Monday, March 29, 2010

First Reflections - By the Numbers

Over the last 40 days, Amber and I have given all of our actual realized income to others - mostly in the form of donations to worthwhile non-profit organizations, but also in some more personal ways, such as giving out gift cards to a local grocery store, some generous birthday gifts, buying breakfasts for random people at a restaurant, and so on.

We have kept some money, as I outlined at the beginning. For example, we used the child support we receive from our oldest son's biological father to help with groceries, childcare, and other expenses. We also have a rental house which clears about $50 a month in profit, after the mortgage and other regular expenses are paid, and we put that $50 back for maintenance expenses. And we of course didn't give away money that we didn't get - so my paycheck deductions for taxes, insurance, 401(k) contributions, and so on were all done before the money was given away.

So we had two net paychecks from my day job and a monthly payment from which we gave away. In addition, shortly into the project, we learned I was getting a bonus, and decided to give that as well ... but, again, taxes, 401(k) contributions, and some other things were taken out of that, and we only gave the remaining balance that made its way to us.

I say all of this to make it clear that we really focused on giving away the money that came into our lives during these 40 days, in an effort to stay true to the spirit of what we were doing. Even the $100 I received as the first payment on our sold pickup, which was given to me a few days prior to the start date, was mostly given away.

So now that it was all said and done, I was curious ... how much did it actually cost us financially?

Fortunately, I keep my financial records in Quicken Home & Business, so it's easy to check. This tracks everything - retirement accounts, business accounts, student loans, car loans, mortgages, checking accounts, savings accounts ... I even track how much I have in PayPal on this thing! So I can pull up a report which tells my net worth at the start of the project and my net worth at the end of the project, and figure out exactly how much my net worth changed over the course of giving all of our money away. (The only thing that isn't taken into account is any depreciation on our home or vehicles, or any other physical assets that we have.)

The difference in our overall financial picture, after having given away 40 days worth of income, is ....


That's right. From February 15 to March 29, our net worth dropped by exactly $674.37.

But over the course of the project, I also taught a writing workshop which I haven't yet been paid for ... so once that's taken into account, the actual cost is less!

And that's in the immediate aftermath, not even taking into account anything else that may come along as a benefit in the coming weeks!

How is this possible?

Well, my first answer is: I'm not really sure.

I was expecting to be down about $2,000 or so dollars, to be honest, when I ran my original pre-project estimates. That was with us being incredibly frugal ... which we weren't. We normally are fairly frugal (or outright cheap), with a substantial portion of our income going toward debt repayment and savings. Once we unlocked the "emergency fund" and began living off of it, we didn't really exercise a ton of restraint. With the amount of time I was devoting to work and to the project, and Amber being in school full time, and a four month old baby, we spent much of our time fairly exhausted ... so if one of us suggested eating out, the other one typically jumped on the idea.

Since I knew it wasn't from frugal money management, I looked at the accounts to see where the increases were. They were pretty exclusively in our retirement and investment accounts, which is understandable, since these are the only accounts that can go up without putting money into them.

There was some inflow into these accounts, of course. The money that came in was from my 401(k) contributions and the company's match, on two paychecks and the bonus I received. In addition, there's a strange event I haven't been able to investigate yet, where more shares were deposited into my retirement account! I believe this is a result of my company's profit sharing plan, but I'm not sure. I'll have to investigate this further.

Still, these contributions account for a little bit over half of the increase in my retirement and investment accounts. The rest can be attributed to only one thing ... the stock market going up during this time.

Here's the curious thing about these numbers. Once I figure up the actual amount our net worth is down over these 40 days, and the amount we gave out, I notice an interesting relationship. We lost only about 10% of what we gave.

For the math challenged, let me provide an example. (These aren't the actual numbers involved, because I don't want you all knowing my exact salary.)

This would be like giving away $7,400 dollars and then finding that your net worth only dropped by about $700!

It's truly unexpected, and this almost ten percent ratio is a bit chilling. To quote my friend Annabella, "It went from serendipity to spooky." A unexpected tenfold increase in giving is not something that I expected.

I need to let it sink in a bit more to really have an opinion on this.

But your opinions, of course, are more than welcome!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Day 40: The Finale, or the First Day of the Rest of Our Lives

So today I woke up with a sense of relief that this crazy roller coaster ride which I got us on was finally coming to an end. Don't let this seem as if I'm disappointed in the experiment - far from it, I think this has been one of the best experiences of my life.

Still, the fact is that by setting a goal to give in this way, I turned it into a bit of a chore. From time to time, I'd reach the end of the day, exhausted, realizing that I hadn't really given anything ... and I can honestly say that, at those moments, I wasn't really a cheerful giver. So, while goals are nice, and it's good to set aside a portion of your income, I don't suggest turning it into a chore in any way.

But the project was what it was, and today it ends ... and my work of turning it into a book which people will want to buy begins. I'm actually really looking forward to it, and I have a great deal of confidence that the giving experiences I've had in my life and in this forty days will prove compelling enough to get the attention of a publisher.

So ... on to the day 40 gives:

First, some catch-up. You may recall that we were buying Joy a membership in the Aspire Indiana Farm, to provide her massive family with fresh vegetables over the summer. I went onto their website and signed Joy up, but did so by entering her contact information, including her e-mail. They sent a confirmation e-mail to her, but I need the invoice number from that e-mail in order to actually pay for it. It's been two weeks, and I'm still waiting on that invoice number. So I wrote a check to Aspire Indiana Farm for the amount of the CSA and am sitting it aside to pay for Joy's invoice once I get the number.

Similarly, my sister's birthday present (swim lessons for her 16 month old daughter and herself at the YMCA) continues to go unpaid, because she hasn't gone to the YMCA to find out the cost. So I just wrote a $50 check to the YMCA and am mailing it to her, which should be enough to cover the lessons.

With those expenses caught up, we were able to look at the money left over today and decide what to do. First things first, we stopped by the grocery store on the way to church, which was have a potluck lunch, to pick up our food.

Then, following lunch, we went out to my mother's house and I unloaded things from the back of her pickup truck. She'd moved up from Vincennes to Anderson (a three hour move) last fall, but hadn't been able to bring some of her outdoor supplies, including some spring flowers and bulbs, and so Amber drove down with her yesterday to collect some of those things. The truck, therefore, needed unloading today ... and I did that in relatively short order.

After Mom's truck was unloaded, I then proceeded to my dreaded give of the day ... Locks of Love. Yes, you are correct, I came nowhere close to reaching my $10,000 goal for Heifer International in 40 days, and originally I set this as a condition for me to contribute my hair. The problem is that it just didn't work, so I was left with a decision ... either give up or not.

We decided not. Amber and I remain committed to raising the $10,000, even if we now realize that a 40 day time limit is perhaps a bit limiting (at least in our current situation). And since we will raise the money, I figured I might as well go ahead and donate the hair now and get it over with. So now .... the before photos:
And the "after" photo (more to come):

It feels strange to be without the tail, and I'm certainly not too sure how I feel about the new do (although Amber claims she likes it), but ... it was (relatively) painless, and the hair will be used to make a wig for a child with medical hair loss, which is a far better use than being on my sorry old head!

For that matter, my hair will probably be a bit healthier now and this may prevent the slow thinning that I was beginning to notice. So, once again, this act of giving holds within it a reward, which has been a recurring theme throughout this experiment, and is of course the very concept that inspired me to start it in the first place.

