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!

  • ASELSI
  • 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

Just Giving Challenge: It’s time to vote!

Just two more days ’til Christmas!  That means it’s time to select the recipient of our 2010 Just Giving Challenge matching grant.   We thought it would be fun to let everyone who’s participating in the Just Giving Challenge decide who gets the money.

Once again, here’s how it works:  For every person who takes our challenge to give as much to the poor as you spend on Christmas gifts, we’ll donate $100 to the organization of your choice. We’ve profiled four organizations, which you can link to below if you haven’t read them yet.

Then just vote!

On Christmas Day, we’ll send out our donation to the top vote-getter.  We’d love to hear your comments on why voted as you did.  They’re all excellent organizations, and we’ll feel great supporting whoever wins.

So far, there are 29 of us who have taken the Challenge.  Just one more, and we’ll reach $3000.00!  edit: We’re up to 31 participants for a total of $3100.00 in matching funds. Thanks everyone!

But if you haven’t, you can still join today by commenting at the bottom of this post.

Profile: Tools of the Mind

This entry profiles the 4th of the 4 organizations to be considered in the Just Giving Challenge pooled donation.  Christina Jenq is a doctoral student in economics at the University of Chicago and attends Cityview Presbyterian Church. The views expressed in this entry do not necessarily reflect the views of University of Chicago faculty or Cityview Presbyterian Church.

On Human Capital

I believe that U.S. income inequality (as a proxy for the inequality of well-being in America) has its roots in the inequality of human capital development at young ages.

You may have noticed that I used the word human capital rather than education. What is human capital?

In economics,  “capital” is usually modeled as any stock of goods that can be used repeatedly in future periods to contribute to generating income future periods of time (in other words, it is durable). It is often categorized into physical capital (i.e. machines, computers, real estate) and human capital, which is anything a human possesses that can contribute to producing income repeatedly in future periods. Examples of human capital include computer programming skills, business skills, physical health, your social network, etc. Each of these examples can often be proxied by educational attainment.

Many nonprofits, including the ones promoted by this blog’s authors, are in the business of providing free or subsidized capital, whether physical or human, to the poor. For example, Samasource, which Ed Chang profiled, subsidizes training in programming skills (among other functions) for vulnerable workers in developing countries; and the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) runs many projects that subsidize both physical and human capital.

In developed countries like the U.S., physical capital such as machines and electronic gadgets is in enough supply such that human capital has now become relatively scarcer.  This implies that investing in human capital will generally be a more effective means of fighting poverty in the U.S. than investing in physical capital; for example, I think that poor urban U.S. neighborhoods don’t need more laptops and cellphones (especially since they’ve become so cheap!), but more skills, education, and health. In fact, the test results coming out of international educational assessments tell a story of the U.S. falling far behind other developed and developing countries in critical thinking skills in language and math.

The Argument for Early Intervention

And if investing in forms of human capital like education and health is more effective, then what’s the best way of investing in human capital?  Experimental research from psychology, economics, and child development has pointed to the effectiveness of early childhood intervention relative to later intervention through the mechanism of nurturing socio-emotional skills.  (See this study, this study, and this study.)

Economics Professor James Heckman of the University of Chicago argues that these results are consistent with a framework in which skills beget other skills, so that there is a “snowballing” effect in which the encouragement of learning skills early in life will have a greater lifetime impact than the encouragement of skills later on in life.  These skills are not just test-taking skills. There is a growing body of research showing that “non-cognitive” skills like perseverance and sociability are more predictive of health and income in adult life than IQ.  A website publicizing Heckman’s research features this chart:

from Heckmanequation.org

from Heckmanequation.org


Quite simply, the earlier one invests, the greater the impact per dollar.[1]

Therefore I believe one of the best ways to bring justice to America’s poor while fulfilling the biblical call to look out for the widows and orphans of society is to provide quality, cost-effective early childhood programs that nurture both learning and social skills to disadvantaged children at no or little cost to their families. Not only will this help children, it will also help their often over burdened parents.

Introducing Tools of the Mind

While there are several high quality early childhood programs that are both cost-effective with proven results (i.e. Nurse Family Partnership), I would like to profile a lesser-known early childhood program that has not yet generated too much publicity in the nonprofit donor world. (It has generated quite a lot of buzz in the educational world though.) It’s an innovative preschool program called Tools of the Mind  (read about it here and here) with an unconventional philosophy of teaching. Through a curriculum of individualized “dramatic play” and socially mediated learning, it focuses on developing what psychologists call “executive function” (defined as self control, working memory, and mental flexibility) to best prepare children for future learning. The research on their program (done in low-income school districts) has yielded results promising enough to be published in the prestigious journal Science.

