Project 1040: On Generosity, Clean Water, and Imagination

$Here are the common things I remember hearing on the topic of money and resources growing up:

你真的需要吗?(“Do you really need that?”)

不要浪费. (“Don’t waste it.”)

太贵了. (“That’s too expensive.”)

Now, I never sat down with my non-Christian Chinese immigrant parents to discuss their specific worldview on financial resources, simplicity, and generosity – but like everything else – as a kid, you figure out pretty quick what is important and what is NOT.  Thus, conspicuous excess, luxurious spending, and wastefulness were shameful practices.  Also, acts of charity and generosity to those outside our immediate family was also treated with suspicion.

This is the context for my own journey in the Christian faith to reconcile the Bible’s teaching on money and my own upbringing of frugality and self-protection.  I had inherited the lessons of prior generations – borne from a lifetime of being subject to violence, war, financial instability, and limited resources.

In terms of the values expressed on this blog — I found that my family had helped me develop the “muscle” of simplicity, but left the corresponding capacity to be generous in an atrophied state.  It is only in recent years, that I have begun to work on this part of my life.  And although I make no pretense to be a finished product, I feel I am closer today than when I started.

The current example: for Lent this year, my friends and I are raising money to build wells and provide clean water for villages in Tigray, Ethiopia.


Because individuals (typically women) walk around 3.7 miles per day to fetch water for their families, members of our group are also committing to walk this amount each day as well.  It’s a somewhat different “take” on the traditional Lenten practices, but it is a small step for us to try to identify with our brothers and sisters, to push ourselves (and others) to be generous, and appreciate the abundance of what we possess.  This exciting project seeks to raise enough money for 10 wells which may potentially provide clean water for about 5,000 people!  As of today, we have raised enough for 6 wells (Every dollar donated will be matched by our small group)!

More information here:


Now, I could tell you how fun it is to be a fundraiser (not that fun), or to try and walk the required daily mileage (it’s okay), or to see people give generously (EXTREMELY cool), but for myself, I know that the muscle I continue to need developing is that of being rich toward God by being generous towards others.  You would think that years of tithing to the church, donating towards worthy causes, and building wells would make giving money easier over time.  Truth is, it’s tough.  For Project 1040, Melissa and I committed to giving one-third of our savings towards the matching funds.  And let me tell you – it’s still really hard to do for me.  I’m still often plagued with nagging (but important) voices:

“Is this really the MOST effective use of this money?”

“Aren’t I supposed to be joyful?  Why, then, does this feel so hard?”

“What difference will this really make?”

“I could be doing a lot of other things with that money!”

I wish I had better answers to these questions and internal dialogue, but one thing that has helped is to imagine the look on the faces of the women, men, and children in far-away Tigray when the first trickle of water emerges from the new well.  I think about the kids who may have time to get an education; how many might avoid diseases and death.  I think about the celebration that will ensue.


Sometimes I wonder how much easier it would be to give if we were firsthand witnesses to those for whom will benefit from our generosity.  What if these people were just next door?  Wouldn’t we act quickly and without reservation?  Maybe what is atrophied for all of us is the capacity to imagine those in need as truly our neighbors.  We, in some ways, are still stuck asking the same Pharisaical question:  “And who is my neighbor?”

I hope you will prayerfully consider join us in our campaign to bless the people of Tigray, Ethiopia – our dear neighbors in Christ.

But even more, I hope you will allow the Spirit to infiltrate your imagination with visions of how a generous God can use you to pursue His purposes in the world.

Lent: Giving Out, not just Giving Up

Lent isn’t just for Catholics anymore. It seems like every year I hear even self-described nonreligious friends musing about what to give up for Lent. Check out the 100 top choices people made last year according to their Twitter feeds.  It’s an interesting mix, from the sarcastic (“virginity” or “Christianity”) to the sublime (“smoking” or “negativity”).

The point of today’s Ash Wednesday post is not to add yet another suggestion to this list. I figure if you’ve read this far, you’ve probably already considered what to give up this year. Instead I want to simply propose that Lent is not just about “giving up” but “giving out” too.  If you’re giving up Starbucks for Lent, why not calculate the amount you would have spent on your morning java and give that to the poor on Easter? If you’re giving up Facebook or Pinterest or, why not invest the time you would have spent surfing learning about poverty and injustice–and then give to the cause that most inspired you?

Best of all, why not supersize Lent by gathering a few friends together in order to “give up” and “give out” together? My favorite story of Lent-in-community remains my 8 friends  who one year “gave up” all drinks except tap water and creatively raised more than $40k to fund clean water wells in Haiti. This year they’re doing it again, except now they’re going for $100k!

