Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Smart Heart

My history as a donor to charities started with a little Filipino boy named Albert Dunque. When I was a university student, I got junk mail from the Christian Children's Fund. Their brochures had photos of cute, chubby-cheeked kids standing barefoot in front of shacks made of cardboard boxes. I fell for the marketing and committed myself to sponsor little Albert for US$20 a month. In exchange, I got regular updates on Albert and his family and letters from the boy himself. We were pen pals for many years until I left the U.S. and had to hand over his sponsorship to a friend.

I don't know what my $20 really did for Albert and his family, but his letters made me feel I had the power to help a little boy on the other side of the world.

Charities spend millions of dollars making sure we see the sad eyes and hear the heart-breaking stories that make us fork over cash. Unfortunately, there are plenty of charities that spend more on fundraising and admin than they do on the people they're supposed to help.

Over the years, I've learned it takes smarts, not just heart, to make a difference.

I still donate to a number of charities. I choose ones that don't just give people what they need, but teach people how to get it for themselves. I also donate to my high school and my university. Those schools gave me financial aid when I needed it. I want to pay them back so other students with no money can have the same chance I had. I give money to local theater companies because I believe in supporting the efforts of people who earn a pittance making us laugh and think.

I also give money to friends who run marathons, walk across the country, or cycle crazy distances to raise money for the charity of their choice because that way, I get to support friends and a charitable cause in one swoop. The old "two for the price of one" gimmick works well here.

Here are some of the organizations I support:

International Medical Corps
My friend, Margaret, works for the IMC and vouches for its worthiness, so I trust it's a good organization. Plus, I read their annual reports and get updates on what they do with the money they get. I like the fact that their focus is on providing health care training to the most desperate parts of the world so that those people can help themselves.

The photographer who took my portrait photos for free apparently has a big heart for more than just cancer patients. He told me about this organization that allows donors to make micro-loans to micro-entrepreneurs. For example, you can lend $25 to a woman in Sri Lanka so she can buy some chickens and sell the eggs. When she pays back her loan, you get your money back. If you want, you can have that money passed on to another small business person. This allows a tiny bit of your money to make a huge difference to somebody, by giving them a chance to fend for themselves. Very smart.

National Multiple Sclerosis Society (Gateway Area Chapter in the U.S.)
My brother-in-law, David, is putting himself through rigorous training to cycle 100 miles this September to raise money for this charity. He's doing it in memory of his Uncle Jack and others who are suffering from MS. I have a friend who is living with MS, so I feel I'm supporting her indirectly as well.

Project Enlighten
A friend of mine has interviewed somebody from this charity and vouches for its good work. And a fellow cancer survivor whom I met through my blog is walking all over the U.K. to raise money for this charity, so I'm supporting her healthy lifestyle as well as this charity. Project Enlighten found a way to get aid into Burma (Myanmar) after the cyclone earlier this year, when huge, multinational charities were turned away by that country's military regime.

Environmental Working Group
This organization analyzes thousands of household and personal care products we use everyday for their effectiveness and chemical content. For example, I find their analysis and rating of sunscreens extremely helpful since our kids wear sunscreen almost every day here in sunny Singapore. That's a lot of exposure to potentially dangerous chemicals that might not even be blocking out the sun.

The Hunger Site
This very clever online charity uses the basic principles of online marketing to benefit the hungry around the world. You, the donor, click on this site and the corporate sponsors (online marketers) donate money for food to the hungry. In exchange, the marketer gets your "eyeballs", or exposure for their ads on the site. So donating to the hungry doesn't cost you a single penny. This is the smartest use of online marketing I've ever seen. They also have Web sites to benefit other causes: The Breast Cancer Site, Child Health, Literacy, Rainforest Conservation, Animal Rescue.

Here's a great Web site that evaluates charities based in the U.S.: The Charity Navigator. They study and rate charities on how well they spend their money. Before you donate any more money to your chosen charity, I suggest you look it up on this Web site to see how it rates.

Catholics believe in tithes - giving ten percent of their income to the Church. I'd rather give my money to organizations that are transparent and financially responsible, that actually spend the money on the people they claim to help. The Pope doesn't need any more gold-threaded robes.


Anonymous said...

Hi Shin,

Like you, I would like my every cent donated to go to the person in need.
I do not believe in paying for marketing strategies, etc. I believe there are enough people with time and brains to volunteer their time to do this such that the full donation can go to the needy. - I guess I am too naive!!
Anyway, since I don't need to have tax deduction for what I give - I tithe my 10% of income to my church (my pastor does not wear gold threaded robes) and people I know who are in need or people I hear about.
I work in school and there are lots of opportunities to contribute and know that, that every cent will go to the needy. At the moment we have a single parent with children in our school suffering from cancer and cannot pay for her treatments.
We have a support team that helps keep the place clean for the children and they are mostly old and work very hard for pittance.
The joy on their faces when we give them, (very discreetly) an angpow as and when.


Anonymous said...

Catholics DO NOT tithe, if they do it's their personal choice. Catholic Church never ever forces them to.

