Selecting Charities

This is an excerpted letter of response I wrote to the COO of — she’d written to thank me for participation, mention some web traffic coming from my site, and ask how I’d learned of their organization. I responded to explain how, personally, I select the charities that suit my interests.

Hi Donna,

Here’s the deal: It was a process. Like many people, I’ve gone years wanting to help the poor but feeling paralyzed – unable to find a way to do it effectively, for several reasons:

Reasons for Paralysis:

  • the overhead of some organizations makes the process feel unjust – just like the exorbitant interests rates with some microloan repayment plans
  • the administrative costs mean that it actually costs them more to process a small donation than the amount of the donation – meaning I’d be doing harm, not good unless I can regularly donate larger amounts
  • there’s a sense of distance from people that actually undermines motivation, because the money is spread across issues with impersonal, even if effective, solutions – it begins to feel like political action (issue-based) rather than charitable action (person-based)
  • simultaneously, the marketing techniques create a hunger for a different kind of charity – I already knew that child sponsorship didn’t mean directly sponsoring an individual child, and I understood and approved of the reasons why, but precisely because of those marketing campaigns, I couldn’t turn away from that child, and wanted a way to directly affect lives – that became a primary motivator and I began looking for an organization that would serve as a vehicle for that approach – targeted, direct, personal intervention – and a trust but verify policy toward financial accountability

How I became Un-paralyzed:

  • Oxfam started the avalanche: First, in one of my periodic web scouring raids, I got interested in Oxfam after reading an article at – specifically this one: Oxfam seemed to me to support the values I and my peers hold – when we go to another place, we eat *their* food – we don’t go to an international chain – we buy locally, support local businesses, subsidize mom and pop places, etc. We think this is just, and it’s the appropriate response to their hospitality. It would be barbaric to visit Thailand and go right to McDonalds. Even if it’s just stopping in a roadside one-lane town on the way to somewhere else, we stop at a local garage and say “Every town has a diner that people like, has been there forever, and serves just good local fare – where’s yours?” And then we always eat the cobbler or pie.” Oxfam was a solution – they buy food locally and ship it locally in the donor region, rather than using 3/4 of the overhead to buy US food and ship it with US carriers. They do on a global scale what I do personally. So I donated and carried a link. I’m currently running an ebay auction with 100% of proceeds going to Oxfam.
  • Kiva set me free: Kiva fell in my lap. I got interested in from watching a CNBC report. The investigative reporter *tried* the approach, initiating small microloans anonymously on their site, and then flying to Africa to see what had happened. It worked. They found the exact people who had borrowed, and they had significantly improved their lives ( i.e. from mud and stick hovel with family of 6 and one income from a dilapidated bike taxi to two incomes, a thriving business, and a little two-room house with a locking steel door – theirs were genuinely happy children). I was in! As Christmas gifts this year, I made microloans on behalf of friends and family and sent Christmas cards with the name, photo, and information on the person receiving the loan. My wife asked me what I wanted for Christmas, and I asked her to help me help one more person. So we did. There’s a Schindler’s List kind of feel to it, in some ways. At the end of the film, he wished he could give up his watch to help just one more person – he was willing to trade. We don’t, on our death beds, lie wishing we had bought more things; we wish we had built stronger relationships, loved more people, and been more involved in others’ lives. I’m not waiting for wishes.
  • Short jump to GlobalGiving: I wanted more, and what I’d already found gave me the search terms I needed. I combined oxfam and kiva into a google search and went on the hunt again, running across blogs with banners for those and other charities. An example: — I then visited the web sites of each charity, to narrow it down, and looked for reviews and comments in further google searches. The one that made me want to give this way the most was an orphanage in cambodia that needs $900 total for toilets and things, and so far only have $189. I liked what I saw with (direct action, progress reports, well-organized site) and decided to begin working with it to fight poverty. It also gave me a vehicle to fight injustice – it actually expanded the areas in which I thought I could help.

. . . What globalgiving does, is give me a way to *give* in a similar manner that kiva gives me a way to *lend*. GlobalGiving also provides me a way to target certain sectors easily while maintaining that direct personal action I mentioned. For instance, I can zero in on orphanages. The progress reports are strong motivators.

. . . Being featured in Clinton’s book was very positive as an endorsement ( ) – that was the final trigger that got me over the edge and into the water w. GG.

The bread you do not use is the bread of the hungry. The garment hanging in your wardrobe is the garment of the person who is naked. The shoes you do not wear are the shoes of the one who is barefoot. The money you keep locked away is the money of the poor. The acts of charity you do not perform are the injustices you commit.
– St. Basil the Great

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