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    Charity is Not the Antidote to Over-Consumption

    Stuff. I’ve written about how it tends to pile up, how our society seems designed to get us to accumulate more and more, and how it can become a burden.

    For many of us, one solution to this is to ‘purge’. We go through our closets and basements and cupboards and get rid of stuff we’re not getting use out of. Since we don’t feel great about just throwing it out, giving it to charity is the answer for many of us.

    I’ve done this myself, many times. In my student days, I even organized a Goodwill drive at my university residence.

    Recently, though, I’ve come to realize that giving stuff to charity is an imperfect solution. There’s increasing evidence that we donate far, far more than charities can realistically use. As this article explains, there’s so much that often only a very small percentage of it can be sold and/or given away in the communities where it’s donated.

    Most of it ends up as rags, or shipped overseas, where it often has a detrimental effect on local clothing manufacturers. If that weren’t bad enough, some experts believe that many of the countries where we dump excess stuff will soon start rejecting it as the cheap imports we buy in such huge quantities begin to penetrate their markets, too.

    Shopping less and buying used reduces the burden on charities to dispose of our old stuff. Plus, it saves money!

    For the system to be sustainable, someone has to buy (or at least accept) the used stuff. It has to go somewhere. So why not consider buying second hand a little more, instead of new? Shop at Goodwill, as well as donating to it?

    The best solution, though, is to reduce the demand for stuff in the first place – attack the problem at its root. So take a breath before buying your next top, or kitchen gadget, or souvenir, or decorative figurine. A trick I use is to ask myself whether I’d be willing to move house with the item in a year’s time. If not, maybe it’s not the purchase for me.

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    We’re Not Starting from Zero: Southern Alberta Floods of 2013

    Here in my province, there was epic flooding in the month of June, resulting in widespread damage and evacuations in many communities. The downtown area of one of our biggest cities was actually underwater for long periods.

    Many people were hit hard by these events, suffering extensive damage to their homes and possessions. The outpouring of support for them has been heartwarming, from both the government and from private citizens.

    Leaf on net

    The social safety net isn’t perfect, but it is there. Rather than ignore it, why not improve it?

    Personally, I take comfort in remembering that when disaster strikes, we here in Canada are not entirely without resources. We do have response and relief capacity already in place. This is why we pay taxes. This is why agencies like the Red Cross work on preparedness all the time. This is what the insurance industry is for. This is why industries invest in disaster planning work.

    Not that any of these systems is perfect, but we aren’t starting from zero. We have a foundation to build on. The well being of flood victims is not dependent on you or I having a hot dog fundraiser. In fact, an argument (as in this article) can be made that responsibility for this work belongs with the government, and that’s where it should stay.

    We live in a society that pays at least some attention to preparedness, that puts money away for rainy days. This is, after all, the proven best way to save lives and reduce suffering in a disaster situation. When a disaster hits and many people rush to create ad-hoc relief and response initiatives as if that’s all that’s standing between the victims and abandonment, I always wonder if the response professionals feel inspired, insulted, or both.

    It’s important to remember that, besides engaging in immediate relief efforts, one of the best things we can do is look to those existing systems, expect them to do their job, support them, and be on the lookout for opportunities to make them better for next time.

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    How To be More Help Than Hindrance: Southern Alberta Floods of 2013

    Here in my province, there was epic flooding in the month of June, resulting in widespread damage and evacuations in many communities. The downtown area of one of our biggest cities (Calgary) was actually underwater.

    Those of us living in Edmonton, less than 4 hours away, felt a personal connection to this. Most of us have friends and family in the affected area. We recognized the places in the news videos. We wanted to help.Traffic sign

    But it wasn’t long before we were hearing pleas from the disaster relief professionals to stop sending stuff and showing up to the affected areas. They were prepared (arguably) to respond to the disaster, but not to coordinate, house, and feed uninvited volunteers; nor to organize miscellaneous donations like mattresses.

    Clearly, there’s a lot of goodwill created in a disaster. In an area with a decent level of preparedness, this can be a problem as our desire to ‘do something’ exceeds the need for anything we can contribute. Equally tricky is when donated items are a mismatch. For example – in a region where all the homes are uninhabitable because of water damage, furniture donations can be a problem. They can’t be used, and they’re hard to store.