And having started it, it's now time to finish it ... which means that the last bit of my income has to go away. We gave a $25 tip to the hairdresser who performed the cut above. (The Great Clips hair salon chain, or at least the one we went to, do not charge for Locks of Love donation cuts, so in order to tip the stylist on the debit card we use for our giving fund we had to buy some hair product. It cost under $10, which is less than the haircut itself would have cost.)

When I got home, I was ready to pay out the last of the money ... and then the phone rang. Our local firemen association was soliciting donations. Yes, they could have some money. (If they'd called 20 minutes later, they'd have been out of luck.)

The final two donations are in honor of my friend Robert J. Sawyer, the science fiction author who wrote the novel FlashForward, which provides the basis of the ABC television series of the same name. (He's known for many other things, but at the moment that's the biggest one.)

Early on, I reached out to a handful of friends and asked for some ideas of charities they like to give to, so that I could profile them. Unfortunately, the 40 days slipped by faster than I really anticipated, and I didn't get to focus quite as much on profiles of individual charities as I would have liked ... but still, these two charities are incredibly worthwhile, so I decided to split the remains of our giving money between them: 
Note: Rob is Canadian, so he donates to the Canadian branch of these charities.

I recommend Rob's 1997 novel Frameshift, which features a main character who does, in fact, suffer from Huntington's Disease, a horribly debilitating and ultimately fatal neurological disorder, as a enjoyable way to learn further information about the disease. (And yes, I do realize that's a slightly ironic choice of words.)

To learn more about Diabetes, just follow a modern western diet of fast food and high fructose corn syrup ... you'll get it eventually and learn all about it.

And with those donations ... the 40 Days of Giving project is officially complete, but the giving does, of course, continue. In the coming days, I'll be posting some immediate reflections on the whole experience but one thing is certain - this experiment is just the beginning. Amber and I are continuing to raise money for Heifer International, and other charities, and we're looking for ways that we can get the proceeds of the book (once it's published) to help promote further giving as well.

I think some of the results of this project will absolutely fascinate you. Stay tuned!

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Day 39: Breakfast of Champions

This morning, Elijah and I went out for breakfast at a small local diner, Eva's Pancake House. After having breakfast, I walked up to the counter and told the manager of the restaurant that I would like to pick up the tab for everyone in the restaurant. This amounted to me paying for 9 meals (plus our own, but that didn't come out of the giving fund), and on top of that I tipped each of the waitresses $25. (Waitresses who were on multiple tickets did not get tipped multiple times. My hope is that the customers were so thrilled by having their meals paid for that they tipped generously on top of the amount I paid.)

Let me tell you, though ... if you want to be treated like a king, try a give like this. Early on a Saturday morning at a relatively low-traffic restaurant, it wouldn't even cost that much money ... especially if you cut the tip down to a normal 20% or so. (If I'd done the give about 20 minutes earlier, when we got to the restaurant, I'd only have had about half as many tables to pay for.) People came up to me to shake my hand, talking about how appreciative they were.

"I was having breakfast with my mother and sister. This just made our day," one woman told me.

A guy came up and said, "My kids wanted to thank you," and two teenage boys offered their thanks and asked questions.

One waitress said she had goosebumps over it. "God bless you! And he will!"

This was a big change over some of the earlier personal giving experiences. It's enough to give you a bit of an ego ... which makes it probably just as well that I saved this one until the end of the experiment. If I'd had an experience like this early on, I might not have given to any charities ... I'd have been out there giving every cent of the giving fund to people on the street.

The waitresses and some of the customers got my website info, so if any of you stop by, I'd love to hear from you in the Comments section about what you thought or felt about the experience.

Just one more day to go!

Share Your Giving Experience

Have you ever had an experience where giving has seemed to, remarkably, result in a reward?

How has giving (either as the giver or the receiver) impacted your life?

On this blog, I've been sharing my own giving experiences and thoughts, but that's just one life ... and one of the things this has helped me learn is that one life is fairly meaningless unless it's connected to other lives. So, in that spirit, I'm asking all readers of this blog to share their own stories of giving by leaving a comment on this blog post. 

Please, when leaving your story, keep in mind that this is a public site and anyone can view the posts left here, so personal information should be left out of the post. (If you wish to share something very personal, or would like a response from me, contact me at Some of these stories may be included in the book 40 Days of Giving, so by posting you are giving permission for that, but anything that goes in the book will be edited and any personal details will be removed.

Day 38: Educational Giving

Education is very important to me, and in fact to my whole family. Both of my parents were teachers. (My father still is.) My grandmother was a teacher.  I've worked in the educational field for over a decade ... five years in the classroom with Project SEED, and now for over five years with an educational publishing company that focuses on educational assessment.

In my opinion, education is the single most important political issue there is. Every election, my most intense analysis goes to the candidate's stance on education (assuming the position has anything to do with education - for example, I don't really care too much about the county coroner's educational stance).

Why is this more important than the wealth of other issues? Because, simply put, a good educational system, which teaches young people to think critically (a skill often sadly neglected at home), puts us on a firm foundation for solving all other problems ... including the problems that haven't even come up yet! Raising an ignorant, unthoughtful generation of students just pushes problems off so that the next generation can mess things up worse.

The Status of National Education
As I mentioned, my current occupation is in educational assessment. This is at the heart of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act. One of the issues, though, is that each state has different standards to be assessed. In addition to creating inconsistencies in American education, this also increases costs, because each state has to create (or pay a company to create) educational and assessment materials.

Recently, several states (along with the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands) have decided to voluntarily join together and work on a set of common standards. The Common Core State Standards Initiative has just released their draft version of English-Language Arts and Mathematics standards that would apply across most of the country. These are not federally-mandated standards, though ... they're a voluntary set of standards that are being developed to provide a foundation for the instruction in each state  (except for Texas and Alaska, who aren't a part of the process, probably in part be because they feel they already have adequate standards).

The draft versions are now open to the public for comment, so one of the best things that I can think of to help education nationally is to review the standards and offer my own expertise by commenting on them ... and to urge everyone else out there to do the same. This may well provide the basis for the next wave of educational reforms, so it's important that we see that these common core standards reflect the education we want our children to have.

Project SEED
Another way to help is to support programs that promote academic excellence. Project SEED is a great non-profit, and since I worked for them for five years, I fully know that they get great results. SEED has been using Socratic teaching methods to provide instruction in advanced mathematics to elementary and middle school students since the 1960's. This program really enhances the ability of students to think mathematically, and has been shown in a number of research evaluations to have a powerful, prolonged positive impact on student performance. The following video, which shows some student activity, is probably the best way to get an idea of how the program works.

Unfortunately, I also know enough about how Project SEED works to know that small donations don't really do much toward getting more instruction in the classroom. Even a donation of $500 (a very large donation on my budget) wouldn't do a ton to help actually provide any additional benefits to students (although I'm sure it would be appreciated as a way to defray some of their operational expenses). It takes several thousand dollars to fund a class, which means their funding needs to come in bigger chunks - either from portions of school budgets allocated toward this excellent classroom instruction (and professional development) or possibly grants to cover the costs.

Having said that, I certainly don't mean this as a discouragement for any educators (or parents and citizens, for that matter) out there who want to seek Project SEED expertise in their own community. These grants do exist, and since Project SEED provides both classroom instruction and professional development, this means that professional development funds can be used to help train the teachers in these instructional methodologies. If you're interested, then I urge you to contact Project SEED to find out more and perhaps get a demonstration at a local school.