My goals for Lent this year are more modest. Since we recently moved to a new city, we don’t yet have a small group of friends with whom we can grow in economic discipleship. Even though I blog and think and speak about this stuff all the time, I am not regularly gathering with anyone to support each other in living simply for the sake of giving generously. I’m in that stage of transition where I still don’t really have local friends I can go to a baseball game with, let alone talk about the challenging issues of living a just economic lifestyle. So this Lent, all I’m hoping for is to find a couple friends to form a Giving Group that meets 4 times a year.

If you’re doing any “giving out” this year, please comment! (And if you are doing a Lazarus at the Gate group, I’d especially love to hear about it.) I always find it very encouraging to hear what creative steps of faith groups of friends are taking. May you have a holy Ash Wednesday!

The Simple Living Challenge

“What are you giving up for Lent?”  I usually have mixed feelings when I hear that question this time of year.  On one hand, I deeply value Lent as a way to prepare myself to celebrate the death and resurrection of Christ.  I appreciate the opportunity to grow in one specific aspect of my faith and character for a defined amount of time.  On the other hand, I often don’t know what exactly to do, and the churches I’ve attended rarely have done anything together, so I flounder.

But five years ago a group of friends came up with the most inspiring Lenten idea I’ve ever encountered.  They were concerned by the painful fact that one of every eight people today has no access to clean water.  Women and children must trudge long distances to find dirty, bacteria-infested water, keeping them from school or productive work.  Once they drink it, they inevitably get sick.  But my friends also pointed out that those of us from more privileged backgrounds often pass up free, clean, healthy tap water to drink sodas and other high-fructose concoctions that are prime contributors to the obesity and diabetes epidemics.

The great thing about my friends’ response is that they didn’t just think about these hard truths, which feels bad. They did something about it—which feels good! They called it Project 440.  The nine of them, inspired by their faith, decided to drink only tap water for the duration of Lent, bringing attention to the issues while saving themselves money and improving their health.  Meanwhile, through March Madness basketball pools, raffles at house parties, and matching grants, they raised enough money to drill deep-water wells for five villages in Haiti. Not a bad answer to “what are you giving up for Lent?”!

I think Project 440 was so memorable for me because it convinced me that small groups of friends have big potential to make a difference–both for themselves and for people like those in Haiti still drinking clean water today.  In fact, I’d like to celebrate Lent in a similar way every year.  But unfortunately, for the last few years I haven’t been in close proximity to like-minded friends, so I’ve let my vision languish a bit.

So this year, using this space now available in the blogosphere, we’d like to propose a new Lent experiment.   We’re calling it the Simple Living Challenge, and we hope it’s a fun, meaningful way to concretely reflect Jesus’ justice and compassion, even if we’re separated by distance.  Here’s how it works:

  • First, let’s commit to giving up all beverages except tap water for the entire duration of the forty days before Easter.  Every day will be a chance to appreciate the gift of clean water. You’ll save money, simplify your life, and maybe even feel better without the unhealthy stuff we drink in our “comfort beverages.”  If forty days seems too hard, join anyway and challenge yourself to make it as many days as you can!
  • Second, let’s find sponsors to support our tap-water-drinking efforts.  Just as race sponsors donate a certain sum per mile run, we’ll ask folks to donate something for every day we drink only tap water, up to forty.  We’ve set up a page at the charity: water website which will direct 100% of our tax-deductible donations to support clean water efforts throughout the world.  And after Easter we can even see on Google Earth exactly where our donations are put to use.

So what’s next?  This Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, we’ll kick off a six-day window for everyone to sign on.  The Simple Living Challenge will begin at sunrise on Tuesday, March 15.  If this sounds like something you’d be excited about, we’d especially encourage you to spread the word and participate together with friends, family or church small groups.  Please consider joining us!

Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For . . . . I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.



Different Ways of Giving

It’s close to the end of 2010, and time for New Year’s resolutions.  On the physical side, some of us might resolve to eat less and exercise more.  On the spiritual side, it might be to spend less and give more.  While you can set giving goals in terms of percentages and absolute amounts, I’d also like to encourage you to broaden your idea of what constitutes “giving.”

Giving money is great, but without a personal connection it can feel empty.  I believe there must be a personal connection for giving to be fulfilling.  One way to begin establishing such connections is to volunteer.  You can get to know both the organization and the people it helps.  And an organization can help defuse the potentially awkward power dynamics of giving money directly to people in need.