    So what how do we avoid being more hindrance than help?

    A good place to start is by paying attention to the authorities responsible for dealing with the response; police, fire services, military, and other official disaster management agencies. Their directions to the general public should provide the guidance you need to at least avoid becoming part of the problem.

    If you want to donate to relief efforts, remember to take the time to be discriminating about where your money is going.

    In a recent piece about the flood response, Gena Rotstein (a Calgary philanthropic expert) offered this great list of selection questions:

    - How are funds being managed?
    - How is distribution being managed?
    - What is the time commitment?
    - How is the agency working on the ground?
    – Who is the agency working with (other organizations, volunteers, etc)?
    - Who is the organization supporting?
    - What is the reporting process?
    – Can I designate my donation? If so, is there an additional fee for this service?

    Finally, if you know people in the affected area and lines of communication are still open, it can’t hurt to reach out and see if there’s anything you can do for them individually. Maybe the use of your safe, dry guestroom for a week is actually what’s most needed. Or maybe it’s just knowing you’re there for them.

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    How Soon is “Too Soon”?: Southern Alberta Floods of 2013

    Here in my province, there was epic flooding in the month of June, resulting in widespread damage and evacuations in many communities. The downtown area of one of our biggest cities was actually underwater for long periods.

    Many reacted by expressing moral support and by giving money to aid in the relief efforts.

    Some, however, also chose to raise a debate about the issues behind this disaster. For example: there was apparently a report done in 2005 about mitigation of effects of future flooding, and some are claiming it was ignored by the government.

    There are also those who believe that this kind of tragedy could be prevented or reduced by paying more attention to how and where we build our homes and businesses, how human development affects such ecological factors as watersheds, and how much we rely on external infrastructure for our basic needs.

    As more and more alarming news came out of the flood region, some started bringing these topics up on social media. They received some backlash from those who felt it was insensitive to ‘lay blame’ while people were suffering, struggling to meet basic needs, and experiencing loss. They were told that this was simply not the time to get into those topics – what we needed to focus on at that moment was supporting those affected.

    I do agree that in times of crisis, those most affected deserve the support that they need to meet their immediate needs. I also know that the desire to help often exceeds the need for it.

    So why not use that extra attention and energy to have a substantive conversation about what’s led to the crisis?

    Most of the time, getting any traction for a conversation about watersheds and developmental design is tough. There is a lot that can be done to make our homes and businesses less vulnerable to natural disasters, but it’s not something most people have much time for under normal circumstances.

    Another tough sell is self-sufficiency. I heard about one enterprising family that built a rainwater treatment system into their Calgary home. While their neighbours were struggling to get enough to drink and having to rely on outside relief, they had their own clean and usable supply.

    But during crisis free times, how easy is it to convince most people to make this kind of investment? It’s not the path of least resistance; it seems a little extreme; it takes time and money and effort.

    So why not talk about this stuff in the aftermath of a disaster, while the consequences are front and centre? About what’s behind our vulnerability to the whims of Mother Nature, and how it can be managed? About how choices at the policy level, at the organizational level, and at the individual level, affect us in this kind of situation?

    Is it a mean thing to do if it involves criticizing the choices of people who are now suffering? I don’t think so. We’re not talking about withholding relief or support from them.

    But if they’ve made choices that have led to the effects we’re seeing, why not name that? We talk about accountability – what does that mean, if not this? By definition, it means talking about failures and opportunities to do better. How else can we do better in future?

    Maybe it would be ‘nicer’ to wait until the crisis has passed. Maybe it would offend fewer people. But that seems like a really good way to see the same tragedy play out all over again, when the next disaster hits.

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    Be the Squeaky Wheel

    In a recent interview about a documentary dealing with hunger in the U.S., the filmmaker quoted a lawmaker who said that if he hears from just 6 people on an issue, it changes how he votes on it.

    Oil can

    Sometimes, the stuff we need is just there for the taking

    Our elected representatives do have quite a bit of power. In many cases, only they can change the underlying systems that create or prevent social problems like hunger, poverty, and illness. Although not always exciting, their work is important.

