I’ve been sitting on this post for a while. I struggled with it a lot. There is no way for me to talk about this subject and cast myself in a positive light; talking about it at all makes me hypocritical. I know. I agree with you. Ultimately, what this boils down to is trying to make myself feel better about my privilege. It’s self-indulgent and unproductive. But it’s on my mind, and tried my best to express my feelings, and I bear the responsibility of these problematic results.
No matter what I do, it never feels like the right thing. It never feels like enough.
There has never been a time in my life where my needs weren’t being met. Thanks to my parents, I’ve always had food, clothing, a place to live, healthcare, and a good education. I took them completely for granted. It was important to my parents to set me up for success in every way that they could. They both came from humble beginnings, but their parents – my very frugal grandparents, who came of age during the Great Depression and World War II – had just enough to build the foundation for my parents’ future. My parents both seized those opportunities and turned them into careers and investments, and they set a very strong example for me to follow.
I’m extremely fortunate. Even as an adult, if I were to reach out to my parents and ask for financial help, they would give me money immediately, without question, and without conditions. When I was thinking about buying my first car, I remember my mom telling me, “I couldn’t afford a car when I was your age, either. My aunt gave me the money for a down payment and called it a 0% interest family loan.” My parents understand that they are in their position today because they had a support system behind them, even a modest one, from the start.
After college, I swapped my parents for the military as a financial support system. True, the Navy employs me, but it also pays for my housing, food, healthcare, and even official travel totally separately. My paycheck is essentially my disposable income, used for leisure and whatever other bills I choose to accrue. With some planning, it was enough to pay off my student loans after four years in the Navy. Military pay isn’t going to make anyone rich, but the security of having the essentials covered is generally worth the trade-off.
I couldn’t be where I am today without the security and reliability of these financial support systems. I recognize this with an equal share of appreciation and guilt. I feel lucky, but it bothers me a lot that not everyone has had the same privilege as me. That’s why it’s important to me to give back, to do for others what was (and continues to be) done for me, now that I’m out of debt and able to do so. It is very, very hard to talk about giving away money without sounding like an asshole. The Bible isn’t everyone’s favorite source of moral guidelines, but I think it there is great wisdom in Matthew 6 on this subject:
“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
Sorry, God, but if other people didn’t talk about the causes they support, I would miss the opportunity to do my part. I have to find out about the needs of others from somewhere (usually podcasts, let’s be honest). So here it is: where some of my charitable money goes, where I found out about them, and why I do it – so maybe someone out there reading this will have the means and motivation to do the same.
I heard about Cooperative for Education from the Stuff You Should Know podcast. The idea of a direct sponsorship is very appealing; it makes you feel like your money is having an immediate impact on someone’s life. Cooperative for Education focuses on Guatemalan children, particularly girls, whose educations are often cut short by joining the work force to support their families. The student I’m sponsoring is almost done with the 10th grade, and my sponsorship ends when she graduates. Sponsorships start at $35 per month.
On a Sunday in Salt Lake City on my recent cross-country road trip, the priest at the Cathedral of the Madeleine was working directly with Unbound, which focuses on helping those in poverty attain or maintain self-sufficiency. I was moved by his passion and commitment to improving the lives of the less fortunate. Since I was already sponsoring a young person, I asked the priest if there was any need for a sponsor for an elderly person. (I had my grandma on my mind a lot, and how my mom and uncles are so devoted to her care.) There was, and now I support a woman in Bolivia.
Unbound has a ton of giving options and a wide reach. It is a good place to get started. In case it wasn’t clear, this is an explicitly Catholic organization. Sponsorships start at $36 per month.
I heard about Kiva also on Stuff You Should Know. I had never heard of microlending before they talked about it there. People from around the world post the amount of money they need, what they need the money for, and those loans get crowd-sourced incrementally at 0% interest. Loans are slowly paid back over time, and Kiva encourages you to reinvest the returned money in another person. This creates a charitable revolving door. A loan of $25, once repaid, could get lent out again and again to those in need.
There are many other microlending organizations out there, and I think this is a fascinating system and absolutely worth looking into.
When a friend asks for donations for a fundraiser or to help someone else in need, I don’t think twice. It feels good to show support for the people who love us. Plus, it feels good to give to a “cause.” It’s a win-win for everyone.
But when someone asks for money for themselves personally, we hesitate. Our egos get in the way. It feels uncomfortable to be the benefactor of someone we actually know. We worry that the person is trying to take advantage of us or that the friendship will be plagued by resentment. We prefer to give to strangers far away; we assume they will be grateful and will never depend on us for more.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot. It feels wrong to turn away loved ones when my own family has given me so much throughout my life, to the extent that I took it for granted. Because isn’t that exactly what I fear? Being taken for granted?
If we can’t depend on the people who love us, what else is there?
Not many other folks have been as fortunate as me. So much of who I am is a direct result of what I’ve been given. If I could do that for someone else, even in a small way, why wouldn’t I? Shouldn’t I?