A Year of Giving
When I was a kid, my parents gave my sister and I an allowance each week, earned by doing our homework and basic chores. Our funds were kept in matching gray fireproof suitcases in the hall closet, and were divided evenly into three crumpled envelopes. One was for spending, one was for saving (the money in that envelope would one day be used to open my first ever bank account), and one was for charity. Giving generously was a given back then, and looking fondly to my parents, who are active volunteers and major contributors to local charities, I’ve always known it would be a part of my future as well.
It was at Burning Man last year, as I contemplated the idea of radical generosity, that I wondered about that middle bit between the hand-held giving of my childhood and the anticipated altruism of my hopefully-comfortable adulthood. When would that day come? When would I be suddenly be ready to start regularly giving away a percentage of the small sums of money I so painstakingly earn and so begrudgingly part with?
What about now? Could I give at this time in my life, when occasionally I feel like my own charity case? Could I give when, if it didn’t quite hurt, it strained somehow? I decided to try.
Though my exotic travels might portray otherwise, I live quite frugally and thought goes into every penny I spend. Example: My rent in Indonesia was $250 a month, and I didn’t have a sink in my bathroom. There are still months when I take a small hit instead of turning a small profit. I had been sporadically donating to causes that moved me for years, but the idea of a more regular commitment scared me. So I started small. I decided I’d give about $50 a month to a different charity for a year. Without revealing too much (RARE I KNOW), that falls within the American average for percentage of my income.*
When I first committed to making a monthly gift, I wondered if at the end of the year I’d feel resentful of the more selfish ways I could have spent the money. After all, the $600 I ended up donating over the past twelve months could buy a plane ticket somewhere pretty fun, or be a nice chunk towards the new lens I’ve been eying. But I’m relieved to report that I’m not quite as materialistic as I suspected — the only emotion I feel as I think about where that money did go is content. Though my donations have been extremely modest I’ve contributed to causes such as animal shelters in New York and Panama, to friends’ runs and walks for cancer, and to a social services organization my parents have been involved with since before I was born and that is a cornerstone of the community I grew up in. I’ve donated to the travel blogging community’s Passports with a Purpose fundraiser and I’ve donated to a group dedicated to preserving traditional culture in Hawaii. When Typhoon Haiyan struck, I donated to a rebuilding fund for Malapascua, an island I’d fallen in love with just months prior. Picking where my donation went each month become a rewarding — and dare I say fun — part of my routine, especially when I came across meaningful causes in my travels.
I’ve waffled endlessly about this post, and have curiously examined my discomfort with publicly writing about the subject — after all, I publish regular financial roundups that intimately detail my spending on food, entertainment and accommodation across my travels. Yet I’m mortified by the idea that someone might interpret this post as boasting, or giving myself a big virtual pat on the back. But no — I know I get just as much out of the deal in warm fuzzies (and what the hell, tax write offs) every time I donate. Obviously, as you’re reading this, I’ve decided to hit publish, both because philanthropy is a topic that fascinates me and because this time last year it was flopping around in my brain quite a bit, and Burning Man was the catalyst I needed to realize that the time for giving was not some mythical date in the future where I’d be financially secure enough to be throwing blank checks at every non profit in my path.
It just clicked that that time was now, and that I was ready for financial generosity to be a small but regular part of my early adult life and my modest business. Maybe one of you is looking for that catalyst as well and this will spark a discussion or a thought that will lead to a year of giving that as rewarding for you as my own has been for me. Or maybe you’re all super generous regular contributors to charity already and you’re like, “Duh, Alex, get with the program!” In which case, why are you guys doing everything without me and what are we wearing on Tuesday.
On a more serious note, long ago I had a conversation with my dear friend Angie, who has as giving a heart as anyone I’ve ever known. While the exact wording left me long ago, her sentiment did not — she assured me that she has given when it hurt, and when it was a struggle, and that in return she has always had a deep trust that it has and will come back to her when she needs it most. That idea, that concept of a karmic insurance policy, stuck with me and was another step on the path to where I am today with this.
My year of giving might be over, but a new one has begun. I can’t wait to see where it brings me.
Do you have a charity of choice? Let me know in the comments so I can check it out too! I’d love to hear your thoughts on how charitable giving fits into your life and travels.
*How many Americans regularly donate to charity and how much? According to The National Philanthropic Trust, 95% of Americans give to charity. How much is a harder question to answer. The average percentage of income gifted is between 3.1–4.5% according to various sources. However, the religious practice of tithing can greatly skew those statistics. Some organizations state that average percentage of income gifted to secular, non-religious charities is just 1.1%. Interestingly, the wealthier Americans are, the lower the percentage of their income they give.