If you want direct deep person-to-person interactions in your volunteering, you might consider mentoring.  Big Brother and Big Sisters is probably the most well-known mentoring organization.  Or if you live in a community with these needs, or know people through work or church, you might do more informal mentoring.  Alternatively, consider the flip side by finding a mentor for yourself, a pastor or other respected leader who can help teach you how to live simply and give joyfully.

Maybe you feel the need to tell others and help propagate the message of economic discipleship.  We set up this blog as a space for people to comment and write posts.  Do you have any stories or thoughts to share?  We’d be happy to hear from you.  Or perhaps you’d like to advocate by leading a Giving Group in the area where you live.  Or maybe ask your pastor to preach on the subject in the coming months.  Or organize a charity benefit with your friends, which can both collect money and educate participants.

Finally, you might consider how your vocation fits into giving.  Many people who believe in the principles of economic discipleship find themselves in professions where they don’t make a lot of money but are able to help the needy directly.  If you’re in this category, great!  You’re giving your life already, and any financial giving is above and beyond.  If on the other hand, you find yourself in a profession where making money is the primary goal, you have a larger obligation to donate money.  “From those who are given much, much will be asked.”  The world needs donors as well as workers on the front lines.  Finally, you might find yourself in the fortunate position of being both a donor and a front-line worker.  Kudos to my friend Grace who is a doctor with 3 kids and still finds time to volunteer overseas.

In summary, I’d like you to consider giving in many ways as you make your New Year’s resolutions.  And if you think of other ones I haven’t listed, please leave a comment and let us know.  Happy New Year!

Just Giving Challenge: The results are in!

We’d like to thank everyone who participated in the 2010 Just Giving Challenge! It was our first experiment in using this blog to create space for giving together, in a sort of mini-online-community.   We’re grateful for the privilege of celebrating Jesus’ coming in a way that he would have wanted.

Whether you were able to participate this year or not, I think you might find the results interesting.

Impact by the numbers

Participants:  33

Matching Grant: $3300

Reported Giving: $8800

Total Impact: $12,100.00

Of the four organizations we profiled, Mennonite Central Committee was the winner!  They have received our Matching Grant of $3300.00, and we will be writing more about how those funds were used.

Impact in our hearts

Several participants wrote reflections on their experience.  Here’s a selection of their thoughts:

I was definitely more aware of what we spent this Christmas.  The following thought has mixed emotions:  If I spend more, I spend twice as much because I’m matching every dollar.  But it’s going to something I believe in, and, at the same time it is limiting my consumerism.  Since everything I spend costs twice as much, my instinct was “spend less”.  Wondering how this might lessen my consumer mindset if I did this year round – match every dollar I spent at a store (clothing, electronics, basically everything but a grocery store), at a restaurant, or on entertainment.  Also want to balance it by being a joyful giver.

Our family gave to an organization that provides clean water for villages without wells.  In front of the computer screen we placed two glasses of water: one clear and sparkling, one dirty and brown.  We watched a video on the impact of clean water and prayed for the recipients as we clicked the “Donate” button.  It was the most spiritual experience we’ve ever had involving a computer.

We were both struck by how simple it was to sit down by the computer, learn about these organizations, and donate. By contrast, this Christmas was so full of running around getting gifts for people and then returning unnecessary gifts from other people, that spending time thinking about this challenge was a welcomed respite.  Matching our Christmas giving seems like a great family tradition to have every year.

I did my usual end-of-year giving to organizations I support, but I also used the Advent season as an opportunity to reflect deliberately on how I use my material resources. I’ve been feeling distanced from my deeper beliefs about the issue, so I revisited old journal entries I wrote around ten years ago when things felt much clearer to me. On an intellectual level, I still completely agree with my younger self, and in terms of external manifestations little is different. But I have to admit that, on a gut or spiritual level, I don’t feel as convicted as I once did — the choices I make now feel more like a matter of habit than principle. Perhaps this mellowing is inevitable with time and age, but I find myself wondering if in fact I’ve sold-out or lost my way…

This Challenge allowed me to experience a deep joy in my holiday shopping and gave me a wonderful excuse to research new organizations that are doing God’s work in inaugurating His kingdom on Earth. I hope this Challenge returns for a second year!

Impact on others

We were amazed at the variety of different organizations to which people gave. People gave to 28 different NGOs, with only one being mentioned more than once.  Just a brief visit to these organizations’ websites is quite an education on the wide variety of creative work being done among the poor.  I encourage you to google just one that’s new to you!

