How To Do Life

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What I Learned From Giving Money to Strangers

Might it be smarter to give to individuals than to non-profits?

I feel that giving even to so-called efficient nonprofits isn’t yielding enough bang for the buck. So I’ve been wondering about giving to individuals. Sure, that’s not tax-deductible but that’s a non-issue because it’s unclear whether government or non-profits spend money more efficiently. It’s especially a non-issue because it’s certain that if you give money to a person, there are no administrative costs. Plus I’d get to select and know the people I was helping.

So I decided to give some money to strangers.

How I did it

On a blog, I asked people to email me if they wanted $100 to $500 for something that would have ripple effect. I gave this example:

Let’s say you created a powerful YouTube video that addresses an underdiscussed important societal issue but you don’t have the money to market it. A few hundred dollars on social media marketing could generate thousands of viewers and thus do lots of good. That’s a cause I’d fund.

My process was efficient: recruiting and reviewing the emails cost me nothing and took little effort. And I simply used PayPal or mailed a check to the applicants I wanted to fund. I didn’t try to assess if applicants’ stories were legitimate, not just because I believe most people are relatively honest, but because the cost of trying to verify isn’t worth it, and investigating them would seem to undercut the initiative’s idealistic foundation.

Whom I didn’t fund

One woman wanted me to buy her a thong. When I responded that it wouldn’t yield enough social betterment, she wrote back: “You’re wrong. That thong would hold the wonders of the world.”

In response to requests for tuition assistance, I wrote, “I have serious reservations about higher education’s cost/time-benefit, summarized HERE.

Whom I funded

A woman in Romania works at an orphanage, earning $220 a month. She asked for money to buy shoes for the orphans and for books—the orphanage had built bookshelves but ran out of money before they could buy the books.

A woman asked me to buy a trimmer/edger for her husband’s yard maintenance business that was doing well enough until his truck broke and then his trimmer/edger died.

A woman’s mother prostituted her as a young teen. Now she’s in college to get a social work degree but her car broke down and she can’t afford to fix it. When she received the money, she wrote back, “Excuse me while I faint.”

A woman asked for money to enable her to take more people on walking pilgrimages. She said it has changed the life of everyone she’s taken on those very long walks.

A veteran’s wife asked for money to “help me become a coach helping veterans find civilian employment.” That started an email exchange that resulted in her getting a discount for a highly-targeted training program and my subsidizing that.

A woman in rural Australia wrote that she is unwell because of fibromyalgia and the cold. She wants to take a non-violent communication workshop and needs money to pay for wood to keep her and her rescue animals warm. She wrote, “I can’t afford to do both.”

Letting emotions trump

A couple times, I let my emotions trump my desire to maximize ripple effect.

I funded a man who wanted to give the money to his 75-year-old grandmother who works 50 hours a week running a day care.

I funded a guy who asked for money to take his aged mom’s caretaker out to dinner. He has asked for $100 for one dinner. I said, “I won’t pay for luxury. Use the $100 for a few lunches or dinners. You’ll get more benefit.” He wrote back, “You’re right. I’d love to.”

When I didn’t fund

When I didn’t fund, I sometimes offered a little advice. Examples:

A graduate student wanted me to fund her to attend a professional conference. I suggested she ask the conference organizer if she could volunteer at the conference in exchange for free registration and perhaps a travel stipend.

A woman wanted me to fund her to attend a private truck driving school. I did a little research and found that a local community college offered the training far less expensively. 

A woman had been on many job interviews but hadn’t gotten a job and, desperate, asked me to pay her rent. Instead, I asked if she had asked those employers something like, “I was disappointed because I knew I could do a good job for you. I’m not calling for a job but for feedback so perhaps I could do better in the future.”

My thoughts about the experiment

Obvious as it may sound, I got clearer that problems are often more severe outside the U.S. I didn’t want to be guilty of locality bias—most people and foundations donate locally. So among those I funded were someone in Eastern Europe and another in rural Australia.

I feel good about the experiment but am reserving final judgment. I asked the recipients to email me when they feel it’s appropriate.

In the meantime, might you want to try a similar experiment? Take a portion of what you’d otherwise give to a nonprofit and give it to a worthy individual(s.) See if it feels better—even though you won’t get a tax deduction.

Marty Nemko was named “The Bay Area’s Best Career Coach” by the San Francisco Bay Guardian and he enjoys a 96 percent client-satisfaction rate. In addition to the articles here on PsychologyToday.com, many more of Marty Nemko's writings are archived on www.martynemko.com. Of his seven books, the most relevant to readers of this blog is How to Do Life: What They Didn’t Teach You in School. Marty Nemko's  bio is on Wikipedia.

Marty Nemko is a career and personal coach based in Oakland, Ca. and the author of 7 books. 
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