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San Francisco, California, United States
Kerouac has nothing on Daisy! So we've decided to take to the open road and chronicle our journey. A girl (okay, a woman, but girl sounds so much better & more interesting, doesn't it?), her dog and a convertible. There's gotta be some stories here, right?

Friday, September 30, 2011

Volunteering Your Time

Just over 25% of Americans volunteer annually.  Study after study shows that people who volunteer are happier than those who don't.  Now, one could argue that happy people volunteer so you're generally getting a skewed group.  But, I will say, whenever I've felt down about something and I spent a few hours volunteering, I was happier afterward.  Volunteering allows you to get out of your own head and do something for others; and that just feels good.

But what about when you volunteer with a nonprofit and the experience is not a positive one?  Has that ever happened to you?  It feels pretty awful, doesn't it?  Sometimes it is because the nonprofit really doesn't have work for its volunteers but doesn't want to turn people away so they create "busy work."  Bad idea! From the days of grammar school when we had a substitute teacher and busy work thrust on our desks, we all have highly attuned radar for busy work.  Nothing feels like more of a waste of our valuable time than busy work--particularly when volunteering with a nonprofit!

Years ago, when I was in law school, some friends and I volunteered with a nonprofit to help build a house in Oakland.  When we arrived, it was apparent that the group had recruited far too many volunteers.  Rather than just saying that, they kept the volunteers there for the day, promising each would get to work.  After a long day of doing nothing, I hit a hammer a few times on a couple of nails.  We left feeling we had just wasted our time and with a bad taste for the nonprofit.  It may not be fair, but I continue to remember that day and the lack of organization and respect for the volunteers every time that nonprofit's name arises.

Finding The Right Volunteer Opportunity

If you're looking for a new place to volunteer in your community, I'd recommend checking out Volunteer Match.  This website can provide you with opportunities based on your location and interests.  For professionals in the finance, law, marketing or IT fields, check out Smart Volunteer for opportunities to put your skills to use. 

For those of you in the Bay Area, I like Hands On Bay Area, to search for volunteer gigs.  I've used this website both from the perspective of a volunteer and also when I ran The Bridge of Books Foundation and needed volunteers.  I've always had great experiences.

If you have any great volunteering opportunities or ideas you'd like to share with folks, please let me know--I'd love to spread the word.

Thank you for reading! And be well!  Next week I'll be writing about some friends who took the Hunger Challenge and also about Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Before You Give...

A month or so ago, I briefly wrote about how I research a nonprofit.  Some readers asked me to go a little deeper into researching a nonprofit to determine whether to support it.  In today's post I'll therefore talk about what I suggest you do before donating to a nonprofit.

Giving Is An Investment

I view donating to a nonprofit as an investment in my community.  As with any investment, I want the best return possible.  This means I want to donate to nonprofits that are effective and efficient in reaching their missions.  Ensuring this means a little research is generally necessary.   

No matter the size of one's giving budget (be it $25 a year; what Bill Gates gives; or somewhere in between), we should all do our homework before we donate.  There are two independent charity evaluators that are great starting points: Charity Navigator and Guidestar.

I find Charity Navigator particularly helpful and user friendly.  Unfortunately, not all nonprofits are rated.  On Guidestar you can generally view a nonprofit's recent 990 tax filings, which will give you excellent insight into not only their financials, but their programs, salaries paid to management, etc.

What To Look For When Reviewing A Nonprofit's Financials

Seeing how a charity spends its money is a crucial factor in determining whether it is worthy of receiving your money.  Keep in mind though, the reality is that, just like for-profit businesses, nonprofits have some unavoidable costs and not every dime can go directly to programs or services.  But, look for reasonable salaries (particularly in comparison to an organization's budget and work performed); low fundraising costs (how much does it cost the organization to raise $1?); whether the group is in good financial shape (does it have reasonable operating reserves?); and does it manage its money well?  These are all factors you can determine from a nonprofit's annual report (which should ideally be on a nonprofit's website); their tax filings and through independent evaluators.

Just Because It Is A Nonprofit, It May Not Deserve Your Donation

Unfortunately, not all nonprofits are reputable.  You want to be careful to whom you give your money and support.  Be particularly weary of phone solicitations by nonprofits and/or police and firemen groups.  Often times these are simply professional fundraisers who take a huge percentage of each dollar raised.  When I was younger I always used to feel obligated to give--thinking it was a fireman calling for my support.  No, it's typically not a fireman or police officer, rather it is generally a paid fundraiser simply "dialing for dollars." (There are certainly reputable police and firemen nonprofits which need and deserve support, but giving directly to those groups is a smarter way to give.)

