The Power of Small Gifts

2018 is the year I officially gave up on traditional philanthropy. I have been disillusioned for some time with how intermediating institutions seem to lose sight of their purpose as they grow, becoming obsessed with their own brand image and the profile of their leaders over advancing the narrative or materially improving the lives of their supposed beneficiaries.

My awakening on this started in 2011 when I saw our local “partners” in Afghanistan hustling the international community for funds and then using their status as the western-educated or political family-connected breadwinners to misuse the funds or even, in some cases, abuse the people who worked for them, without consequence, because our own reputation as U.S. government funders was on the line. It continued when I worked with a large Seattle-based nonprofit that claimed to be a grant-making organization but refused to be transparent about where the money went, because no one asked, and when the Board recently was made aware of serious racism and abuse of staff by the ED, found “no wrongdoing” and recommitted to business as usual. At the City of Seattle, we had a grantmaking staff that together cost more money than the total amount of funds distributed to the community via a burdensome process on both sides. I can find no justification for this use of resources.

However, thanks to Instagram, I am finding new ways to support people who are doing the work, who are held accountable not by their friends in government or on boards but by the communities to which they belong. My gifts are not tax-deductible, but I know that with $5, $10 at a time, I can make a direct impact on the life of a person going through desperate times — and have confidence that those funds will stay in a community that supports them to the extent possible. There’s no glory, no public shout-out, no opportunity to wear a glittering gown, and no photo booth, but I feel much more powerful making little transfers to PayPal that I know are honored than I ever have raising my little paddle in a room full of people who have far greater wealth than me.

Take, for example, the Instagram account @queerappalachia, which offers a window into what life is like for queer/trans/gender-nonconforming people who don’t have the economic privilege to live in relatively friendly urban centers like I do, or to recover when they face discrimination. Here’s a story they posted this morning:

I know this account to be legit and trust this story far more than I trust what any grantee has been asked to stay on a stage by a well-heeled member of the board. This is work right at the grassroots, offering direct help rather than waiting for some benevolent billionaire to set up a center with their name on it and hire their own people to design and manage programs to “help” people whose life experience privilege prevents them from understanding.

I’m not saying traditional philanthropy can’t work. Sometimes it does make a difference. I spent my latest birthday at a gala for Camp Ten Trees, a local nonprofit I trust to steward my money well and whose impact is more than evident in the lives of the campers.

But I am learning to appreciate the power of small, direct giving. The kind you can’t deduct from your taxes or get social kudos for. The kind that connects you to a person you can actually help. The kind that says, not only do I choose to see your pain, but I affirm your existence, person-to-person; I want you to survive what you are going through; I trust you to be the best steward of your own resources; and I don’t need you to send me a report proving you did what you say you would.

It’s a gift offered freely, with the faith that generosity is an end in itself, and the hope that there are enough of us willing to connect to each other that we can all get through this moment and make a world that’s better for us all.

$2, $5, $10 at a time.

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Destroyer of velleities.

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