    It’s my impression, though, that lawmakers don’t hear from us much. When you feel the urge to do something about an issue, does it occur to you to pick up the phone or fire up the computer and let your elected representatives know where you stand on it?

    It’s not usually the first move that comes to my mind. On the rare occasion when I have done it, it’s been a good experience. For example, when I found out about the scarcity of midwives in my province, I asked what could be done. The midwives I was talking to asked me to write my MLA advocating for government to take the profession more seriously. So I did.

    And I heard right back from her. It seems she’d been pushing this issue for years, and asked if she could table my letter in the legislature to demonstrate to her colleagues that people care about it.

    Wow! It took me 10 minutes to write that letter. Why is this path to good not one we go down more often? Why would we rather give to charities than get involved with our government to which we already give quite a lot of money, and which has huge power to impact most of the same issues charities are working on?

    In a world where so few of us are choosing that option, being the squeaky wheel who speaks up vastly increases your chances of getting some of that powerful governmental grease.

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    The Price of Rice in China

    When I was a kid and argued with my dad, if I made an irrelevant point, he would shut me down with, “Sure, but what does that have to do with the price of rice in China?”

    Right now on my Facebook page, there’s an ad for a bike ride against cancer. And I think to myself, “what does that have to do with the price of rice in China?”

    What does a bunch of people riding around on bikes have to do with cancer victims? What does a parade of guys tottering down the street in heels have to do with violence against women? What do firefighters camping out on top of a building in freezing weather have to do with disease?

    Of course, I know the standard answer. These activities raise funds for charities and awareness of issues. They aren’t relevant to the charities or causes per se, but they get people’s attention and push them to get involved.

    This may have been true once. At some point, maybe these kinds of activities really did get attention. They may have been unusual and remarkable then. But it’s been overdone. On any given day, I personally am exposed to at least 10 gimmicky appeals. There are so many that they’ve simply become noise. Annoying noise. I, like many people, mostly tune them out completely.

    If these kinds of attention-grabbers are less and less effective, the whole thing becomes a bit surreal, doesn’t it? There’s a serious disconnect between the activity and the end goal. Where’s the link to the real issues and making an actual difference? Where’s the intelligent discussion of where all this money and awareness is going?

    I say enough. It’s time to scale back this outmoded and ineffective approach to seeking support. Let’s get back to making charitable support about pressing issues and inspiring opportunities, instead of costumes and stunts.

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    You’re Better Than You Think You Are

    It has been my great privilege lately to interview interesting local folks for the Edmonton Do Gooder Project, and I’ve noticed a bit of a trend. Many of them struggle with this interview question:

    “What makes this issue/area the best fit for you personally?”

    In their answers, I want to hear what appeals to them about their issue, but I also want to know what about them makes them right for the job they’ve taken on.

    So far, people are very comfortable talking about the first part, but when asked to talk about themselves, what they bring to the table, they struggle.

    Often, they leave out things that seem tremendously obvious to me. One person’s success is partly due to her huge social media network. But she didn’t bring it up, and when asked directly, she brushed it off – she really doesn’t think that her online presence is an impressive accomplishment, or that she deserves much credit for having built it. This, I might add, is an online presence most businesses and charities would kill for.

    Another person uses his IT skills as part of his work to create positive change. He can throw together a website in the blink of an eye. A number of the sites he’s built have been enormously influential in advancing his goals, but he has to be prompted to list that as one of the assets he brings to the work.

    The lesson here is that when something comes relatively easy for us, or when we find it fun, we tend to undervalue it. Just because a particular skill isn’t hard for you, doesn’t mean it’s not incredibly valuable.

    So as we approach the work of doing good, it might be a good idea to take a minute and ask ourselves what we bring to the table.

    How about you? What are you good at? What do you enjoy doing? What do you find people asking you for help with? Something that may not seem like a big deal to you might be just the thing to make a big difference for someone else.

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    Doing Daily Good

    I recently found myself chatting with a woman who’s working hard as a palliative care nurse and at raising three children, among other things. She’s doing as much as she can to be positive and productive in her day-to-day life, but feels guilty about not also doing more charitable giving.

    This, I think, is a product of the weird division we often make between ‘regular life’ and ‘doing good’. Actually, I think that some of our biggest opportunities to do good come through our real lives, not as side projects.