  • Boston Project
  • Common Hope for Health
  • Compassion International
  • Edna Adan University Hospital (obstetric fistula work)
  • International Medical Corps
  • Joshua Fund
  • Kolkata City Mission
  • Lifewater International
  • Mennonite Central Committee
  • Mother’s Choice
  • My New Red Shoes
  • Project Muso Ladamunen
  • Room to Read
  • Samaritan’s Purse
  • Samasource
  • Shanghai Qing Cong Quan Autism School
  • Shepherd’s Field Children’s Village
  • Stop TB Partnership
  • Turkmenistan Youth & Civic Values Foundation
  • Umbrella Initiatives
  • Urban Promise Ministries, Camden NJ
  • Village Reach
  • Vipani
  • Voice of the Martyrs
  • World Vision

Profile: Mennonite Central Committee

This Advent, we are profiling four organizations that we think deserve serious consideration for your holiday giving.   Surprisingly, it’s not all that easy to find a worthy cause.  I think all of us who have ever made a charitable donation have wondered if our money is being used effectively.  From the dollar we give to the homeless guy to the online contributions we send to big relief organizations after disaster, how do we know if the sacrifice of our hard-earned money really helps those who need it most?

This difficulty is compounded if we want to direct resources toward the nearly half the planet who live on less than $2 a day.  Most of us live too far from this reality to really tell if the money we give to some organization is impactful.

That’s why for nearly ten years, every time I meet an economic development professional who actually works on the field, I ask them about which organizations they most recommend.  Within the realm of Christian non-profits, the name that most frequently comes up is Mennonite Central Committee.  I know that my inquiries are purely anecdotal and from a fairly small sample size, but I’ve been impressed at the level of universal admiration I’ve heard from practitioners of other organizations.

MCC works in the all the usual fields of development: education, emergency relief, AIDS, clean water, fair trade, etc.  But they are best known for their excellence in rural, agricultural development, with their workers typically living in the countryside alongside local farmers.  Personally, I like their approach to spirituality. They are a very explicitly Christian organization, and seek to share their faith through their work, but it seems to me that they emphasize more the demonstration of their faith, as opposed to the “preach and go” style of many Christian groups.  They also emphasize peacemaking—a reflection of their Mennonite pacifism.

Among the general public, MCC is less well known—but that’s partly because they spend far less money on advertising and promotion than nearly all the other big organizations.   Again, this is a reflection of their Mennonite ethos.  I’ve rarely found an organizational commitment to simple living that matches MCC’s.  I like that also because I know that more of my money is making an impact.

MCC is one of the four organizations we are considering supporting as part of our  Just Giving Challenge.  The week before Christmas, the readers of this blog will vote on which one they liked best, and our donation will go there!

If you want to know more about the MCC, check out their 2010 annual report video here.

Update on the ‘Just Giving’ Challenge

Did you know that if everyone in America took our Just Giving Challenge this Christmas, we could collectively end extreme poverty for three years?  That’s right, Americans spend approximately 450 billion dollars each year on Christmas presents and celebrations for their friends and family.  If we would just match that amount with intelligent, intentional giving, we could eliminate all extreme poverty in the entire world (at least according to Jeffrey Sachs’ renowned  The End of Poverty, chapter 15).

So how’s it going? On Black Friday we issued the following Just Giving Challenge: for the first 100 people who give as much to the poor this Christmas as to their family and  friends, we’ll donate $100 to a worthy cause.

So far 21 people have taken the challenge.


That’s not going to end world poverty any time soon.

And yet, I sincerely sense that together we are doing something deeply significant.  We may not change the entire world, but we will definitely be a part of changing the world for a whole lot of people.  So far the 21 of us will make our Christmas matching gifts, plus this blog’s contribution of $2,100.  Even at a conservative estimate, that’s enough money to drill clean water wells for hundreds of people, to prevent thousands of people from getting malaria this year, or to vaccinate tens of thousands of kids from deadly diseases.

Do I hope a lot more people sign up for the Just Giving Challenge? Of course I do. If you haven’t, you could sign up right now.  But even if it’s just us 21, I think it’s a powerful testament to the change that just a few people, making medium-level sacrifices, can bring to God’s world.  Thanks to everyone who’s making a difference this Christmas, whether with us or in some other way!

And for another shot of hopefulness, check out this very inspiring video from the good folks at Advent Conspiracy.

Join the “Just Giving Challenge”

Black Friday greetings to everyone!  Today is the day when millions of Americans go shopping, the media reports on Americans going shopping, and I begin my annual ritual of whining about how consumeristic Christmas has become.  I moan about the spiritually-stupefying reminders of “X shopping days until Christmas” for us to buy stuff for “someone who has everything.” I complain that the contemporary celebration of Christmas was invented by advertisers seeking to boost profits (Harvard historian L.E. Schmidt in his book Consumer Rites backs me up :)).   In my more excessive moments I even suggest that if you rearrange just one letter in “SANTA” you get . . . .  wait for it . . . . SATAN. (Just kidding—mostly.)