Typically, it is the Attorney General in each state who monitors nonprofits and investigates alleged fraud.  The California Attorney General has put together these tips to consider before donating.

My advice on donating to a nonprofit is get to know the organization as best you can--volunteer, visit program sites, see the operations first hand, read the documents I've discussed above, check out the independent evaluators and then follow your gut.  You'll know better than anyone after you've done your homework if the group is worth your hard earned money.

Be well! And thank you for reading!

Friday, September 23, 2011

AdvoCATes for Cats

The Humane Society of the United States estimates there are 6-8 Million cats and dogs entering shelters each year in our country.  Of that number, half are euthanized; the other half adopted.  A key factor in reducing the number of animals needlessly euthanized each year is for pet guardians to spay and neuter their animals.  But what about stray animals?  How do we spay and neuter those animals in an effort to reduce the animal population? Enter nonprofits.

Today, I'll be featuring the innovative and effective nonprofit, AdvoCATS, located on the Big Island of Hawaii.  AdvoCATS is an all-volunteer organization, with "every penny going to the cats," as President Cathy Swedelius explained to me.  On the Big Island, there is a significant population of stray, feral cats.  These poor little creatures often die from a lack of water.

In 1999, a group of women decided to take action to reduce the cat population in a humane manner.  Euthanasia was ruled out as a viable option because cats who were not euthanized simply continued to populate.  The group decided to use the TNR or trap, neuter and release, method.  TNR allows cats to live out their natural lives while curtailing the numbers of kittens born.  Eventually, an entire colony naturally dies out.

I first became aware of the AdvoCATS program while visiting one of the hotels on the Big Island.  The hotel, like a majority on the island, works with AdvoCATS.  Hotel guests are informed about the program and asked not to feed the cats they may see around the property because they are part of the TNR program.  I was struck by the humanity of the program--particularly that cats are reunited with their colony following their neutering.



Our cat, Maddox, adopted from the SPCA in San Francisco

The Volunteers

I'm always interested in what drives people to give their time and resources to a specific cause.  When I asked Cathy about the volunteers at AdvoCATS, she explained, "For most of us it is love of the cats.  There are others who want to be a part of a humane solution. The cats, as many other species, were brought to this Island and weren't asked if they wished to come.  So we help manage the situation."

Cathy explained that AdvoCATS has a core group of about 50-60 volunteers who are kama'aina (locals to the Island or long time Island residents) as well as a group of "snow birders," (those coming from the Mainland for the winter).  The volunteers work long, hard hours.  As Cathy said, the volunteers are, "people with good hearts who live here and want to help."

What You Can Do

Here are three action items AdvoCATS suggest:

 1.  Have your pet spayed or neutered as soon as you adopt, if it hasn't already been done.
    
 2.  Volunteer with AdvoCATS or another similar organization in your community.  If you are on the Big Island, AdvoCATS needs people to foster kittens, help with clinics, act as telephone volunteers, work the pet adoptions at PetCo on Sundays, adopt a colony, provide food or funds (volunteer feeders often pay for the food for the colony management out of their own pocket.), and help with fundraising.  Simply contact them through their website.

3.  Spread the word.  Some people on the Island still do not know about AdvoCATs and everyone's help is needed.

Also, as AdvoCATS is a small, all volunteer organization it needs monetary donations.  Your donation is tax deductible since AdvoCATS is a 501(c)(3).  If you are able, consider "adopting" a colony by funding it with food a year. 

Finally, please always strongly consider adopting animals from your local shelter and not purchasing them.  You'll be saving a life and will receive a lifelong furry friend in return.

Mahalo Nui Loa to Cathy and everyone at AdvoCATS for all you do!

Thank so much for reading and be well!


Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Happy Repeal Day!

Yea! Today marks a huge day in our history as Americans.  "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the draconian policy against gays in the military, has finally and officially been repealed.  About a month ago, I wrote on this topic in this post and about the much needed work of the Military Acceptance Project.  If you haven't done so already, today is a great day to check out their work and think about supporting them financially.

Here are some interesting stats about gays in the military and the DADT policy that I heard today while listening to this radio program: approximately 13,000 military personnel have been expelled from serving our country because they are gay.  There are an estimated 65,000 active service members who as of today no longer have to fear that who they love will cause their expulsion.  The first time a service person was expelled for being gay was over 200 years ago.  World War II veterans, like this gentleman, who were dishonorably discharged for being gay, are now finally able to receive the benefits they deserve.