Every Child is Gifted
Growing up, I was always tagged with the label "gifted." I was in the advanced classes, and excelled at them. I sought out learning experiences for fun. At age 16, I left home to attend the Indiana Academy of Science, Mathematics, and Humanities, a state-run residential high school for the top gifted and talented juniors and seniors in the state.

I was a geek, in other words, and (eventually) proud of it.

However, my time in Project SEED convinced me of one simple truth - every child is gifted, and it's only because we draw such distinctions that we become convinced that any child is not gifted. Any child - if given the proper opportunities and encouragement, would find and embrace their gifts ... and even if the child doesn't display gifts in a certain area, if nourished, they will at least develop skills in those areas.

In other words, I now hold the firm belief that there is no such thing as a child who is inherently bad at mathematics ... or, for that matter, anything else.

Would every child be gifted in science or mathematics? Would every child want to be? No, of course not. But they would all grow to cultivate the unique gifts that they do have. And it is the cultivation of these gifts that turns them from gifts into brilliance, as beautifully described time and again in Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers: The Story of Success.

If the Beatles hadn't practiced for many hours, they may have been gifted musicians, but they wouldn't have been able to revolutionize rock and roll. All great musicians are great because they have devoted themselves to music. No one just lucks into it on the basis of exceptional natural ability alone.

If Bill Gates hadn't been able to cultivated his computer skills, he may still be a bright guy, but he wouldn't have been able to transform our modern world with technology.

The fallacy that Gladwell ably debunks is the idea that some people will succeed no matter what environment they're placed in. There is no such thing as a true prodigy, who will thrive even in a situation where their gifts are not nurtured. A gift that is not nurtured will wither ... no matter how great its potential.

Similarly, a withered ability that is nurtured will begin to flourish. The brain, which contains the skill sets that we develop in life, is amazingly flexible. The plasticity of the brain (as it's called) means that we can always pick up new skills, and research is showing that while it may get more difficult as time goes on, this ability never really stops.

For example, I'm a horrible musician, but that's in part because it's never been particularly important to me to develop musical skills. Despite some time in middle school band as a percussionist, I never devoted as much time to learning music as, say, reading. But if I decided - even now at age 33, or a decade or two from now - that it was really important for me to play the guitar or piano, or even to sing, I would be able to do learn how to do it. It might be tough, but it's a skill that's reachable. I could even, I'm sure, become competent or even good at it, if I put the proper time into the developing the skill. It would, however, take me years to develop this into an instinctive ability and master the skills.

Compare this to, say, a Miley Cyrus or a Mozart, whose musical ability has been nurtured since childhood. Both began working in music early so that, by young adulthood, they were each expert professionals in their particular musical crafts. (Gladwell discusses Mozart but, understandably, doesn't draw the parallel between him and Miss Cyrus.)

While Project SEED utilizes innovative strategies to reach the gifted mathematician within each student, an organization called All Kinds of Minds is dedicated to major school reform, seeking to transform the educational methodologies of American teachers so that they can connect with the many ways different students learn. It is rooted in the principles of Dr. Mark Levine, as outlined in his book A Mind at a Time, which lays out recent research in learning styles. By teaching educators about the profound variability in student learning styles, they hope to create a school system where every student will actually have a chance to thrive. That is certainly a goal worthy of support, which is why they got a check as part of today's give.

Local Education Support
In addition to giving to a national educational non-profit, I'm also offering up a donation to the Anderson Education Foundation, which provides grants for classroom instruction opportunities in my local area. There are a lot of these private non-profit foundations created for the purpose of supporting the local public school system ... and as we all know, our school systems need a lot of help.

If you live in Indiana, you could go to the Indiana Association of Public Education Foundations (IAPEF) to find out whether there's such a foundation in your area.

Outside of Indiana, you can look into the National School Foundation Association to see if there is a local chapter listed among their affiliates. (Some Indiana public education foundations, such as in my hometown of Vincennes, are listed on the NSFA site but aren't members of IAPEF.)

These would also be great organizations to approach about the possibility bringing consultants from Project SEED, All Kinds of Minds, or other innovative educational programs into your local communities to help with professional training and development. Where the school system falls short in providing adequate funding, maybe these organizations can help ... if their local communities support them.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Days 36 & 37: Giving Across America

A check to the National Audobon Society was the Day 36 give. (What can I say - they sent me a solicitation in the mail! Besides, I like trees.) No muss, no fuss.

In addition, I went to the bank and picked up four cashier's checks for the Day 37 give.

Early on in the project, I thought of randomly picking a name from the phone book and sending them money. Then I realized that I didn't want the person showing up at my house, so I struck on the idea of sending it to someone in California. But still, I really didn't think that sending a check, which contained my address, was a good idea. And sending cash wasn't a great option, because I needed to be able to document the giving, in case someone (either a critic or the IRS) someday questions the honesty of my account.

Giving really shouldn't require this much thought!

Anyway, I decided that a cashier's check was the best option, since it didn't have my address on it.

Now it was just a matter of getting the address. I have a friend in California, so decided to send her a message over Facebook and have her select a name and address randomly from her phonebook.

It seemed appropriate to send the check across the country, and a mental image came into my head of the envelope crossing the country, sort of showering psychic charitable energy all over the place. Crazy, to be sure, but it was a nice image, and it took root.

Then I began thinking, "Well, why just one, then?" If I could do it from Indiana to California, I could do it some other places, too. I began thinking through my list of friends and found some other ones from around the country who could help me find names.

I ended up with a set of four names from four "corners" of the country - California, Massachusetts, Alaska, and Florida. Once I had the four cashier's checks from the bank, it was just a matter of writing a letter explaining the situation. Though the checks had no strings attached, I did ask that they get in touch with me to let me know what they felt about getting the check, if they were willing. I provided my name, e-mail, and phone number. (I was hesitant about the phone number, but figured the checks might go to someone who didn't use e-mail, so I should provide an alternate contact.) So they're all ready to go. (They'll actually get mailed out on Day 38.)

In my mind is an image of positive energy flowing out all over the country, with these four points connected by people sharing this curious experience of receiving money in the mail.

Is there any reality to this image?

I guess it depends ... how real is a metaphor?

As someone who loves science, I believe in the power of metaphor to describe reality. As a human being, I hope that this particular metaphor has at least a little bit of reality to it.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Day 35: Public Television Give

Today our give was to our local PBS station, WFYI. We got a solicitation in the mail. It turns out that they lost about 50% of their state funding this year, amounting to a shortfall of nearly $250,000 ... on top of an already tough year economically. We can never really give too much to them because, since we cut out our cable television, it's pretty much the only television that we allow Elijah to watch. He's very engaged with their programming, and remembers a lot. For example, one day he pretended to be a meteorologist (and pronounced the word almost-correctly) because he'd seen it on Sid the Science Kid.

For reasons beyond this, PBS has a special place in my heart this year, because they've actually helped with one of the big changes which has startled me during this whole process. As I've described earlier, my mother is losing a ton of weight (a figurative ton, that is)... and I attribute it largely to a PBS donation last fall.

PBS Donation Gives Back
Last year, when I donated, it was during their regular annual drive and we qualified for some gifts in exchange for the donation. I really wanted the National Parks: America's Best Idea series ... 12 hours of gorgeous footage of our national parks, along with their history. But Amber had other ideas. (It's okay, I eventually recorded the National Parks series on our DVR and got to watch it. Absolutely gorgeous!)