I admire your conviction Alex. I was thinking as I was reading this post that little moments of joy when you know a small percentage of what you earn has been giving to someone or something else other than yourself.
I’ve not had a lot of money during the upbringing of my kids and sometimes have not had enough to go round us let alone others. I realised in those moments during life I have always given my time – maybe just a few moments to listen to the old lady on the street with stories to tell and noone to hear them. I think its important to acknowledge whatever way we give back to our society. I like what your friend said and I’ll give that a little more thought. 🙂
That is so true, and something I didn’t get into in this post, but being generous with your time is also admirable! As I am so often on the move that is less of an option for me, hence why I choose to give with my checkbook — but I love that both options are out there.
I think to share is a wonderful gift. In whatever way you are able to give it! 🙂 You do it all the time with your blog Alex!
I love this post – you didn’t come off as boastful at all! I often contemplate donating as well, but I’m so bogged down by student loans that I rationalize it would be foolish to add another monthly payment to my roster. But you’re proof that no matter what your disposable income, you can prioritize charitable donations – thanks for giving me something to think about!
Well, I certainly wasn’t giving to any charities regularly when I was in school! I am quite blessed not to have student loans and I can imagine it would be hard to juggle those into a budget. At least they are “good debt,” as Suze Orman would say 🙂
Hi Alex. Nice post. I really like how you reflect around the importance of giving. I have also given when it hurts, thinking that they probably need it more than I.I have used all my money on my projects in Bolivia and Uganda. But then again, I have gotten back.Poor people have giving me food and accommodation for free when travelling without expecting anything back. I also got some gifts of money when I needed the most. So your friend is right. By being good, you will get good.
Great post, and thank you so much for sharing.
I love that sentiment and it is true for me as well — I have been met with unbelievable generosity on my travels! What goes around does really come around…
Alex, this post really resonated with me. I fundraise for TFA – an organization that I know you’re familiar with. That being said, and having spent the past four years working for nonprofits and the education system, I’ve felt like I’m actually doing the work on the ground – so, why should I donate? Reflecting back, I don’t know if that was right or wrong. There’s definitely a voice in my head that’s shouting – what were you thinking? But, as I embark on this next chapter, I need to rethink this. I love the idea of a monthly portion allocated to giving, especially as I’m about to galavant across the world. Thanks for this. I hope it inspires others as it has me 🙂
Thanks so much for that lovely feedback, Emily! I think giving your time can be absolutely as valuable (if not more) than giving your money, in qualified circumstances. My oldest sister and my mom both work/have worked in development and capital campaign fundraising and all kinds of other fundraising words I don’t understand — so I know it is really tough work! Hats off to you 🙂
I loved this post and I’m glad you decided to publish it! I’ve always given sporadically as well- but as you said- this might be a sign that it’s time for me to start giving regularly. There are so many charities I want to give to and I often feel overwhelmed by the choices. Giving to a different one each month is a great idea!
PS. The ‘Why The Rich Don’t Give to Charity’ article is a fascinating and eye-opening read!
Yeah, it’s also a great excuse to contribute when things pop up that catch my eye — sometimes I’m a few months ahead actually, ha! And glad you enjoyed that article, I was intrigued by it as well.
Excellent post Alex! If most people give a little, that can add up to a lot. Even when I’ve been in tough financial times, there have been things that I cut back on that I really didn’t need so that I could send something to a charity in a worse situation than I was. Like your friend, I too believe that there is sort of a karmic insurance policy.
I love that Morgan, you clearly have a generous spirit! Maybe you’d enjoy Burning Man as well 🙂
Hi Alex! Great post. I don’t donate as much as I should. Recently my friend’s mother died of a heart attack at a very young age. It took this push for my to donate to the American Heart Association. I wish I thought to donate more. If the money is automatically taken out of my paycheck, I feel like I won’t miss it as much. I certainly have enough to get by and should be more generous to those who don’t have anything. Thanks for the inspiring post!
One of my good friends from high school and I were discussing this and she told me her employer (a major financial institution) offers to take out a certain amount and donate to an approved charity of the employee’s choosing, and even match it! I was really impressed with that and think it would be a huge incentive to give.