This long overdue repeal is truly monumental.

Zoe Dunning, a US Naval Academy graduate and one of the first to challenge DADT, explained today that one of the reasons she enlisted in the Naval Academy was because of the code of conduct.  Not being able to be affirmatively honest about who she was felt like she was being forced to breach that code every day.  She said it felt like dying by a thousand tiny cuts.  No one in this country, least of all those who fight around the world for our freedom and the freedom of others, should be forced to live without their own freedom.  Fortunately for all of us, this is no longer the case. 
   

Friday, September 16, 2011

Does Giving Make Us Happy?

Americans, both individually, and certainly collectively, give a lot of money to charitable causes.  But, why do we give?  It's the age old question asked in the nonprofit sector.  What drives people to give?  Altruism, the good feeling that comes with giving, obligation, social status...a combination of many factors?  If those of us in the nonprofit sector could solve this puzzle, fundraising would be easy!  Yet, we just don't always know what motivates donors.

What we do know though is that our brains are wired to make us feel good when we give; somewhat like when we eat a sugary snack (but easier on the waistline).  A new book, The Compass of Pleasure, explains that "donating to charity can ... activate the human pleasure circuit."  I find that fascinating (the entire book is very interesting and is definitely a worthwhile read).

Does this mean we are genetically/biologically predisposed to be generous?  It makes sense if we are--since giving is a positive social act--the survival of our species would benefit from reinforcing that act by making us feel good when we do it.  Studies have been performed where participants are put in a variety of potential giving situations and then brain scans are done to see if pleasure centers are activated.  When participants gave for either completely altruistic reasons and/or when they gave fully on their own accord and felt good about that decision, pleasure centers in the brain were activated.

A stunning fact from one study found that about half of the subjects had more pleasure center activation when giving money than when receiving it.  Those who had the greatest brain pleasure activation when giving gave significantly more to charity than the other group; probably not a surprise as we tend to repeat that which brings us pleasure. 

So are we predisposed to acting charitably?  Is generosity something we're hardwired to be or not based on how pleasurable we find it?  If giving is pleasurable, does this mean there is no such thing as altruism?  Does it matter why we give, as long as we're giving?  What if we're someone whose brain just doesn't get all that triggered by giving, are we off the hook? Do we not have to give?

I'm interested, why do you give? For me, it varies from cause to cause and situation to situation.  What I do know though is that typically it  feels really good to give...sometimes even better than that sugary snack :)

Thanks for reading and be well!
   

 

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Paddling for Clean Oceans

A few years ago, my husband Steve and I tried stand up paddling for the first time.  He continually fell (um, and continues to fall to this day!) into the warm waters of Hawaii and I was a pro from the get go.  Joking--I just seem like a pro next to him because I spend slightly more time on the board than in the water.  It's pretty difficult. 

So, when I heard about a woman, Jenny Kalmbach, who paddled each of the Hawaiian channels on a stand up paddle board (SUP), and did it to raise awareness about plastics contamination in our oceans, I knew I had to hear her story--and share it with you.


Jenny Paddling (photo by Ryan Lapossa)
 The Journey

Jenny is one of the world's elite female SUP boarders and in April 2010 she paired her athletic abilities with her passion for protecting the ocean and its wildlife.  She and another elite SUP boarder, Morgan Hoesterey, teamed up with Destination 3 Degrees to paddle the legendary Hawaiian channels.  Wanting to make their journey about something even bigger than their athletic achievement, they partnered with Algalita Marine Research Foundation, a nonprofit aimed at raising awareness of plastic contamination in the ocean.  

Check out this movie trailer about their journey to get a glimpse into what these women did...it is amazing

Ocean Contamination

Plastics in our oceans are a huge contaminant.  The Algalite Marine Research Foundation is dedicated to the protection of the marine environment and its watersheds through research, education, and restoration.  They do this by:  conducting research and collaborative studies on (1) distribution, abundance and fate of marine plastic pollution; and (2) potential harmful effects of plastics in the marine environment, including transference of toxins and their impact on human health.

Always wanting to know what drives people, I asked Jenny how she became involved in ocean cleanup and whether there was something in her background that influenced her.  Jenny explained, 
"Growing up in Costa Rica, I learned to love and respect nature from a young age and saw firsthand the impact we as humans have on the environment. It has always bothered and frustrated me how much disrespect we have toward our environment and wildlife.  It’s nice to feel like I can finally do something about it."