Amber decided that we should get a set of Wayne Dyer materials, as a Christmas gift for her mother. Her mother, she said, really liked him and it would be a nice gift. So we checked off the box to get the Wayne Dyer book Excuses Begone!: How to Change Lifelong, Self-Defeating Thinking Habits, along with the related CD and DVD of his PBS special on the topic.

Now, honestly, I'd never heard of this guy, but it was clear he was some sort of self-improvement guru, and over the last couple of years I've grown to appreciate that these guys can be helpful, so I wasn't opposed to getting it ... but neither was I particularly enthusiastic about it.

I grew even less enthusiastic as it neared Christmas and the stuff wasn't showing up. We got two postcards stating that WFYI was back-ordered on their reward materials, and we'd get it when it arrived in stock. So as we neared Christmas, this gift just wasn't ready, so we went ahead and got Amber's mother some other set of gifts, thinking that the Wayne Dyer stuff could be set aside for her birthday.

The package arrived a couple of weeks after Christmas, when I was in the process of preparing for the 40 Days of Giving project. I sat them out on the table, and quickly found that the CDs had been opened up and placed in the car, where Amber was listening to them as she drove around town. "Mom won't mind," she told me.

I began to listen, and was fairly impressed. Though Dyer is a spiritual guru, this particular set doesn't require a lot of spiritual commitment - it's just common sense. Basically, he urges people to look at what excuses they use and then consider whether they are really certain that excuse is true. He cites some new research in epigenetics (very cool stuff), which indicates that even our genetic code does very little to lock down the behavior of our biology. Even the most solid excuse - "It's in my genes" - seems to no longer be valid.

Given that these excuses are never 100% certain, you then have a choice of whether or not to believe them. Some of these very excuses came up when I was in the planning phases of this project, as I began to look at the logistics of actually carrying it out.

"It'll be too hard." Well, maybe or maybe not. Instead of assuming it will be, why not assume that it won't be, and run with that?

"I can't afford it." Again - maybe or maybe not. Why not think "There's a way I can afford this" and then begin looking for it.

As I said, none of this is particularly spiritual ... although the implications of Dyer's epigenetics talk is that you can positively think your body itself into a better situation, potentially curing cancer or losing weight with some positive thinking.

And that's where my mother comes into the story.

One day, I'm listening to the disks while I drive my mother to the foot doctor. I had to pressure her to go, despite the fact that she had a gaping, oozing wound on her foot. She'd gotten a large blister on her foot, rubbed them together in her sleep one night, and caused it to split open. Her feet were regularly swollen and red, and I was concerned about circulation problems. She was also diabetic. She needed her foot looked at, so I was dragging her to the foot doctor.

During the drive, she listened to the CD, just as it was talking about a study where the placebo effect was shown to work even in place of surgery. A group of people with arthritis in their knees were split into three groups. Two groups received surgery to alleviate the problem, but the third group received only incisions, but no actual surgery. Then all three groups, thinking they'd had the surgery, went through physical therapy. The group that thought they had surgery, but didn't, recovered at exactly the same rate as the ones who had actually had the knee surgery! The pain was relieved, the movement increased, at exactly the same rate. The surgery itself, and the skill of the surgeon, appeared to have no actual impact on the patients' outcomes.

Upon questioning, I told my mother that this was some guy from PBS, Wayne Dyer. Then I took her to the foot doctor.

Amber and I continue listening to the Excuses Begone! disk, and are fairly impressed. Amber has already decided that her mother wouldn't really like it, because he's kind of "New Age-y" for her. For example, at one point Dyer says, "You are god," as a means of demonstrating how much power you have to influence your own life. Well, for a fundamentalist Christian, that just doesn't fly, so we decided to keep the Wayne Dyer stuff ... and I became quite a fan.

At one point I said to Amber, "My mother should really listen to this."

Well, it turned out she didn't have to. The Wayne Dyer Excuses Begone! special was on PBS, and Mom happened to catch it while flipping through channels. Realizing that it was the show I'd mentioned, she watched it.

What happened next was nothing short of astounding.

Since String Theory for Dummies had come out, I'd occasionally made reference to the fact that I looked forward to the day when I could write full time. Each and every single time this topic came up, my mother immediately pointed out that I'd be foolish to give up a job with such good benefits and pay. (I was making nearly as much after 5 years with the company as she'd made teaching school for 25 years! This isn't a sign of my immense wealth ... it's a sign of how badly teachers are paid.)

Then, just a few days into the 40 Days of Giving project, I went over to her house. She said, "I saw that Wayne Dyer show, and I wanted to tell you something." She looked me in the eye. "If you ever decide that you want to quit your job to write full time, you won't hear a word of complaint from me."

I was absolutely stunned at this total reversal. For my entire life, Mom had emphasized the importance of having a secure job with benefits. This was the woman who had told me, as a young child, that if I wanted to be a writer, I'd better have a job that could pay the bills.

Something about that PBS self-help show had clicked the tumblers into place for her. And that was just the beginning. I came by her house a week later and noticed some new exercise and diet materials. Within a few days, the change was noticeable: Mom was losing weight.

My mother had, for well over a decade, weighed well over 300 pounds. At her heaviest, she reached 370 pounds. She'd moved up to be near us in the fall and had put some weight on since then. Now it was coming off ... and coming off quickly. When she went to the doctor about two weeks into the 40 Days of Giving project ... and she was twenty pounds lighter than when she'd moved. We estimate that, in just two weeks on her diet, she'd lost nearly 30 pounds.

And she has, since then, continued to lose weight ... although it has, thankfully, leveled off. (We don't want the poor woman to waste away.)

Just today, in fact, she reclaimed some property from me because of how much she'd lost. When we'd gone to Florida this summer, she'd bought me a "Grumpy Gator" t-shirt. She'd wanted one, but the largest size they had was XL, which she hadn't fit into. She bought it for me with the understanding that when she lost the weight to fit into it, she could have it back. Neither of us honestly expected that I'd have to fork it over.

I've never been happier to give up anything in my life.

And this all started with a show on PBS that convinced her she didn't have to just accept the excuses she'd been using for so many years ... so giving some money to them is, I figure, well worth it.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Day 34: White River Watchers

Today's give is to a local organization which has done some great work helping to beautify the White River. Their name, appropriately enough, is the White River Watchers of Madison County. I was able to volunteer with their 2009 White River Fall clean-up, which had me walking up and down the White River dragging trash out of it. Just the group I was with - consisting of about a dozen people on foot who covered less than a mile of the river - found, among other bits of debris, four or five tires, a giant tractor tire, a set of bed springs, and one large, empty oil barrel that had rusted through. (Other groups - two entire school buses full, as I recall - loaded up in canoes and traveled the river that way to find and clear other trash.)

Amber didn't accompany me, because at the time she was very pregnant. But we did, later that day, take Elijah for a walk down by one of the river's tributaries and he was able to practice casting his fishing pole (with a rubber fish weight tied onto the end of it). We saw a lot of trash in that area, and talked to him about how important it was to not litter, especially in the river. We explained to him that even though someone else had left the trash there, it was our job to help clean it up, because if it was left there it would make the Earth and the fish sick.

While we do our part with our son, the White River Watchers (founded in 1997) performs outreach with local schools, as well as performing chemical tests on the White River water supply, to supplement their clean-up activities. They've received numerous awards and recognition for their work, including the 2004 Governor's Award for Excellence in Community Service and Volunteerism for the Environment. Their mission, "to protect the White River ecosystem for the present and future use of all by means of community involvement and education" is one that Amber and I can both get behind 100%.

