The following vignettes include both successes and difficulties, dilemmas resolved and questions left hanging. If you have empathy or wisdom to offer any of these contributors, send us your responses and we will forward them. Although we talked mostly to people with inherited money, and mostly to funders of causes addressing fundamental social problems, we think the lessons distilled from those stories contain useful nuggets for givers of all levels and persuasions.
Cut It Out
I sent a form letter with each donation I made this year stating: "Please solicit me one time per year. If I receive more requests than that, I will stop contributing." Well... some groups honored my request, and I appreciated that. Most ignored it, and many of them I crossed them off my list. But some recalcitrant groups I couldn't bear to stop funding-I had been giving to them for 30 years.
Giving $25-50 to nearly 60 groups a year still felt like a chore, but I was stumped what to do. Then a few months ago, after getting 10 requests in one day, I got fed up. I cut down to 10 groups in total, and am giving them larger contributions. - anonymous author
The Mystery Fund
A friend of mine is an Episcopal priest who worked as a counselor at a community college. When he learned that many students were financially strapped, he told them they could borrow from a special loan fund for students like them. He explained that when the money was paid back, it could be loaned out to another student in need. Many young people took advantage of this opportunity, and at last report all had paid it back. No one ever knew that all the money in the mysterious fund was his own. - anonymous author
Stumbling onto Success
I've been in this business of giving for a lot of years. Early on in my giving, a young filmmaker named Barbara showed me some of the footage she had taken of a strike in West Virginia. It was amazing stuff. She had no funds to continue filming, so I gave her $10,000 and called up a friend who gave her the same. Our money boosted her morale. We also helped her connect with other funders.
I was astounded when her completed film won an Academy Award! Energized, two friends and I started a fund explicitly to help independent social-issue film makers. I get satisfaction thinking that those films have informed and inspired hundreds of thousands of people. Of course, you can't know ahead of time where the "cutting edge" of change will be-you just have to take risks. - anonymous author
I took a trip to Jamaica with my husband and two good friends. It was a wonderful vacation, but it was painful to see the condition of the people there. Out of the $1,000 a week we paid to rent a beach house, the cook and housekeeper were each paid $5 a day. We couldn't stand the inequality, so we gave money to most of the people we met. In fact, we became known as the "sucker house," because people knew that if they needed anything, they could come to us. We didn't mind; it was true.
We found the deluge of people who came to our house very interesting. We really enjoyed one man in particular, who never asked for anything-a fisherman in his 60's named Frank. He would come by every day to sell fish, and stay to chat. After we left Jamaica, we exchanged several warm letters with him. Then, in his third letter, Frank confessed that there had been a big storm and all his lobster trap were smashed. He said his life was ruined. Deeply concerned, we sent him money immediately.
When we returned the following year, the housekeeper broke the news to us that Frank was not a fisherman, but a con man. It was very hard. We had taken to him so, and now we were taken by him. - Kathy
Get the Straight Scoop
I've been funding Native American organizing in the U.S.. for 15 years. I quickly learned that if you want to help outside your own community and culture, it's best not to make funding decisions yourself, or you will likely have people take advantage of you. Say you go to an event and meet a person who says you've got to fund this pressing need in the local community. How do you know you are getting the straight scoop?
Unless you are ready to do a whole lot of homework first, it's better to give through an alternative community foundation, where they understand the state of the movement and the political dynamics in those communities. What gives me satisfaction in my giving is the feeling I haven't been had, and I feel good that working in a cooperative fashion on grant making maximizes my dollars in a responsible way. - anonymous author
I just made the largest contribution I have ever made, to upgrade a hospital in the Third World. I am amazed by what this money (which I was doing fine without, anyway) is now doing for other members of my human family-improving life for not just a few people, but thousands! I felt incredibly anxious, making such a substantial gift outside the traditional lines of giving. To my surprise, I mostly felt afraid of disapproval from my parents, family and friends. I realize now that being as generous as my true self desires is a powerful act of independence. - A. N.
After all these years of giving I feel bled dry, drained of my money, drained of my time and energy and peace of mind. I used to love seeing my name on the list of big donors or on the select list of sponsors for a fundraising party, but no more. All the money I put in bonds to avoid taxes-well once upon a time I got 7% interest-but now 2-3% trickles in.
What about me, my life, my needs, my future? I have to start thinking of myself, too. I am happy for all I accomplished for the battered women's movement, but now it's time for me to stop. Don't ask for money; if you do, the answer is no. It may be yes again someday, but I need to say no until I can discover a whole new way of doing this. - T.T.