This is the best post I’ve read from you yet! So inspiring and really makes me want to do the same thing. And yes, picking a new thing to donate to each month sounds fun and like something “you would get out of the money”. Like buying any other experience I guess.
My boyfriend has tought me about the cosmic karma it’ll come back when you need it- stuff too, and I must say I’m a fan and a believer 🙂
Thank you so much Isa! You are so right — experiences are what I most enjoy spending my money on these days, and this definitely qualifies as one though I never thought of it that way!
I am so glad you brought up this topic and your readers know you well enough not to think otherwise. Coming from India, a country which believes in the ‘karmic insurance policy’ you mentioned, I can’t agree more. I have thought about this topic a lot too and tried donation in different ways, but now I have decided to pool the money together and donate to a cause I can actually see the results for like helping with a particular kid’s education, towards a particular facility etc. That I believe would keep me motivated and more involved.
There are definitely benefits to choosing one organization to be a major benefactor of! My parents are extremely involved in the organization I linked to in this post and I’m sure that’s more rewarding than just being minor blips to hundreds of charities over the years — I hope eventually I’ll find something that feels right to me in the same way!
while charitable giving and fundraising have always been a part of my life, your approach is much more organized than mine!
i love the idea of setting aside a certain amount each month (no matter how small) and with a diff cause each time, you always have something to look forward to.
a few favorite causes that might be of interest:
Room to Read
–super savvy non-profit run by former microsoft exec, sending 27,000+ girls to school in the developing world, building educational infrastructure & publishing & distributing books
–highly innovative project that addresses climate change, the economy, conservation, road safety, wildlife protection & more ALL IN ONE! Awesome video here:
The Orangutan Project
–rehabs orangutans affected by rampant deforestation in Indonesia & employs local people in the logging industry to safeguard rainforest from destructive palm oil plantations
Cystic Fibrosis Foundation
–since it affects me personally, I gotta give a shout out. If you know someone who has it, you know how devastating this illness is. If you don’t, here’s a very moving film on the subject. I dare you not to become obsessed with the fiery young star:
These are awesome and some of them are totally new to me! Thanks so much for sharing Becky — you always have such interesting insights!
yikes am i the only grinch in the comments that doesn’t donate often? i need to get my shit together, i didnt realize so many people our age were donating.. i mean i give that extra dollar when someone asks me at check out or donate when someone does a charity walk but i think i should do more! good going alex!
You’re not a grinch, girl! You are just me a few years ago (finding your way in your digital career!), and there is no way me a few years ago would have been ready for this 🙂 Find something that gets you excited in India — there must be so many great causes around you!
I did the three envelopes growing up too! Like yourself, I am a strict budgeter who decided to forego financial security in favor of traveling the world and have lived in Thailand for two years now. As you know getting paid in baht can be a little scary as a months salary here was a weeks salary back home and I was trepidatious about giving as well especially on a regular basis. After settling in I decided $10 a week was something I could commit to and that it should go towards creating a memorable experience for one of my students or buying them something they need. I’m not going to lie, some months I do miss the money but your friend Angie’s advice has proved true for me as well. Two years later my small commitment has inspired friends and family to get involved through donating and I’m able to do play dates / small gifts for up to 100 orphans in need a week. On frugal weeks, we make do with songs and hugs. Those munchkins are a constant reminder to do what you can, where you are, with what you have. It’s made me realize that I will always have something to give, it just won’t always be money.
Aw, I love hearing from another three-enveloper, ha! My days of getting paid in baht were scary times indeed, and I’m glad you’ve found some stability! I absolutely love your story and the fact that you’re infecting your family and friends with your generosity! Keep on keepin’ on, girl.
I don’t donate (time or money) as often as I should/would like to. I appreciate how you made it a priority and I want to work on doing the same! I tend to donate when friends are raising money, but don’t seek out opportunities on my own. One of my favorites, though, is the Blink Now Foundation. Maggie is a super amazing young American woman who runs a school, orphanage, women’s center and other activities in Nepal – and although she heads the foundation, she seems to prioritize employing local staff, teachers, caretakers, etc, and has a local board in Nepal to ensure that the community there is driving the activities of the foundation. I also work at a nonprofit, Cascade AIDS Project, and donate to my own organization because I believe in what we do.
Those sounds like two amazing organizations! It is a huge testament to the one you work for that its own employees contribute. You rock 🙂
I have a couple of chosen charities, both are really important to me and I like to give to them whenever I have a little windfall.