Churches that believe on official 10% tithing are those like City Harvest.

Anonymous said...

Oh yes so would you please correct that fact in your post, thank you.

I've always been following your blog btw, one of your earlier posts this year was very touching and made me realize how lucky I have been and also how all these while I have been focusing on all the wrong things in life. I hope you will be well enough at least for Toby's 5th birthday. :)

Leighbee said...


Catholic Giving and Tithing Guide
Giving and tithing is not a widely discussed topic in the Catholic Church. However, it is important for all parishoners to understand that giving is not optional (it is actually one of the six precepts of the Church). It is also important to realize that giving must be done responsiblity: if a priest, bishop or 'Catholic' organization engages in activities or teachings contrary to the Pope of Magisterium, then they should not be supported.

The guideline is a starting point to responsible giving. All numeric references are from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994) unless otherwise noted.

Anonymous said...

I think rules are there as a guide. Tithing is giving 10%. One can give in so many ways to equal 10% Yes, volunteering is one and worth monetary value in earthly criteria. But giving is really a Godly criteria. Shin, I believe you give in the Godly criteria. Your blog is giving in untold ways. Foget the "rules" when giving and give from your soul is my criteria.

Alanna said...

Hi - I used to work for IMC adn can also vouch for the quality of their work.

I'd also like to say that I think it is a mistake to look for ways that you can avoid paying staff costs and overhead costs. Having professionals run your programs is the best way to do the best possible work for the people who need help. Volunteers may have great skills, or they may not have what you need at all. Being able to hire professionals with the skills you need is the best way to reach people in need.

Marge said...

Many, many thanks for the shout-out to IMC, Shin. Really wonderful of you. You have become quite the philanthropist.
Also, I must say, your blog has become quite the hit among my friends and colleagues. I get emails constantly from people who are moved by what your write and what you experience. It's a gift - enjoy it!


Anonymous said...

As someone who grew up as a Catholic and went to an all girl's Catholic boarding school, I'd like to say that I'm so glad I am out of it.

I'd also like to say that there are numerous Filipina Churches here in Singapore who tell the Filipina maids that the more they give, the more they have a place in Heaven. Something I'm not familiar with and I have to say it is a disgusting concept to me, it takes advantage of these women who look on the Church for their well being and it takes money from people who are already disadvantaged. I really hate this.

Anonymous said...

I think that anyone who can believe in religion and god in this day and age must be insane.

But that is just my point of view.

Anonymous said...

Religion is a way of thinking, god is a hymn.

We have all believed in beings greater than ourselves, because that is human nature.

To believe in something greater than ourselves is our downfall.

We are, what we are.

Shin said...

Dear Anonymous re: religion, god, and insanity,

You sound like Richard Dawkins, author of "The God Delusion". You might find that book interesting.

But if you're going to read that, also read "The Case for Faith" by Lee Strobel.

ALI KATI said...

Thanks for the plug, Shin. And thanks again for your generous support.

lisacc said...

I do Kiva - it is brilliant. It is like charity but in a 100% constructive way, and you can keep redonating your original donation.

cheryl said...

I won't go into the issue of tithe-ing and whether or not Catholics really do it, because that's a different topic of discussion.

But your closing exhortation to your readers that 1) don't give money to the church 2) give it to INSTEAD someone who has more accountability and transparency 3) Pope doesn't need more gold robes -- is really not fair. Especially since you imply that tithes end up being made into gold robes for the pope and isn't that a waste. And particularly since that remark came out of nowhere. I know you don't believe in God but is there a need to bring up the church in this light?

I'm guessing you didn't know this because its not well publicised - but a good deal of money raised by the church gets channelled into helping sustain a number of charities set up by the church in singapore catering to the needs of those society left behind. And this ranges from homes for abused girls, teenagers at risk, single mothers, abandoned old people and the poor. You would probably have never heard of these because they don't do glitzy fund raising road shows, but they are there, doing good for people. And audited financials are available on the net.

Perhaps you meant it as a throwaway remark, but I think your message got lost in the words.

Shin said...


I'm sorry I've offended you or that you've misunderstood my meaning. I didn't ask my blog readers not to give money to the church. I don't presume to ask my readers to agree with me, let alone do anything because I do. I simply said I personally would prefer to donate my money to organizations that are transparent and financially prudent.

I don't intend to offend Catholics but I will stand by my comment that the Pope does not need any more gold-threaded robes. That's only a metaphor, of course, but I do believe that the Catholic church does indeed spend quite a lot of money helping itself. When I was in college in New York in the 1980s, the Catholic church was the biggest property owner in the city - it owned more property than the city of New York itself.

I know the church helps a great many people, but it could help even more if it spent less on its own upkeep.

I know the church in Singapore does a great deal of important social work. In fact, I believe that churches here fill a much-needed gap since there isn't the kind of social welfare system here that there is in the U.S., U.K., and Australia, for example. I'm grateful that the churches in Singapore provide a safety net for people in need here.