January 2009 Posts

A New Holiday Tradition

Shared with us by friend and donor, Homa Tavangar.  Thank you Homa.

After the Thanksgiving meal with our big extended family we usually play games like Scattergories or watch a classic movie.  This year we tried something new.  Among various family members we’ve been talking with increasing concern about the state of the world, so with anyone who wanted to, we thought we’d “play” something more meaningful alongside our usuals.  We called it a “Giving Thanks Gathering.” This could just as easily take place on Boxing Day or New Year’s Day or another holiday the family all gathers.

About ten days before Thanksgiving I sent out an email to all the family members to see what they thought about doing a Giving Thanks Gathering, plugging in to the GlobalGiving.com website after our big turkey dinner, and choosing a cause to support as a group. I made it clear early on and throughout the ‘experience’ that no one would be pressured to play; this would not be a fundraiser, or a sort of pressure-to-give event, but more a learning experience and a chance for all of us as an extended family to talk about issues that we cared about and to share this with our kids.  The family responded with curiosity and enthusiasm.

Our plan was to plug in a laptop to the big TV and go on the GlobalGiving.com website all together.  We encountered a glitch when the new TV at my parents’ home wasn’t working correctly.  So instead, four of us happened to have our laptops there and we broke into four teams (simply based on where people happened to be sitting, with one laptop per team).  Each team logged on to the GlobalGiving website and started discussing what issue area they would like to support.  We knew this could take all day once the searching started, but we hadn’t had dessert yet and we needed to accommodate a wide range of ages, so we gave everyone fifteen minutes to come up with a recommendation that the entire group would then consider and vote on.  As the groups navigated the site, I heard the discussions around the computers get richer and more serious.  People were fascinated by the range of innovative programs and were drawn in by the desperate needs all over the world.  The biggest challenge in the process was to get people to decide on a project to recommend to the group for funding – they felt the needs were simply too big to narrow down their choices in a short time.  This itself was a great learning experience.  Finally, we decided on a program supporting girls’ education in Afghanistan.

Once we made the difficult choice to support a single project, we put a wooden box in the middle of the coffee table for whoever wanted to contribute an anonymous donation.  The youngest kids had been oriented in advance, so they brought their own money set aside from home, and then it was exciting to count the total from our group effort.  We emphasized that this wasn’t meant to replace personal philanthropic giving nor put anyone on the spot, and we wouldn’t pass around the collection box.  Our goal wasn’t to raise big money, but to give everyone a taste.  We raised $197, then, when we counted, my cousin’s 6-year old daughter ran to get her $3 and my bro-in-law gave his promised $0.27 worth to take us to a total of $200.27 (we also had lots of family jokes running through the process J).

The experience far surpassed my expectations.  One of the best surprises was the enthusiasm we had from the college-aged and younger adults in the family.  They were most stimulated by the exercise, appreciative that I had introduced it, enthusiastic to get everyone on board (and they are the best role models for the teens, tweens, and kids in our family).   Amidst homemade pecan, pumpkin, key lime, chocolate mousse, and chocolate pumpkin pies and my mom’s amazing chocolate-swirled cheesecake, conversations about the programs and the process continued across generations.  I noticed the next day one of the college students from our family had “… is GlobalGiving” as his Facebook status, and he told me he had continued to be inspired by the site and our little family activity – as were the rest of us.

The 2/3 : 1/3 Rule

With the new administration coming to power in the US, there is a flurry of new proposals on how to reform the aid system.  However, few of them propose real change.  Instead, there are proposals to increase aid to such and such issue or country.  Or to strengthen such and such agency – or to appoint a strong new leader.

None of these proposals gets at the root of the problem.  As Bill Easterly has pointed out, we have spent more than $2 trillion in aid over the past fifty years with not enough to show for it.

The problem is the centrally planned, expert-driven, top-down nature of the current aid system.  Just like under the Soviet regime, this approach does get things done.  But the quality is bad, shortages are common, and the people have little say in what gets produced.

So let me propose the 2/3 : 1/3 rule.  Henceforth, 2/3 of all aid resources will be allocated through an open-access, bottom-up, market mechanism, while 1/3 of the resources will be allocated through existing top-down approaches.

I will write more about how the marketplace system would work in coming posts and columns.

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