Christian missionaries in those countries.

There are two broad categories of social justice: relief (short-term) and development (long-term).  Most personal donations fall into the relief category.  Even if they go towards, say, microloans for businesses to develop sustainable income, they are still at the mercy of local governments.  In the end, strong and free governments are necessary to provide a business-friendly environment that will create a sustainable economic ecosystem.

I like the Good Paper model.  It provides dignified work and income for the poor and abused.  But by itself it is not a complete and sustainable system — it creates products for consumption by rich Westerners through appealing to their compassion and pity.  For poor countries to grow their economies overall, they must have local businesses and industries that serve themselves, not just luxury exports.  I don’t know how to help this process along, so I’m glad to see locals taking charge of fixing their own governments.  Are you or anyone you know actively involved?

How Do You Build a Wealth-Diverse Community?

My church, Jesus the Recreator, is trying to build a diverse community in San Jose, California.  Diverse not just racially, but also socio-economically.  To me, the latter is the hard part.  Personally, I have a much easier time socializing with other educated people regardless of race.  Do you feel the same?  In the secular non-profit world, I also see this clear class division.  You either work directly with the poor, such as social work, or indirectly as a part of a think tank or foundation.  The former generally don’t write papers or work on policy, and the latter don’t have friends among the poor.

If it’s hard to make friends outside of your socio-economic class, it’s even harder to build a whole church community.  I know of only a few examples of current-day churches which have managed to do this: Mako and Ming’s church in Dorchester, Gary and Jodi’s church in Oakland, and Grace Fellowship Community Church in San Francisco.  My impression is that it takes many years and an extraordinary level of commitment to develop this type of community.  Do you know of other examples, and if you’ve been a part of such a church, what have been the key factors to making it work?

The Poorest Americans and the Richest Indians

Sort everyone in the U.S. by income, and arrange them into 20 groups.  The poorest group makes an average of $6700 per year.  Pretty poor, eh?  Now do the same for everyone in India.  According to the graph above, the poorest group in the U.S. makes more than the richest group in India!  I find that amazing.  Last year I went to a lavish wedding in India which certainly cost more than the life savings of someone who makes $6700 a year.  The only explanation is that my friends who got married must be much higher than the average 95% percentile.  Maybe they’re in the 99.99%.  There must be a lot of poor people in India — poor by U.S. standards — to bring down the average of the top 5%.