(For those wondering about the Day 33 give - it was Sunday, so we gave a tithe to church and brought a pie, and spent the rest of the day spending time together as a family.)

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Day 32: A Gift to the Past

When I was in high school, I had horrible self-esteem. Looking back on it, I'm honestly not sure where this came from. I have pictures. I wasn't ugly, though I thought I was. I wasn't fat, though I thought I was. I had tons of friends, so shouldn't have been lonely. There was really no rational basis for any of these thoughts, but I had them ... in spades.

In fact, at one point in my junior year of high school, it got so bad that I lost nearly all of my friends ... because I stupidly, in a moment of unbridled (and unjustified) self-pity declared, in front of three friends, "My life sucks. I just don't have any friends!"

Of course, I wanted them to reassure me. I wanted them to say, "No, we're your friends. We like you."

Instead, they got justifiably pissed that I was completely negating their friendship, and wanted nothing to do with me. Especially the girl who I was interested in ... and who, at the time, was even interested in me back!

Still other friends turned away from me as well. One of the sweetest girls I ever knew said that she just couldn't stand to spend time with me, because it was like I was a "psychic vampire" who just leeched all of the positive energy off of people.

Because I was in this funk, people were deciding they didn't want to be with me. My irrational fears were making themselves become reality, in possibly one of the most tangible ways I've ever experienced in my whole life. I was horribly depressed and couldn't think of any way out.

And that's when a senior, Sunshine, took the time to help me out. Sunshine basically became a mentor, helping me work through some of my issues and figure out how to view myself in a way that had some measure of self-respect. And, as I began viewing myself with respect, my relationships began to slowly mend. Others began to, once again, view me with respect.

So I decided today to give to something designated by Sunshine, who is now an intern Unitarian Universalist minister, focusing on anti-poverty work with grassroots organizations.

When I asked Sunshine where to give, though, I didn't immediately get a definite answer. In the socratic way that I remembered so well, I was offered a set of possibilities, none of which was right and none of which was wrong. (While this was great when I was trying to "find myself" in high school, I'm not particularly sure it's the best way to designate a donation.) Here are the options I was provided:

Of these, I figured that the local church probably needed some funding the most. (Sunshine confirmed this on a follow-up e-mail.) So today, the give goes to West Shore Unitarian Universalist Church... because a decade and a half ago, Sunshine offered a helping hand to a very confused, desperately needy kid.

It doesn't even begin to repay what I owe.

200 Fans - Time for a Shameless Plea

You've helped us reach 200 Facebook fans on the 40 Days of Giving fan page, which is nice. Great, in fact, given it only started about a month and a half ago, and I honestly haven't promoted it too much. (In comparison, my Andrew Zimmerman Jones fan page has just over 465 fans, but that's been around since last November. It focuses more heavily on my science writing, so has a different potential audience.)

But 200 is a significant number, because it means it's very easy to do math in your head. $10,000 (the amount we're trying to raise for Heifer International) is also a nice round number. In fact, if you take $10,000 and divide it by 200, you get ... $50 per fan.

In other words, when you (and everyone else reading this blog) raise $50 for Heifer International, then our $10,000 goal would be reached.

So that's exactly what I'm asking. Each and every one of you can commit to raising $50 for Heifer International - either by donating themselves or collecting donations from others ... by next Sunday, March 28, when the 40 Days of Giving Project ends.

This is totally do-able. I'm certain of it. Most people blow $25 going out to dinner, so if they can be convinced to stay home instead, they won't even notice the lack of money.

If you're willing to aim higher, then do so ... because we all know that the vast majority of people will fall short, or not even try. Becoming a fan on Facebook is about the easiest thing in the world to do, and so I don't expect everyone to accept this call to action.

But if even half do take up the challenge, and if I am able to motivate a few people to go above and beyond, then we can reach the $10,000 goal by our deadline.

So call your friends, call your family, and see if they'll be willing to contribute to making poor families around the world into farmers who can feed themselves, and gain some income, in a self-sustainable way.

You can make a difference for generations to come ... but the first step is trying.

And remember - if we reach our goal by midnight on March 28, I will cut my hair for Locks of Love, where it will be made into a wig for children with medical hair loss. Further, I will provide rewards to anyone who collects over $500 toward the team goal!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Day 31: The Postman Gives Twice

The mail brought us two different giving opportunities over the last couple of days - one of them local to Indiana and one more global in scope. So we took advantage of both of them.

The Gift of Song and Laughter
For several weeks, Amber has been attending a yoga class at the local Unity Church of Anderson, and I've attended a meditation class there. We've gone to a couple of services, as well, and are finding it a relatively good fit for what we're looking for.

Well, last night when Amber went to Unity for yoga class, something unexpected happened. An envelope had come to the church addressed to me, in the care of the pastor. The pastor knew that Amber attended the yoga class, so left it for her there. Presumably the pastor, having learned of our project, passed the word along to some sort of mailing list or forum or something, and someone sent a response to the only address that they knew - to the church from which they'd heard about it.

Both Amber and I were thinking the same thing, because we'd been really trying to figure out how to get to the $10,000 goal for Heifer International. Could this possibly be a check for Heifer? Would it just fall into our lap like this? Did things like this really, truly happen? Was The Secret actually right?

This was actually a fairly foolish way of thinking, but not because such a thing is absolutely outside the realm of possibility. (I still check the mail expecting a $10,000 check, just in case.) The fact is that the envelope was 6" x 9" and padded, which was way more than what would be needed for a check. 

Still, it could have included a book or a pamphlet or something, along with the check. 

There was hope. 


Well, it wasn't a check.

But it was  a very nice gift: a CD by a comedic singer named Greg Tamblyn, called Analog Brain in a Digital World. There was a note included which commended my efforts and also directed me toward track 12, "A Brief History of God (G-String Theory)." The CD was really funny, and we're both very pleased to receive it. (Although, again, if you wish to send a $10,000 check, I'll be checking the mail for it daily. Apparently, if you address mail to me at Unity Church of Anderson, it will find its way to me.)

The musician, Greg Tamblyn, also suggested in the note that I should check out the charity

I guess I knew where I was giving the next day (i.e. today).

As it turns out, Trees for Life is actually a really great charity. They have the highest possible rating on Charity Navigator, and they have a similar "pass on the gift" philosophy to Heifer International. (In fact, Heifer was founded by a member of Church of the Brethren, and Trees of Life indicates it has a connection to Church of the Brethren's volunteer arm. Also, their web pages follow fairly similar layouts. I'm not sure yet if the connection is more substantive than that, though.)

When founded in the early 1980s, Trees for Life focused on planting fruit trees in impoverished regions. Since then, the organization has grown into supporting a wide range of locally-initiated projects around the world. Since the programs are initiated by members of the community, they automatically have a local base to work from in getting community involvement, and aren't just outsiders who are trying to implement their own ideas.

Plus, as with Heifer International, this charity gives you a sort of "shopping fix" while you're donating, because you get to add things to your shopping cart. Your donations can now include gifts of trees, books, libraries, cook stoves, learning centers, computers, and various educational materials.

Masonic Giving
In the standard mail today, I also received a letter from the Grand Lodge of Free & Accepted Masons. The Indiana Freemasons were sending me address labels, and asking for a donation.