Last month I moved out of my rented flat into a new place. We left the place spotless to get the deposit back, and sure enough we did – except it didn’t arrive in my bank account. I’d mixed up two digits in my account number and my money had disappeared.
I’d decided that my deposit, well over £300, was long gone. To cut a long story short, something amazing happened! The money ended up in someone else’s account, and they had no obligation by law to give it back to me, except they did.
I was so surprised and warmed at the kindness of this unknown person that I donated a decent portion of the money straight away to charity.
Since then, I’ve started a job and become a member of my chosen charity, paying a yearly donation 🙂
Wow, I absolutely LOVE that story Kiki! So much kindness in one blog post comment 🙂 I’m going to reread when my world is feeling blue.
Agree with Rachel above – I usually donate when I see an article about a certain cause online, or when a friend is fundraising for something, but I don’t seek out ways to donate outside of those things and your post has really inspired me to get in gear about that! Even if it’s just $25 a month, if everyone did that, orgs would have so much more to work with… thanks for giving me some things to think about! 🙂
Your comment made me think of an article I read about a kid’s project to try to get everyone in America to donate a dollar on one certain day. I just spent ages looking for it and can’t find. I think he did it more to prove a point than anything, but what a cool idea!
Both of my parents were extremely charitable with both money and their time. My father made sure his company donated money, too. So I had a legacy to follow. Being a Type A workaholic, I never had the time, so I gave money. I lived on unemployment only twice in my 30 years of working, and contributed to the food banks whenever I went to the grocery store. Now I am disabled and no longer work, so I give my time. It is a much more fruitful and rewarding type of charity. I am drawn to the charitable organizations that spend more on their recipients than on administrative costs. If you want to choose the best charities to give to, just google the statistics. Some of these so-called “charities” allow only 10% of the money donated to trickle down to the people they supposedly are helping.
I admit that I have been seriously lack in doing any research into the organizations I’ve given to this year — I would absolutely do so if I was becoming a major donor, but as these are mostly ones I’m recommended by friends or family or something I come across personally and am inspired by, I just go for it 🙂 It’s a good reminder though because agreed, some of the ways the world’s major charities are run are a shame!
Alex–such a beautiful, powerful, inspiring piece! You are teaching too. Thank you for mentioning Unity House. WE are loving you today;)
You are so welcome Diane! Thanks for everything you do for the Capital Region…
I think it’s amazing that your parents encouraged you to give back at such an early age. What great parents you have! And I love the idea of giving a little bit of money to a charity every month. But when it comes to choosing charities sometimes I’m a little skeptical. Over the years I’ve realized that you have to be really careful that the money is actually being used in the right way and going to the right people. How do you go about making sure the charities you’re donating to are legit?
Well, looking back at the ones I donated to this year, about a quarter were fundraisers for friends or family running/walking for a cause. Those I consider support for the loved one and don’t feel the need to vet. About a quarter were charities that were a part of the community I grew up in or one I’ve been personally involved in so feel confident in the work they are doing. And the other half were either random ones I came across in my travels or because someone asked and I was sympathetic to the cause — I guess those I could have looked into a bit more. A good lesson for the year moving forward!
This is a wonderful and doable idea! I think my contribution will be quite small at the moment but I really like the idea of choosing a different cause to donate to each month whether it’s a charity or some creative project someone is doing. Thanks for the inspiration! I’ll be starting this month!
That’s awesome to hear Mags! Exactly what I hoped might come of this post — as well as all the other awesome discussions happening here!
Just wanted to let you know I’ve started!! https://magsodonoghue.com/2014/09/04/month-1-sept-2014-spun/
This warms my heart, Mags! Thank you so much for sharing, in every sense of the word 🙂
It is so wonderful that you are giving on a regular basis. This is definitely something that I need to start doing again as I used to give to WWF and WISPA for years but haven’t now for a while, while I was travelling. Thanks for the inspiration to start again!
Love to hear that, Katie! Exactly what I was hoping for 🙂
I’ve been sort of just donating to causes as I hear about them so far, but I like your idea of just budgeting a specific amount per month and donating. Maybe I’ll give that a try. I’ve recently been looking into actual volunteer work I can do in my area, so I’m hoping to do more of that soon!
I hope to get involved in local volunteering again someday when I’m a bit more settled. Sounds like a great plan Erika!
I wish there were more people like you Alex. You will regret having asked me for my charity of choice as I have worked and volunteered for quite a few amazing charities all over the world over the years. 🙂 My top three though are: UNICEF, Youth Star Cambodia and HOOP Peru. All very close to my heart and all do incredible work.
