“Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing.” (Albert Schweitzer)

The year I struggled the most was right after college.  I was working for the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, DC, and had living expenses that were crippling.  One month, desperate for a suit I could wear to some of awards ceremonies I had privy to attend, I purposely used my overdraft protection to write a check that I knew I couldn’t cover on overdraft — knowing that I was to be paid two days later and therefore would not bounce.  That following month, already starting in the hole because of my $50 suit, I gave $10 to a co-worker in the mail room who was collecting money for his daughter’s school.  Initially after I gave it, I regretted it.  It was the same $10 that was suppose to be my lunch money for the next few days.  But ultimately, when I thought about it, giving that money became one of my proudest moments.  I’d be feeling so strapped for months — living paycheck to paycheck — and it made me feel better about my situation and myself to give to others.  Didn’t Anne Frank say that no one ever became poor by giving?

I’ve written before about the importance of spending a little more to lend support to local organizations, local business owners, and local products.  As 2008 drew to a close, I was thinking more and more about the things I’m most proud of this year and wanting to talk about giving… but I felt like it would come across as showy or superior, which is not how I feel about it nor how I want to come across.  So I stayed quiet about things like money and giving.  Then Jen and Mad posted about giving and encouraged it from others.  So here I go.

I’m proud at how we give.  And each year, we strive to give more.  I’ve read a lot about folks trying to get back to basics, reusing and recycling, all that jargon that is so popular these days.  But what about giving your time and money?  That, in my opinion, is the giving that matters.  If you’re just giving away stuff from your attic or closet or basement that you don’t use anyway, is it really an effort to be a better person and community member, or just to improve your own life?  And while that’s good in it’s own place, what about setting examples for our children on giving more than our old things: our time, our attention, our energy, our talents, our hard-earned money… to help others?  Isn’t teaching compassion and empathy the whole point of living simply — and if it isn’t, well, then shouldn’t it be?

This year, we gave more than 5% of our total income in cash donations, donated our services to local fundraisers, served on nonprofit boards, sponsored local events, volunteered on committees, showed up for work days, assisted with computer help to organizations and individuals, wrote grants, taught English, and offered translation.  All of these called for our time and took us away from paying work.  We don’t have money to burn or family inheritance safe guards.  If we just had made our donations in-kind and saved the cash, we could have done all sorts of things we’d have loved to do: spent more time at the beach, gone to Disney World, finally replaced that 12 year old mattress with a king-sized set, upgraded my 6 year old camera, or hired help to finish some of the many renovations we’ve been working on for years.  But we believe that the only way to give is to plan for it every month as a necessity.  There is never enough for anyone to feel secure, it’s always that way.  So giving has to be a priority.

No one has ever become poor through giving.

And really, what will happen if you gave an extra $20 or $50 or $100 a month?  Would you starve?  Would you lose your home?  Because within that month, there are many many many many many in our world who will.  What will you have lost?  I’m not trying to be preachy… this is what I feel, what I say to myself when I feel frustrated or stretched thin or like I’m denying myself or my family things that could make our lives easier or brighter.  Because in the end, we are better than great.

And ultimately, when we came to the end of the year, I didn’t regret the things I hadn’t bought or done.  (Even if I still wish we had that big bed and am bummed that we are stepping over construction debris each day.)  All that really doesn’t matter.  Instead, I wished I would have given more during the year and encouraged others to do the same.

When you come right down to it, we live extravagantly compared to most of the world.  So we should do more.  There is so much more to do.

In the first few months of this year, we are giving monthly donations to Abeona House, the preschool we helped start after Katrina.  While Abeona House is just one of the organizations we give to, it’s one of the ones closest to our hearts and the one we pledged to give the most to.  Having helped start the organization, we know how it works, where the money goes, and how it is managed.  We know that the people employed are being paid a good wage (although childcare professionals are paid a pathetically low salary across the board everywhere) and full-time employees receive benefits, which is rare in this field in our city.  There are Abeona employees who lost homes in Katrina; one is still living in a FEMA trailer.  Abeona is one of the only preschools in the city to offer a sliding scale tuition.  Donations to the school help it offer placement to more lower-to-middle income families (teachers, social workers, nonprofit organization workers, artists) who would otherwise not qualify for State-based assistance programs.  If you are looking for a 501c3 organization that will use your donation in the service of children’s programming and family support: this is one that applies.

Other organizations we feel similar about and give to are Ecole Bilingue (where our kids currently attend school) and Planting Magic Beans (founded and run by good friends of ours in Peru).

No matter what happens, I know that we will be okay in the ways that matter.  And ultimately… No le hará rico; no me hará pobre.