This is actually a fairly standard ploy to gain responses. Marketing people have figured out a lot of ways to heighten our likelihood to respond to something and I think it's good that we all know about it. (For a more comprehensive list, interested readers should look into Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Way to Be Persuasive.) Providing a minor gift - address labels or a notepad, for example - increases the likelihood that a recipient will respond to the mailing. Adding a personal note, handwritten, on the letter also helps. And a sticky note on the document? You bet - it helps personalize the mail and, therefore, increases the possibility that the person will positively respond.

One of the major persuasive strategies is getting people to make a small concession in the beginning, such as putting up a small yard sign, before asking for a bigger concession, such as a monetary donation. Since people have agreed, there's a psychological predisposition to respond favorably to a subsequent request. (Did you become my fan on Facebook? Then you should donate to Heifer International!)

If you live in the United States, you likely received a notice about a week ago letting you know that the census  was coming and you should respond. (You have responded, haven't you?) This is the same sort of thing. In fact, a friend of mine who works in marketing called this a "fluffer," presumably because it gets the recipient ready to do the real work you're asking them to do. (If you don't know what this has to do with the word "fluffer," you'll need to look that up on your own. Kids may read this blog.)

Still, completely aware of all of these tactics, I went ahead and donated to them. Just because these persuasive tactics are used has no indication on whether or not the organization is worthy of the donation. Really, if an opportunity to give comes up during the project, I don't see that I can really pass it up. (Only 9 more days, charity telemarketers!) So they got a donation from us today, as well.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Day 30: Reaching Out to At-Risk Youths

Today, Amber and I drove down to Indianapolis to interview Mary Byrne, the Executive Director of a local charity that I'd heard about through a friend who had, several years ago, volunteered there. It's the Indiana Youth Group, an organization that focuses on providing Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, and Questioning (LGBT) youth a safe, accepting environment where they can get mentoring and interact with other kids going through some of the same issues they're having.

One reason this is so important is that LGBT youths are about 8 times more likely than heterosexual youth to commit suicide, according to Ms. Byrne. Similar increases are evident for other negative behaviors, such as smoking, alcoholism, drug addiction, and unsafe sex. In a recent episode of PBS's Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, the following disturbing statistic was also cited:

"Nationwide, 20 to 30 percent of homeless kids are LGBT. In New York City it is one in three, according to Zak Rittenhouse, who works in a homeless shelter for gay and straight youths."

While these facts are incredibly alarming, there's reason for hope. According to Byrne, a recent study showed that virtually all of this is related to the rejection these youths receive from their parents, family, schools, churches, and other social circles. When looking at LGBT youth who are rated as having high acceptance, the instances of risky behavior drop to be virtually identical to heterosexual youths. [Update 3/19/2010: The study is entitled "Family Rejection as a Predictor of Negative Health Outcomes in White and Latino Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Young Adults" by Caitlin Ryan, David Huebner, Rafael Diaz, and Jorge Sanchez, published in Pediatrics: Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.]

This reminds me of some other evidence I've discussed before, in We Are Not Killer Apes!, where I pointed out the strong role that environment plays on our altruistic behaviors, as demonstrated by various primates who show major behavioral shifts when there is a corresponding change in their social influences.

I think it's safe to say that anyone who grows up being rejected by the people who are supposed to love, care for, and support them will be more likely to internalize that rejection and manifest it in risky behaviors. After all, they're continually being taught that they're worthless, so why not act like they're worthless.

This is very personal to me, because my father is gay.  I've never really discussed his own formative years in this regard, but for me, this created a lot of confusion while I was growing up. Was my dad a bad guy? Since he and my mom were divorced, I didn't see him that often, but he certainly didn't seem like a bad guy. Was he going to hell? Was he evil? What did that make me?  Was my very birth a mistake? Was I gay? Was that why I had trouble talking to girls? Maybe they were sensing something that I didn't know about myself. Was I going to hell?

So yes, to answer your question, I have always over thought things.

The point is that even though I'm not gay (despite my profound love of showtunes), the fact that society puts such a stigma upon being gay had a lot of bleed-over emotional impact on me during my formative years. In fact, it's really just in the last couple of years that I've had anything positive to say about any aspect of Christianity, because I associated it so strongly with incorrect and unfounded attacks upon my father's worth as an human being, and, by extension, my own.

All of this negativity is due to a social atmosphere where rejection is the dominant motif. But if you change the environment to one of acceptance, while these youth will still have many hassles to deal with, they are less likely to internalize the negativity as part of their identity. They're less likely to take the labels provided by others and hang it around their own neck, because they'll see that there are alternatives.

That is really what drove the creation of the Indiana Youth Group in 1988. A group of volunteers from an Indianapolis crisis hotline for homosexuals got together in one of their living rooms to discuss a problem: when gay teens called in, they didn't have anyplace to send them for appropriate counseling or help. There was nowhere for these children to turn with their problems.

So they created one.

Today, the Indiana Youth Group serves kids from ages 12 to 20. (They also have a transitional program, helping those ages 21 through 24, so they don't just have to kick them to the curb.) Byrne recounted a busy period last year when the IYG was averaging 85 youths hanging out at the facility each evening, many of them playing volleyball (badly) in the court in their back yard. The majority of the IYG participants are from the older end of the spectrum, because the IYG facility doesn't sit on a bus line (they're trying to find a new facility more accessible to non-driving youths), but Byrne says that even for those who don't come, she thinks that just knowing the facility is out there may provide some emotional support. The IYG also now has an outreach coordinator who works with LGBT groups at high schools across the state, so that they're supporting those who can't make it in for their activities.

The majority of Indiana Youth Group's funding comes from grants, and about 15% comes from their fundraisers - just last Saturday they held an art auction, which included both professional artists and pieces created by the youths who frequent the IYG. The remaining 25% - 30% of their funding comes from the donations of individual supporters ... which includes, after today's give, Amber and myself.

Byrne says that, for her, the major benefits from giving her time to help others have been the rich relationships that she has developed. Maybe some are paying forward a mentorship that they once received at a crucial time in their own lives. Still others, she notes, support their work as a way of trying to help the next generation avoid the same problems they had to deal with.

I can relate to this. The negativity related to homosexually left me conflicted for years, just because I might have picked up a few gay chromosomes somewhere in utero! Kids who are actually feeling these emotions must have it way worse than I did, and if any of them can be spared isolation because of it, I say it's a noble effort. We're created to live with others, as communal beings, and being forced to seal some portion of yourself off is not - can not - be a healthy lifestyle. It hinders our ability to truly connect not only with others, but also with ourselves. The teenage years are where we really begin to determine who we are going to become and that process of self-discovery is hard enough in the best situation.

Kudos to the IYG for providing these kids with an environment where they can be who they were meant to be ... themselves.

Parental Giving

On the PBS show Faces of America, they are exploring the family histories of a number of amazing Americans. One history being explored is of the famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma. They were able to track down a genealogy, including biographies and even naming conventions for generations, that had been lost and rediscovered in China. The oldest record they could find was for the ancestor Ma Lin-Guan, born 1435. The following is from the episode "Making America" where they explore this record:

(Reading from the genealogy record about Ma Lin-Guan) Living an upright life and without holding an official post, he accumulate virtue and cultivated goodness, and thus he laid the foundations for the family for 10,000 generations to come. To pass on good fortune to the descendants, isn't that what it's all about. Isn't it?

(Yo-Yo Ma's commentary) That's what I'm trying to do is live an upright life without holding an official post. Actually, I'm just trying to stay upright (laughter).... That's the best we can do as parents. It's not passing wealth, but passing, you know, certain values. In this case, virtue ... and good fortune.