I am going to look into Youth Star and HOOP, Tammy! Thank you for the recommendations — they have a lot of weight coming from you.
I support 2 children in Africa through World Vision. One of my kiddos is about to be too old to sponsor and I’m sad that I won’t be getting pictures of him anymore. I have watched him grow from a 6 year-old little boy into a handsome, 19 year-old young man. When I start my world travels in February, it is a dream of mine to travel to Ethiopia to visit him and his family in person. I am so grateful that I have had the opportunity to help him with school, help his family buy supplies, and extra donations I made even allowed his family to buy 2 steers to help the community farm the land. It has been wonderful experience.
That’s such a great story, Kimberly. Love hearing positive experiences like this one — how rewarding for everyone involved.
Great post, and I love the sentiment of it all!
Back home, Sarah & I have been regular donors to charities (most recently, despite their often rude staff, we were monthly donors to the Fred Hollows foundation, check out their work).
In the past it was Greenpeace, the WWF (not the wrestlers, rather the animals), or The Wilderness Society.
Travel makes it easier to see where people possibly need help more, but also makes it difficult, as there are so many choices/paths through which one can give (I’ve heard the more choices, the harder it is for the human brain to function).
Recently we’ve jumped on board the Kiva bandwagon.
At least conceptually it seems a great way to help people earn their own financial freedom, and the beauty of it is, as they pay you back (maintaining their own pride/dignity in the process) you can easily re-invest into other projects.
I’m sure plenty more opportunities will arise as we continue to travel, and I look forward to seeing what other worthy causes you commit to! 😀
Curious about the rude staff story! 🙂 And I much agree about how travel can open your mind to almost too many avenues for giving — the amount of need can be overwhelming! It can also be inspiring though to see how so little can go such a long way.
Learned from the best!
Great post, I really enjoyed it. I think that giving or sharing something you have is very kind and always comes back somehow in life. The idea of the three envelopes is great, I will do it with my two daughters. Your article inspires me to donate more because I don’t donate as much as I should.
Hey Emma, thanks so much for commenting — love that you are considering the envelope idea for your daughters. If I ever have children, I will absolutely be doing the same.
When I was in college I did a semester of college in volunteering in Romania. At the time I was committed to supporting the program after college and then “after college” turned into grad school and then china…. this post motivated to finally start contributing to that program. Thanks
That is so lovely to hear Rebekah. Thank you for sharing! I have loved reading comments like this since this post was published 🙂
I tend to focus most of my giving (both of time and money) on children’s charities for various reasons. One of my favorites is called The Messages Project. (https://themessagesproject.org/) They film video messages from incarcerated parents and send them, along with picture books, to their children. The concept is incredibly simple and inexpensive, but has a huge impact on a child who hasn’t seen his/her parent in a very long time. It’s terrific “bang for the buck,” since the messages cost $15 or less to produce and ship.
When I set out traveling, I almost always fill the space in my suitcase with lightweight, inexpensive school supplies that I can leave behind when I get where I’m going. Inevitably, I fill that space with things I pick up along the way. Recently, my teenage son outgrew his hiking boots. They were less than a year old, so I brought them to Cusco, Peru where it was very easy to find them a good home.
The Messages Project sounds fascinating, Bridget — thanks for pointing me in that direction. I’ve donated to the Women’s Prison Association and think it’s a fascinating organization as well.
What a beautiful and thoughtful post. In a world where it seems everyone is just looking for the best way to advance their own profit, you take a courageous step towards independence of a different kind. Thank you for sharing, and for making the world a better place to live in.
You’re too kind, Sarah. Looking at this comment section inspires me — so many generous hearts!
I adored this post! What I love about you, is that you are not afraid to express your emotions and thoughts about a topic – doesn’t come across like a pat on the back type of post at all. Just genuine and heartfelt.
I’m very passionate about giving back to the communities I travel to – so much that I even have a Fundraising page dedicated to just that on my website. My initial romantic thought was to expose my readers to charities I’m passionate about in the hope they would help me fundraise along the way. I decided that I’m not placing any expectations to this aspect anymore – i’m just doing it for myself and if someone decides to contribute one day: bonus. Fact is: i genuinely care about these projects and donate to all charities I present. However small the amount – every little helps.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this 🙂
Thank you Tess! Love hearing from others who put an emphasis on philanthropy. Makes me feel all warm and fuzzy about the world. Good luck with supporting your favorite projects 🙂