I like Tools of the Mind not only because of its innovative approach to preschool education, but also because the program was developed with under-funded public school classrooms and disadvantaged minority children in mind. Their model is to send trainers and coaches to classrooms to train existing teachers in a public school system in the Tools of the Mind methods (No need to stir up anger with unionized teachers and such!) Further, they’ve developed curricula for Hispanic children, a fast-growing demographic, and consider themselves especially capable at working with special education children with a variety of learning disabilities. They’ve also developed a parenting curriculum to supplement the school curriculum.

And it’s cost-effective; while Montessori style methods cost about $7,000-$10,000 per child Tools of the Mind costs about $7000-$10,000 per classroom of 15 children.

I’ve met the co-founder Deborah Leong personally and seen enough examples of their classroom teaching methods to be convinced that this is a unique program with a fresh approach and perspective.  I hope you would take a closer look at this program, and please feel free to comment on this blog or contact me at christina [dot] jenq [at] gmail [dot] com if you have more questions.


[1] This does not mean that job and skill-training programs targeted towards older adolescents and adults have little impact and should not be funded; rather, the argument is that perhaps society needs to spend more money towards early childhood programs than it already does if one were to take into account the gains from quality early childhood programs.

Profile: Bread for the World

“I sit on a man’s back, choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by all possible means – except by getting off his back.”
Leo Tolstoy

As you think about what organization to give to this season, consider this:  One of the best ways to help the poor around the world is for Americans to dismantle our own power.  Twenty billion of our tax dollars go to support mostly large agribusinesses.  In turn, they overproduce crops (watch the documentary King Corn) and then outprice Third World farmers in their own markets.  A legacy of the Great Depression when we wanted to help small farmers (which made sense then), farm subsidies now support huge farm companies (which doesn’t make sense now).  A Nov 2005 report says that 62 cents of every dollar that a U.S. farmer makes is funded by a government subsidy. In the last decade, recipients of the farm subsidies (in the five and six digits) included John Hancock Life Insurance Co., Chevron, banker David Rockefeller, basketball star Scottie Pippen, and former Enron chairman Kenneth Lay. Yes, these guys are “farmers.”

You would think that Democrats and Republicans would unite to get rid of these subsidies.  Democrats because they are for the poor and against corporate welfare, and Republicans because they are against government interference in the free market.  But those who benefit from the U.S. Farm Bill have been tenacious.

That’s one reason I support Bread for the World.  BTFW is a Christian political advocacy group whose goal is to end hunger.  They do excellent research and mobilization.  They help congregations and other groups write to their elected officials.  For example, Boston College’s Asian Christian Fellowship decided to do a letter writing campaign to Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, asking him reform U.S. foreign aid policy so that it would be independent of U.S. military goals and truly attentive to the world’s poorest nations. And they take stands against the current U.S. Farm Bill, which will come up for a vote again in 2012.

BTFW also focuses on domestic poverty and hunger.  On Dec. 13, 2010, President Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act into law.  It reauthorizes funding for national child nutrition programs such as school lunches—the subject of BTFW’s advocacy during the last two years.

In many ways, giving towards political advocacy like BTFW is less “sexy” than giving to a charity or economic development organization doing direct service.  I’m less sure exactly how money is being spent.  I’m less sure whether the money I give is “making a difference.”  And yet, perhaps this is a reason to summon even more spiritual discipline (e.g. like giving in secret from Matthew 6:1 – 18) and Jesus’ love.  Let’s face it:  Sometimes we feel more powerful and “in control” when we give money to people “charitably”, even if we know we sit on the backs of those very people in the first place.

For more information, visit the BTFW website at www.bread.org.  It’s a great resource with up to date statistics, policy analysis, and Bible studies on God’s command to care for the poor.

Graceful Giving: Advent Reflection #3

Christmas is the season for giving. That’s why this Advent, we’ve been seeking to “prepare Him room” in our hearts by reflecting on II Corinthians 8-9, the most extensive passage in the entire Bible on giving.  As you may remember, in this letter Paul was urging followers of Jesus in Corinth to share financially with their impoverished brothers and sisters in faraway Jerusalem.  Paul was full of reasons for them to give. He first portrayed generous giving as something that overflows when we are touched by God’s empowering grace.  Then he reminded them that since we now share an entirely new humanity with Jesus himself, we have the power to identify with the poor just as Jesus did when He was born in a manger.

Now, in this third week of Advent, we encounter yet another motivation for genuine grace-full giving. In II Corinthinans 8:13-15, Paul writes,

Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be ἰσότης (equality).  At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is ἰσότης (equality), as it is written: “The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.