Work and Family Balance
On March 2, as I was getting ready to head into the office, my four-year-old son walked up to me, and asked me not to go. We play this out every once in a while, so I gave my standard response, "Well, I have to go to work, so they'll give us money and we'll be able to buy food."

This time, he was having none of it. "Just tell them you don't need to work. We have enough money."

I sat down, smiled at him, hugged him, and then said, "You know, even if we didn't have any money, we'd still be pretty happy, right?" He nodded. "You know why?" He nodded. "Yeah, cause we've got family," he said. "Yeah," I said.

Then I went off to work for the day.

That's what we have to do to live a reasonable lifestyle today. I am very fortunate, because my job allows me to work from home much of the time, but I have so many irons in the fire that it still means that the time I'm able to devote to my family is one of the major sources of tension between Amber and I. Writing a book takes a lot of time, and when you have a full-time job in addition to that, well ... that's a lot of time you're devoting to goals outside of the family.

I think that I balance it fairly well, but sometimes - like when my son says things like the above - I do wonder if I'm successful. It's important to always remember that giving begins at home ... which is why this afternoon I will be conducting the Mentos geyser experiment, as well as maybe the egg in the bottle experiment ... no matter how much time it takes.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Day 29: The Gift of Time

I missed yesterday's give because Amber had the debit card that we use to access the giving fund, and she went to bed early. She went to bed early again tonight, and once again I'm hesitant to wake her up to get the card, and I don't know where she's left it.

Still, overall, today was successful on the giving front. We packaged up the books which had been requested from a Day 5, and finally got them in the mail. (Sorry for the delay on that.) Amber also set up the food drive boxes that she's getting together for the Student Leadership Academy at Ivy Tech Community College.

I am taking this week off from the day job to focus on this (and other) writing projects, so you'd think I'd be getting a lot done, but not today. At around 1:00 pm, Amber rushed home because our car, which is in need of an oil change, was making curious sounds - so I went to Sears for an oil change, taking How to Change the World along with me for company. The oil change went relatively uneventfully.

Then I got home just in time to give a family member a lift to the hospital, because he couldn't drive himself. On the way home, I got a call from Amber, asking if I could come to my mother's to help move a few things. This turns into a substantial activity that takes the majority of my afternoon, as I moved a major pile of wood from her front yard, where it had been left when a tree was removed, into the back yard.

When I went to pick Elijah up from daycare, and was on the way back to my mother's to continue moving the wood, I was fairly upset. Frustrated, my brain was firing off in its usual way, "I really should be at home working on the book. I can't believe I'm wasting my time moving wood. This is not helping me at all on the project!"

Then it hit me - this was the project. I was helping my mother with something she needed done. That, and that alone, was my project for the time being. The book, I reminded myself, will be written. Now it was time to move the wood.

Time is one of the hardest things for me to give, because I feel like I have so little of it. I work a full-time job and run my own business, which essentially includes (at any given time) two distinct part-time jobs ( and whatever other writing project I'm working on). But today, I felt not only willing, but glad, to be giving up my time for this task. There was a strange peace in it (except for the brief period of time where Elijah attempted to argue with me over whether or not he was allowed to play in the truck bed with an unstable mountain of firewood), and that was nice to reach.

Anyway, end of story: I got the entire pile of wood moved, and now on to the next day of giving ....

Social Entrepreneurs

Yesterday, Amber and I went to see our lawyer about the possibility of starting up a non-profit, which would focus on helping establish community gardens around Anderson ... as a means of providing fresh vegetables, beautifying the community, and building stronger community relationships.

We left with a pile of paperwork, and the inclination that maybe non-profit status wasn't the way for us to go.

What It Takes to Become a Non-Profit
Becoming a non-profit corporation is not incredibly hard, but it's also not for the faint of heart. You file your articles of incorporation, which turns you into a non-profit corporation. This requires a fair amount of paperwork and, in Indiana, a $750 filing fee - reduced to $300 if you anticipate having a relatively low income your first year. (I forget the exact cut-off, but I think it's less than $25,000 in the first year.) In addition, there are some paperwork and fees associated with securing a unique corporate name within the state.

This makes you a non-profit corporation, but doesn't make you tax exempt. To do that, you have to file separately, both at the state level and then with the federal government for 501(c)(3) status. This allows donors to deduct their gifts as charitable donations. More important for our purposes would be that it would allow the non-profit entity to apply for the many community development grants which only allow 501(c)(3) corporations as applicants.

Beyond that, there are some annual filing requirements and such. It would mean getting an accountant, because it's a bit more than I can handle myself with TurboTax. (One person we spoke to suggested always having an accountant on the board of directors, to work pro bono, which does seem like a clever idea. If accountants are aware of this gambit, I'm sure they run from invitations to join these boards.) To apply for many grants, there have to be regular audits of your organization's financial records.

Check out more on starting a nonprofit at the Nonprofit website.

Fiscal Sponsorship
Through all of this, I began to wonder how much of this hassle was really needed to do good work in the community. To be sure, if you're going to need a lot of supplies (or staff), then you'll probably need access to lots of grant funding over a long term, which means an established organization with 501(c)(3) status is very helpful.

However, a community garden primarily needs start-up capital (and land); the year-after-year upkeep could be handled by membership fees from members of the community who wish to participate. You'd need at least one person at the beginning to devote themselves to getting the thing up and running, but eventually it would be run entirely be volunteers from within the specific neighborhood.

So establishing a 501(c)(3) for this particular activity may just be overkill. What if we sought out an existing 501(c)(3), whose mission was in line with community gardens, and could convince them to let us write a grant on their behalf to provide funding for this activity? In fact, if the organization is well enough established, they may have experienced grant writers on staff, or know of some who can be asked to help. And, since the organization would presumably already be one which is local to the neighborhood in question, it would have a vested interest in seeing that neighborhood thrive.

There is, in fact, a name for this type of joint activity: Fiscal Sponsorship. Though it may sound a bit shady, it's actually perfectly above board (assuming, of course, that you're actually performing the work for which you're getting the tax-exempt money). Under this scenario, a non-profit acts as the sponsor of another organization without tax-exempt status - specifically so that the non-exempt organization is able to access grants and tax-exempt funds, such as donations.

Social Entrepreneur
There's still another possibility, and one which wouldn't have occurred to either Amber or myself in relation to community gardens on our own. A social entrepreneur is someone who uses entrepreneurial methods (sometimes including a successful for-profit business) to achieve desired social outcomes. Author David Bornstein profiles many amazing social entrepreneurs in his book, How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas.

It's unclear to me how small neighborhood community gardens could really fall under the rubric of a profitable social entrepreneurial activity, but to others it must seem natural. In the last two weeks there have actually been two people who - unsolicited, mind you! - offered up that they might be interested in investing in such a business, if we could figure out how to make it profitable.

While I don't know have a vision for a community garden business, the idea of social entrepreneurship has taken a strong hold with me in other ways. I had been considering starting a non-profit of some kind eventually - more of a private foundation, which funded other activities - but in reading Bornstein's book, it became clear that this wasn't really necessary. As a for-profit business, I can still designate funds toward philanthropic activities, grants, scholarships, awards, and so on, seeking out worthy recipients on my own.