I asked Jenny, why and how they selected to team up with Algalita.  Jenny explained that Morgan had previously worked with Algalita and "when she explained to me what they were all about; I knew it was the perfect fit. Having spent so much time on the water, I knew about many of the issues that face marine life but I knew so little about plastic contamination. The more I learned, the more I realized that I had to do something to help. Since then, I have made it my mission to spread awareness for this issue because it is something that hits so close to home."

As Jenny explains, plastic contamination impacts all of us, "The biggest issue I am focusing on is the plastic contamination in the oceans that is not only killing marine life but threatening our health as well. One of my goals is to spread as much awareness about the issue because I realize how few people actually know about it. We are currently at a tipping point and if we don’t start addressing this issue and start making changes to our habits, we will no longer be able to reverse the damage that is being done. The oceans are incredibly important to our well-being and we need to start taking care of it."
Plastic Trash (photo by Shannon Switzer)

When I asked Jenny about misconceptions people may have about ocean pollution, she said, "One of the biggest misconceptions is that the ocean is a big place and no matter how much we do to it, it will recover. Unfortunately, that is not the case. We are losing species daily, the oceans PH levels are rising, temperatures are going up, marine life is dying… we cannot continue treating it the way we do. We have to stop what we are doing and change our ways. We are such a wasteful society and that needs to change…even if it is just one bottle at a time." 

What Each of Us Can Do

So what we can do?  Jenny provided me with these simple changes we can each undertake that will have a huge benefit:

(1) Reduce your use of one-time use plastics such as plastic bags and bottles;

(2) Carry a reusable bag with you to the grocery store, stop buying and using plastic bottles and purchase a reusable bottle instead;

(3) If you are in the habit of picking up a cup of java at your local coffee shop, invest in a reusable mug;

(4) One of the most important things you can do is to educate yourself on the issue and start telling other people about it. The more we know the more we can do about it and as the movement grows, the more impact we will have.

Confession: while I usually have the best intentions of not buying plastic water bottles and remembering to take my own mug to the coffee shop, I don't always follow through.  I don't think I realized before interviewing Jenny how much of a plastic footprint I've been leaving.  There is no reason or excuse for this.  Now all I have to do is think of the ocean I love and the marine life I marvel at, and I'm good to go with my reusable goods.  Please consider doing the same.  Small changes by each of us are what is needed.

Jenny has truly inspired me!  Not only is she a kick-a** athlete, she's a passionate, smart and dedicated advocate.  When I asked Jenny "What does success look like to you," she replied, "Following my heart, being happy and doing what I love to do. Fighting for what I believe in and not giving up."  Amen.

Mahalo Nui Loa, Jenny! 
  
 

  

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Ways to Give in September

September 11th Remembered

As the 10 year anniversary of September 11th approaches, I'm sure we will each remember the tragedy in our own way, and honor those whose lives were taken.  If you're in the Bay Area, I encourage you to consider doing this 5K run on Sunday the 11th.  It benefits the Travis Manion Foundation.  I'll be doing it with some friends to support our nation's veterans.

If you're not in the Bay Area, please check out the Tunnel to Towers Run, which I featured in my last post.  It is a nationwide run, so hopefully one will be in your area.  It benefits a great organization that is doing amazing work.

If running is not your thing, there are plenty of ways to pay tribute--from volunteering with a cause that is meaningful to you, to taking a minute that day to reflect on the lives lost that day and in the wars that have followed.

September is Hunger Awareness Month

If you read my blog even somewhat regularly, you know that fighting hunger in our country is of crucial importance to me.  The USDA confirmed recently that 49 million Americans are food insecure; unacceptable in a country with our wealth and resources.

September is about bringing awareness to this issue.  At the San Francisco Food Bank, we are sponsoring a Hunger Challenge.  We're asking folks to live on $4.72 a day for food--the average amount a food stamp recipient in California receives.  I did it last year and you can read about my experience in this previous post.  I highly recommend taking the Challenge and experiencing for yourself what 1 in 6 Americans face everyday.  Some good friends have already signed up for the Challenge and I'll be sharing their experiences in a future post.

If the Hunger Challenge is not for you, I'd ask that you consider volunteering at your local food bank this month and/or donating non-perishable items.  I'll be volunteering with friends in the San Francisco Food Bank's warehouse next week in honor of Hunger Awareness Month.

As always, thank you for reading and be well!  And if you know of a great nonprofit and/or person making a difference in their community, please let me know about it so I can share it here.