Paul here says that the goal of his collection was not merely charity but  ἰσότης (equality or fairness). God is a God who loves equality and justice. God hates it when some of his children have lots while others go hungry.  Therefore, like the miracle of manna in the desert (Exodus 16:13-17), the “miracle” of giving is that it can help to make right situations of inequality that do not reflect God’s desire of enough for all.

We should pause a moment to consider how astonishing this passage was.  The ramifications for us this Advent are challenging and exciting.  Paul was assuming that Christians should be concerned about all economic inequality within the family of God—even for those living halfway around the world.  In the words of one New Testament scholar,

It is difficult to imagine how such an assumption—so radical in the present situation of enormous disparities in wealth between Christian communities—could function in the contemporary church without being literally revolutionary.

So this Christmas, let’s not limit our generosity to a few friends and family members.   Let’s each do our small part to reflect the justice that Jesus came to bring by participating in our Redeemer’s revolution of ἰσότης in this world of inequality.  Now that’s not just giving–it’s Just Giving.

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.

21.

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.

Graceful Giving: Advent Reflection #1



Today is the first Sunday in Advent.  I love Advent because it always draws me back to my deepest spiritual longings.  It reaffirms in me the hope that we are not alone in a cold universe; it dares me to trust that through Jesus, God is not distant or disinterested, but is our Emmanuel—“God-with-us.”

Advent is also the season of giving, inviting us to share with others as freely as God did in sending His Son.  So for Advent 2010 we want to revisit this key theme.  Each of our four weekly Advent reflections will draw from II Corinthians 8-9,  the most extensive passage in the entire Bible on giving.  Here are a couple of key points of background which will help orient us to today’s reading:

  • Paul’s goal in II Corinthians 8-9 was to persuade the Christians in Corinth to contribute to his fundraising effort for the church in Jerusalem, which had been reduced to desperate poverty by a harsh famine.
  • Paul’s collection faced the disadvantage of deep cultural, racial, and language divisions between the believers in Jersualem and Corinth. Moreover, the givers and recipients were separated my more than three weeks’ travel time, and there was little chance of them ever meeting in person.
  • This means that when Paul wrote about “giving,” he was not talking about being generous with friends, family, congregations, or local communities, but about sharing money with distant Christians who were in great poverty.

So how did Paul begin his most extensive teaching on giving?  With grace!  He mentioned χαρις (grace) three times in his opening paragraph:

1 And now, brothers and sisters, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. 2 In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity3 For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, 4 they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people. 5 And they exceeded our expectations: They gave themselves first of all to the Lord, and then by the will of God also to us. 6 So we urged Titus, just as he had earlier made a beginning, to bring also to completion this act of grace on your part. 7 But since you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in the love we have kindled in you[a]—see that you also excel in this grace of giving.

What did Paul mean by this Greek word χαρις (grace)?  I think the best translation in English would be something like “God’s free gift of life-giving power.”  Each appearance of χαρις teaches us something about grace-fueled giving:

  • In verses 1-5 the financially strapped followers of Jesus in Macedonia were so excited about sharing with the poor in Jerusalem that they donated generously without even being asked.  χαρις made giving not a duty or obligation, but a joy.  They wanted it. χαρις gave them a power in their souls that made them deeply desire to live generously in ways that were totally outside their rational self-interest.
  • Then in the next two verses Paul urged the Corinthians to cultivate the χαρις that they had already received.  We can clearly see that χαρις is a spiritual power that can grow or expand—it can be brought to fullness or be done more excellently.

I would imagine that most of us have a little bit of both the Macedonians and the Corinthians in us.  Like the Macedonians, we can identify places in our hearts that deeply long to share with the poor–to really make a difference, even in the lives of people we’ve never met.  If so, you can bet you’ve recieved the χαρις of giving.  Nevertheless, like the Corinthians, we often need some encouragement from others to actually pull the trigger and give as generously as our hearts call us to.  This is especially true as we consider giving to people whose suffering happens in places far from the all-consuming vortex of our daily lives.

That’s why so I’m encouraged to see that many people of faith are making intentional, creative, effective charitable giving a bigger part of their Christmas traditions.  If you’d like some excellent ideas check out the Advent Conspiracy or our friends at Highrock Church.  And of course, we’d love it if you signed up for our Just Giving Challenge.  For us, it’s a fun, motivating, and even joyful way of growing in grace together this Advent. We’ll even donate $100 for the first 100 people who join us!

However you choose to celebrate Advent this year, may it truly be a season of χαρις and peace.

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.”