Surprisingly, the philanthropic arm of Google - called - is apparently set up as a for-profit entity, although one of its functions is to manage grant-giving, including from the tax-exempt Google Foundation. Philanthropy is so central to Google's vision that their founders made "making the world a better place" (as well as "don't be evil") part of their corporate mission when announcing the IPO of their stock back in 2004.
And now, we are in the process of establishing the Google Foundation. We intend to contribute significant resources to the foundation, including employee time and approximately 1% of Google's equity and profits in some form. We hope someday this institution may eclipse Google itself in terms of overall world impact by ambitiously applying innovation and significant resources to the largest of the world's problems. - "An Owner's Manual" for Google Shareholders
Corporations like Google are not successful despite their commitment to making the world a better place, but specifically because of this commitment. It makes good sense all around. Bornstein makes it clear that he sees social entrepreneurs as "transformative forces."

... it takes creative individuals with fixed determination and indomitable will to propel the innovation that society needs to tackle its toughest problems.... an important social change frequently begins with a single entrepreneurial author: one obsessive individual who sees a problem and envisions a new solution, who takes the initiative to act on that vision, who gathers resources and builds organizations to protect and market that vision, who provides the energy and sustained focus to overcome the inevitable resistance, and who - decade after decade - keeps improving, strengthening, and broadening that vision until what was once a marginal idea has become a new norm. - David Bornstein, How to Change the World

An ambitious goal, which many would certainly mock. But if even a few of these visionaries can make it work ... that's a world I want to live in.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Answering the Critic(s)

As a writer, I don't think you ever really feel like you've "made it" until you have a strong critic. Well, I now have one! Yeah me!

Motivated by the Herald Bulletin newspaper article, there is one individual (who I shall call "The Anonymous One") who has decided that I should be the temporary target of his ire. I am pleased to serve in this capacity for him because, quite frankly, it seems like he needs something like this in his life to feel complete.

He brings up a number of excellent points, which I would like to take some time to address.

1. A Religious Sacrifice

"... to describe [this project] as a Lenten sacrifice is a despicable sacrilege. Any TRULY religious philanthropist would give anonymously to a worthy cause, rather than make a public display like a foolish braggart, hoping to make money on a future book." - The Anonymous One

I agree with this completely and, had I ever described this as a primarily religious effort, I would certainly feel the same way.

But I didn't.

In fact, here is the precise quote from the Herald Bulletin article, taken from the interview with me about the project. After explaining that I came up with the idea and the title, 40 Days of Giving, I said about my choice of timing:

"You begin thinking '40 days,' and immediately Lent pops in your head. So I decided to start on Ash Wednesday."

The choice of Lent is clearly, from this statement, not a strongly-held religious statement about my own desire to sacrifice for religious reasons, but a matter of symbolic convenience. It is not a "Lenten sacrifice" in a religious sense, nor do I particularly think of myself as a "religious philanthropist." In fact, I specifically describe myself, in the interview, as a skeptic.

The Anonymous One certainly cannot be faulted for believing that I was trying to position myself as a religious giver, though, because the article emphasizes that aspect of the story far more than I was comfortable with. The photo caption says that it's showing us "explain the Lent-based reason for handing out grocery gift cards." The first line of the article reads, "Andrew Zimmerman Jones is taking his Lenten sacrifice to his wallet."

Honestly, when I read that I fumed for about 5 seconds. I wasn't "taking my Lenten sacrifice" anywhere ... if I hadn't come up with the idea for this project, I wouldn't have been sacrificing anything for Lent. It really is a bit of a misrepresentation of how I want the project to be perceived, and there it was in the very first line of the article! (From a writing standpoint, though, it is a good hook for the story, so I don't particularly blame the writer for framing it that way.)

2. Giving to Bad People

"The people who accepted your offer did NOTHING that you knew of to be rewarded for, in fact, they may well have been (for all you knew) thieves, crack addicts & prostitutes who were more worthy of PENALTY (the OPPOSITE of REWARD!)…

…or are YOU declaring yourself a DEITY who is capable & worthy of passing judgment upon those who you bestowed your Holy Gift Cards?" - The Anonymous One

Giving to worthy people is an issue that's come up (in more civil forms) a number of times between Amber and me. Part of my initial conception of this project was that it would be giving without really worrying about where it's going. In other words, if I chose to give in a certain way, I'd give to whoever showed up, without any form of judgement on my part. If this means I'm buying gas for someone in a Hummer, well, them's the breaks.

(The one time I faltered on this goal was at the first grocery store give, where I was about to walk up to a woman with three children to offer to buy her groceries. I glanced in the cart and noticed that it was full of pretty much nothing but junk food and soda. I didn't offer to buy her groceries. We all have our limits, I suppose.)

I actually made a poor taste joke about this to a guy at church this weekend (which, I suppose, I'll pass on in poor taste here). Let's say that I go out and do something nice for people, and one of the people I help is a serial killer. Should I not do the project at all because there's a possibility I might do something nice for a serial killer? What if I do something nice for him when he's on the way to kill someone and my act of charity makes him decide not to kill someone that day? "You know, rather than killing someone, I'm going to sit here and enjoy this nice ice cream cone that guy bought me," or something like that.

Yes, it's an extreme case. But what's the alternative? Don't help anyone? Because any help you ever provide to anyone could be used in ways that you don't particularly like. It could, ultimately, benefit someone who is "bad."

And that brings us to a second problem that I have with this criticism - I don't believe in "bad people." I used to believe that peoples' nature was somehow innate, and that there were roads that you went down that set you for life. I don't really believe that anymore. The longer I live, the more evidence I see that people can - sometimes with great effort or only under extreme circumstances - choose to change a lifetime of bad behavior, with the proper motivation.

Certainly, there are people (such as our hypothetical serial killer) who do absolutely horrible things, and these people need to be arrested or stopped ... but I don't believe that there's anything inherent in their nature that's bad. They do bad things, and they may even be driven by strong impulses to continue to do bad things, but are not necessarily themselves bad, and in different circumstances I believe that same person could probably be convinced to make good choices.

Consider the example of Jabbar Gibson, a man with multiple felony arrests. He is currently awaiting trial on a number of charges, including a 2006 arrest for possession of cocaine, heroin, and a revolver. This is one of the quintessential examples of a "bad person" that I might accidentally help during this project, to be sure.

Yet why does anyone care about Jabbar Gibson, in comparison to the many other drug-related felons in the country? It's because on September 1, 2005, twenty-year-old Jabbar Gibson (already a felon) commandeered a bus in his hometown of New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina headed toward the city, loaded up 70 passengers from his impoverished neighborhood, and drove 7 hours to Houston. They arrived well before any government-sanctioned evacuation efforts reached Houston. They had to stop the bus for gas three times, and did so by passing a hat around to get gas money.

Jabbar Gibson made (and continues to make, by the look of things) a lot of bad choices about how to live his life. From all accounts it's probably better for a lot of people that he's in jail right now. However, when Katrina hit, he made the right choice, a choice which helped others. Does this make him a "good person?" Not necessarily, but it certainly makes it harder to make the case that he's a "bad person."

So I don't agree that there are bad people out there. And if I help someone who is making a lot of bad choices ... well, I figure those are the people who need the most help.

3. Socialism!

"Your “gifting” could easily be perceived as a thinly-veiled “experimental” microcosm of a welfare state & of your enthusiasm to participate in such a socialist debacle" - The Anonymous One

I won't go into much more depth than this, but did want to make it clear. Socialism implies that the government controls the majority of wealth and the systems by which the wealth is distributed among the citizens. The acts of giving are random, non-systemic, and non-governmental - therefore, the project is not an experiment in socialism. I'm not a socialist, nor do I support socialist causes. I am, in fact, not a member of any political party or broad-based political ideology. I support individual ideas and policies on their own merits.