How to Become a Superhero (or…why I would never donate to a major charity)

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A few years ago there was a story in the NY Post about a boy who had been locked in a closet almost from the time he was born until he was about fifteen years old. I might not have the exact details right. His parents fed him food but never let him out of the closet. So he never grew properly and he was only about 80 pounds or maybe less. The authorities took him away and put him in some sort of home for abused kids. His parents were arrested and are presumably now in jail.

In the article in the NY Post, the person running the institution he was now staying at said he “liked playing chess”. So I called up the institution and said I would pay for a guy I knew, a former US chess champion, to come over there and give him chess lessons. They told me they would get back to me. A few hours later they called and said, “thanks, but due to the specific circumstances we really can’t take the chance of any outside contact with adults.” So that was that.

(Every day the NY Post has countless local situations that need immediate help)

I never donate a dime to a huge charity. The American Cancer Association might be a great charity. But what will my dollars do for them? Nothing. Warren Buffett and Bill Gates are spending $100 billion on eradicating cancer, AIDS, malaria. Other billions are fighting every major cause out there. The baby boomers are about to leave behind $9 trillion. Hopefully a good chunk of that will go to charity. They can handle all of the major causes. My money will make zero difference.  And I have no way of doing due diligence on the charity so I won’t know how my dollars are being spent.

What I like to do is direct donation into what I call “micro-causes”.  Specifically, pick up the local paper and see who needs help RIGHT NOW where a small amount of money can immediately make a significant difference in someone’s life. For instance, if the NY Post writes about a house burning down in Brooklyn and now a family is homeless – put them up in a hotel. Simple. Easy. Cheap. Makes their lives better while they deal with the loss of their home and all of their belongings. And probably nobody else thought of it.

(image taken from this site)

Anyone can be a superhero. Here’s the rule for being your own Micro-Charity

1)      You are donating directly into the situation. So you know that every dollar is being put to work exactly the way you want it to be. No layers of bureaucracy that are found at many large charities.

2)      The situation needs help right now. TODAY. And you can help. Its easy to find these situations. Look in any local paper. Papers feed on pain. There’s always someone today in your area who is in pain for some reason and needs help. An example we all saw on youtube last week was the kid getting bullied who got suspended when he fought back. Get that kid a math tutor while he’s suspended.

3) The donation MUST be anonymous. Or as anonymous as possible. For several reasons:

  1. Legal issues. If you put someone up in a hotel and, god forbid, there’s a one in a million chance something goes wrong in the hotel, you don’t want to be legally responsible.
  2. Ego. This is charity. You can’t let it feed your ego at all. Nobody must know. Not the people you are helping. Not anyone else. Its like when Superman saves someone from being run over by a bus. He’s done. Now he just flies off to the next situation.

3.  Risk. You’re not really a trained giver and in some situations (very rare) you might find yourself in an inappropriate situation. Best you can just wipe your hands and move on. These situations are rare though and do not supersede the greater good being done in most cases.

I can guarantee you this will feel a lot better than handing $100 over to whatever mega-charity is already getting billions from the billionaires. Let Bill Gates save the world. You can save a life.

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  • drazel

    I give to local and specialized charities. But I check them out at Charity Navigator to make sure that their overhead is low and that the money is going where it is supposed to. In addition I do little things like put money in the meter for a disabled person so they wont get a ticket, or pay a toll for the car behind me, or help out a local sport team, buy school supplies for inner city kids.

  • Marion_Paul

    Thanks for posting this oh so personal story of success from someone else’s kindness. I always wondered if this type of donation would work and this is the first time someone in your situation has been specific on the results.

    I always thought this was the right way to recycle cars. I buy used and would rather pass on a good used car than involve it in another part of the ‘deal’. I’ll keep this story in mind when in the next few months I’ll have another opportunity come up again.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_PACHI3ODVXLKY6J57QWR6HO7GA Stan F

    Ya, Greg Mortenson, how did that work out for you?

  • Ghost of Gandhi

    Giving to your kids isn’t charity.  Building a swimming pool in your backyard for your kids isn’t charity.  Installing a basketball hoop on your driveway isn’t charity.  Spending time on a  fund-raiser so your kids’ gym can be re-floored is not charity.

    Charity does not begin at home, contrary to the old cliche.  ‘Charity’ done at home isn’t charity at all.

    Your kids are you – anything you do for them you do for yourself.

    Charity is something you do for someone else with no hope of reward or payback. 

    Be careful you don’t break your arm trying to pat yourself on the back.

  • Ghost of Gandhi

    Giving to your kids isn’t charity.  Building a swimming pool in your backyard for your kids isn’t charity.  Installing a basketball hoop on your driveway isn’t charity.  Spending time on a  fund-raiser so your kids’ gym can be re-floored is not charity.

    Charity does not begin at home, contrary to the old cliche.  ‘Charity’ done at home isn’t charity at all.

    Your kids are you – anything you do for them you do for yourself.

    Charity is something you do for someone else with no hope of reward or payback. 

    Be careful you don’t break your arm trying to pat yourself on the back.

  • Anonymous

    The pain of need that charities address is almost always due to the inequitable distribution of wealth and income our system produces.

    So giving to charity is like supporting the inequities of our current system.

    It’s like a kid’s bike has been stolen and you bought him a new bike instead of going to the thief’s house to take the bike back.  We need to change the system that allows one class of people to steal from another.

    Everytime you give it’s like you’re perpetuating this crappy system.

  • Cmerino

    pjc-Sounds good to me! Don’t sell yourself short!

  • Cmerino

    pjc-Sounds good to me! Don’t sell yourself short!

  • Michael johnson

    Seriously, in the example about the family and the hotel, how would you go about donating anonymously?  Given an elegant answer, I’ll do this tomorrow.  But the risks and potential legal issues are a deal breaker in trying to help someone I read about in the newspaper.

    Re the question from Analyst about tax deductions:  I assume this would not be tax deductible.  But problem is taken care of because all of your giving are going to your charity.  If you previously gave $100 to a major charity and received a $20 reduction in taxes, you could now give $80 directly to your cause and still feel confident that more of your givings are actually going to the cause.

  • http://jlcollinsnh.wordpress.com/2011/06/06/why-you-need-f-you-money/ Jlcollinsnh

    Charitable giving is a fine thing, but as individuals we only have one obligation to society: To make sure we, and our children, are not a burden to others.  The rest is our choice…. 

  • Kiplin

    Also, people love the idea of volunteering to help in Africa for a month but guess what Africa has in abundance? PEOPLE… They don’t need people that can pickup bricks, they need architects, engineers, and other PROFESSIONALS that can guide the local labor.

    A girl that wants to add “Volunteering in India or Africa” to her transcripts is worthless to the Red Cross… What is she going to do? Expose the people in need to Justin Bieber? She can hand out food and medical supplies, but can she sucher wounds and diagnose disnetary or know what medications to try when an infection is proving to be antibiotic resistant? Can she draw up blueprints on who to build quick shelters so people don’t die of exposure?

    The only groups looking for unskilled people to travel to other countries are theistic groups looking to hand out Bibles and the Book of Mormon to the poor.

  • pissedwithsomecomments

    yes, indeed so generous. Could you send some more generocity to Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Ukraine, Uganda and so many other cointries….. They miss your generocity a lot!