    Things like parenting and working take time, energy, and/or money to do well, and in a way that makes the world a better place. I wouldn’t think any less of a person who chose to invest in these things first, and only once she felt she was doing as much as she could would she consider giving to charity.

    You might say that working on the issues closest to our day-to-day reality is actually more courageous than giving to charity. Giving to charity can be kept at arm’s length. It’s possible to give to charity without putting much thought into it – just sign the check and pat yourself on the back.

    But when you try to improve yourself and your immediate surroundings, it’s a lot more personal. You’re likely to get a lot more direct feedback. Your mistakes will be a lot more apparent. You won’t be able to avoid the complexities of the issues you’re dealing with. It might get messy. It might get painful.

    But I believe it’s the best way. Would we want my friend to neglect her family and patients to go devote herself to charity fundraising drives? Would we want her to let her own children go hungry so she could give all her money away to charities? That would just create the need for even more charity.

    With limited resources, I believe we should all begin by doing good through our day-today lives, and not worry too much if that’s all we’ve got room for.

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    Money Makes the World Go ‘Round?

    Over the past week, one of the biggest stories in the news and on social media is that of Karen, the bullied bus monitor. Karen is an elderly school bus monitor in New York state. A video was posted to YouTube of her charges being especially hurtful, taunting her pretty mercilessly.

    This provoked an outpouring of support for Karen, much of which took the form of a fundraising effort. The original idea was to collect enough for her to take a vacation – about $5,000. As of yesterday, though, over 30,000 people had contributed over $600,000 in total.

    This is nice, right? This lady deserves a vacation. Since she’s a senior citizen, one could argue that she deserves to retire if she wants to, and now she has that option. Although the Toronto gentleman who organized the campaign didn’t know her or ask her before doing this, it seems to be working out fairly well.

    But why, when we want to do something about a problem, is our knee-jerk reaction to throw money at it? It seems like fundraising is the go-to for every disaster, disease, or unfortunate event. When the Japanese tsunami hit, people were desperate to send cash; never mind the fact that no one in Japan had asked for or was set up to receive money.

    Fundraising is often completely out of whack with need. Does Karen the bus monitor deserve a vacation? Probably. But does she need 3/4 of a million dollars? I wonder how high-performing anti-bullying and elder care organizations feel about this many donor dollars going to Karen to spend as she sees fit.

    Maybe this is ok – we do have a money-based economy, after all. Even if money is not specifically what’s needed for every issue, maybe it’s the best option. It can likely be used to buy whatever is needed.

    But something feels fishy about this to me – something about throwing money at every problem feels like a lazy shortcut. It smacks of band-aid, smacks of quick fix. Or…maybe? What do you think, Savvy Do Gooders?

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    The Value of Volunteer Time

    Basic economics says that price and supply and demand are all related. The more supply there is of something, the less you can charge for it.

    So when there’s something that’s free and in good supply, why would anyone pay for it?

    Which brings us to volunteer work. It’s a good thing; free labour we provide out of the goodness of our hearts to contribute to change we believe in. Ideally, we find a way to volunteer doing something we’re particularly good at.

    But what if, by doing that, we’re reducing the price of the service? What if there are people out there trying to make a living doing what we’re doing for free?

    They say that when you go overseas to volunteer, you must check that you’re not taking a job away from a local in the process.

    Doesn’t that logic also apply to local volunteering? Say, for example, there were a young lawyer who dreamed of making a career representing charitable organizations. Imagine him studying to become an expert on non-profit law, then hanging out a shingle, only to find out that all the successful corporate lawyers in town each spend one hour a week donating their legal services to the local nonprofits, leaving no business for our newly-minted specialist.

    By making it free, we may devalue the service we’re providing, and make it impossible for anyone to make a self-sustaining living of it. It seems like a slippery slope from there to a world where you can only make money doing things that don’t accomplish good, and where all good things have to be done pro bono.

    And yet – I can’t quite believe we should never give our time away for free. Which leads to a dilemma – how can we volunteer and avoid this danger at the same time? Do we only volunteer when there is no for-profit option? Do we first pay for charitable organizations to hire professionals, and consider volunteering only if that doesn’t work? This one is a pickle.

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