See Me, Not My Wallet
I helped finance a farm for some friends in Spain who are helping recovering addicts. I decided I didn't want them to feel indebted to me in any way, or to see me as a person of money, so I gave the money anonymously. I've been to the farm several times, seen their successes and also the problems. What feels special is this community seeing me as myself, rather than as a funder. I've come to feel I have a right to enjoy my giving, and I feel great pleasure being connected to what my money is doing. - R. A.
Trusting that I Have Enough
I am an artist, soon to be a Dad, with inherited money. Traditional approaches to philanthropy encourage givers to set limits-for instance, 10 percent of dividends, or $10,000 a year. Why? If I can still take care of myself and family, why not give 90 percent of the dividends, or even more? I am exhilarated by trusting my own thinking, stepping beyond age-old owning class taboos. -L.J.
When Not Giving is Generous
I'm in a women's performing group that is more like a family than a band-we've been together 14 years. I contribute yearly to the group, but within the range of other people's donations so I don't feel the need to give anonymously. I like getting appreciation from the group for what I give!
This year-perhaps because my inheritance has given me skills with money that other group members don't have-I am in charge of fundraising for our latest recording. I am sorely tempted to donate $5,000 to the project, instead of spending hours and hours asking others for it! But I remind myself that money is not the only point of fundraising-it's also about building support for our work among a wide range of people, and that is vital for the long-term health of the group. - anonymous author
Adopting an 18-Year-Old
I read in the newspaper that many foster kids can't attend college because their financial support stops at age 18. This struck a chord in me, and through a foster care agency I found a young woman who wanted to attend junior college but was short $3000 a year. I provided the funds. Wendi and I have known each other 2 months now and our relationship is a total joy for me. She has filled the hole I felt at having no children, and I have filled a void for her having no parental support. - anonymous author
Setting Boundaries Ain't Easy
I'm an advocate for low-income people in the town I live in, and find this work satisfying. I have been careful not to let people know about my inherited money-although it hardly matters, because even in my middle class lifestyle I am rich by comparison. For the last year, I've been helping to support a woman on welfare who has not been able to manage to take care of herself and her child. A friend suggested we could do some kind of exchange, but then I couldn't think of anything she could do for me given that she has no car to get to my place, and has little time when she is not looking after her child.
Now I feel trapped, obligated to give. My friends say that if it doesn't work for me, that's a good enough reason to change the situation. I know they're right; to be the life-long giver I intend to be, I need to respect my own needs too. I am considering phasing out the support after 4 more months to give her some time to adjust, but pulling back is not easy to do. - J. S.
A Political Investment
For me, giving to political candi-dates is just like making an investment. As with all investments, there is risk, both financial and emotional. If I help get someone elected who then acts like a fascist, I feel like a failure. Sometimes I have felt betrayed, but I've learned to accept that not everything will work perfectly. Although I made a huge effort to get what sometimes seems like a small return, I remember that one person in office can influence thousands or even millions of people.
After supporting many campaigns, the powerful impact of political giving is quite real to me. I'm sorry to see many good people with progressive agendas get bruised and walk away. I'll be damned if I let failures make me give up-that's the kind of attitude you have to have. - anonymous author
It Adds Up
I take a risk and give money to help start something-who knows if the project will bloom? But now as I look back over three decades of strategic giving, I see that the brash new experiments we funded are now established and important institutions.
We helped to launch The Center for a New Democracy, which removes obstacles to people voting and running for office; Human Serve, which has made voter registration available to people in their normal lives (for instance, at motor vehicle bureaus); The Public Media Center, which produced the very first public interest advertising; the South Shore Bank of Chicago, which was the first bank dedicated to economic development in low income areas...
There is something to be said for the satisfaction of sticking with supporting various projects over the years, looking back and seeing that they really add up to something. - anonymous author
Navigating my Route of Giving
I'm learning over the years what I need to stay energized and optimistic as a giver: Some of my funding needs to nurture things I can literally see and touch - murals in my neighborhood, community gardens, projects that affect people I know. Some of my money needs to go towards projects shaping the larger political and economic picture, touching the lives of people I will never meet, perhaps taking longer than my lifetime to bear fruit. For instance, during the Mississippi flood disaster, I didn't give blankets and canned goods, but instead supported projects that would help people rethink how to build on flood plains.
I also need a balance between funding creative start-ups that get my adrenaline going, and directing my money to projects I'm confident will bring results. High risk and low risk -like a good stock portfolio! When I evaluate my giving, I am not judging whether others have done right by me, but rather assessing my own thought process, how I might become more strategic, more deeply attuned to what I need as a giver at this stage of my life.
Giving well requires that I listen to my inner self, and make more conscious who I am and what I want to express in the world. That's why giving is almost always satisfying to me-whether or not the projects I fund are successful. - anonymous author
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