Even if you are not as extreme as I am, perhaps you are also troubled—at least a little—by the paradox of celebrating the birth of Jesus by exchanging luxury goods with other middle and upper-class people.  Not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with reciprocal gift exchanges—every culture in the world has them, and they can certainly be fun.  It’s just that it’s not distinctively Christian, which would seem important in celebrating the birth of the religion’s founder.  Many of us long for a Christmas season that has a genuine spiritual center.

So this year, instead of just complaining impotently, we decided to do something about it together.  One of our core beliefs at Simple Living for Just Giving is that the spiritual gift of giving is best developed together, in groups, in movements, in community.  So the editors of this blog would like to invite you to join us for the Just Giving Challenge. Here’s what we propose:

  • This year, let’s match our spending on Christmas presents with giving to the poor. In other words, we challenge you to join us in making a matching grant on Christmas Day to a charity of your choice that equals your total holiday spending.  Since Jesus cares so much about giving to the poor, this seemed to us like a good way to celebrate His coming.
  • As extra incentive, we will donate $100 for the first 100 people who join us.  For example, if 72 people sign up, that’s $7200 extra going to benefit those in poverty this Christmas!
  • Not sure where to give? In the next four weeks we will publish on this blog reviews of four organizations that we think are doing effective work in serving the poor–and the editors’ gift will go to the organization you vote for in our online poll!
  • Looking for spiritual sustenance this Christmas season? Every Sunday we will be publishing Advent reflections on just giving that help nudge us towards a distinctively Christian celebration of the holidays this year.

So are you in?  If you’d like to join us, all you need to do is leave a comment with your name and first initial on this post. That’s it!  Together, we can look forward to a Christmas season that’s more than “just shopping.”

Life after LATG: my experience with SV2

SV2 Banner

In 2006, June and I helped start the original Lazarus at the Gate (LATG) group.  Since then, we’ve been looking for ways to be more involved in our giving, and preferably in a group or community context.  Last year we came upon Silicon Valley Social Venture Fund (SV2).  They are a “venture philanthropy” group where the partners pool their resources and make multi-year grants to startup nonprofits.  There are a number of affinity groups within SV2 — currently International, Education, and Environment.  We joined the International group.  Over the course of 7 months, the group compiled a list of 20 candidate organizations, did research to narrow down to four, invited the founders to submit proposals and give presentations, and finally voted to select one grantee.  I volunteered to interview two of the candidate organizations, and it was thrilling to talk to the founders doing groundbreaking nonprofit work.  In the end, we voted to fund Living Goods, an organization which develops health-product distribution businesses in Uganda, using an Avon-lady model.

SV2 is a member of SVPI (Social Venture Partners International), which has 26 member organizations in the USA, Canada, and Japan.  To compare SV2 with LATG, the main differences would be:

  • Life stage: The members of LATG were largely post-college young adults and new families, while SV2 skews more towards older families.  So many of the families have teenage children that they recently started an SV2 Teens program.
  • Size: An LATG group is typically a dozen people.  SV2 has about 100 families, and the International group meetings were about 20 people.
  • Scope: Each LATG group has a volunteer leader, while SV2 has 2 full-time staff and rotating interns.  Our LATG group met monthly, and while the SV2 International group also meets monthly, overall there are at least two SV2 events each week.
  • Focus: While LATG is an explicitly Christian approach to both simple living and just giving, SV2 is non-faith-based, and focused only on giving.  However, last year SV2 did invite Nathan Dungan of Share Save Spend to speak about spending as well as sharing (giving).

I’ve learned a lot about directed and impactful giving through SV2, and met a number of people with similar passions.  I’m currently serving on the partner advisory board and hoping to help develop relationships with foundations and local charitable gift fund organizations.  If you live in the California Bay Area, or one of the cities with an SVPI member organization, I’d encourage you to check them out.  There are also non-SVPI organizations — here’s one list: Giving Circles Network.

50 – 60 Boston College students start “Global Poverty Impact”

In my work with college students with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, I modified the “Lazarus at the Gate” curriculum to be 8 weeks long.  The Asian Christian Fellowship at Boston College is using it now, and it’s been a lot of fun.  One student felt challenged to not go out to Chinese food every week, when he drops $10.  It’s encouraging to hear about other ways students are responding.  There are 7 – 8 non-Christians involved also.  Three of them approached me after the first session and said, “I’m really excited about this.  I think it’ll be really good for me!”  I think the more we combine social justice and evangelism, the stronger both will be.