Posts by Putnam Barber


How communities around the world are promoting literacy and the joy of reading

The piece below was translated and edited from the original  Spanish version on the blog of our Spanish site Idealistas. The links below also go to Spanish websites. Check them out!

This week is banned books week in the US, where a variety of institutions like schools and libraries, come together to explore what books are challenged and why.

However, while we continue debate what to read, it’s still a great time to share the power and importance of reading. Around the world, communities are coming up with innovative ways to promote literacy.

Books by the pound in Madrid

Photo from “The Butcher Shop,” selling second-hand books by the pound in Madrid.

A former butcher shop now sells books for 10 euros per kilogram (about $6 per pound at the start of September 2012). It’s an ingenious way to keep second-hand books in circulation and brighten up an older city marketplace with the beauty of literature.

Mini libraries in Bogatá

Photo Credit: Fundalectura.org

In the capital of Colombia, Bus Stops for Books in Parks has operated for nearly 10 years with a clear mission: to encourage literacy for the entire nation. Every day, volunteers participate in staffing these miniature libraries where they lend books, read aloud, offer activities for children, and create opportunities for people to engage in conversation. There are 47 of these bookstops in the city of Bogotá and a total of 100 across the country.

Book exchanges in phone booths

Photo credit: Graceful Spoon

Thanks to the growth of cell phones, many of the phone booths in NYC go unused. New York City architect John Locke has found a creative opportunity to re-use these spaces as improvised book exchanges, where passers-by can leave or find books. New York follows Westbury-sub-Mendip in the UK, where a phone booth has served as a local site for exchanging books since 2009.

‘Bicicloteca’ in São Paulo

Photo Credit: Green Mobility, Creative Commons/Flickr

And lastly, from Brazil, this unusual library on wheels carries books to people who are unable to check them out, usually homeless people as they often lack the documents necessary for getting books from the library. Additionally, they use solar panels, which allows the Bicicloteca (a blend of Portuguese bicicleta + biblioteca) to access the Internet.

Do you know of another initiative where people are getting books to people who need or want them? Share in the comments below.

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Is your organization making a difference?

Just about everyone with an interest in nonprofits wishes for greater information about their effectiveness. Unfortunately, with millions of nonprofits around the world addressing everything from advanced cancer research to preschool enrichment programs, it’s been challenging developing metrics and processes that provide reliable measures of their successes.

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How are you measuring your organization's success? (Photo credit: Ms. Tea, Creative Commons/Flickr)

Of course, various groups have been pushing for ways to solve this problem: Foundations ask for progress reports; government contractors ask for tallies of service units; academic researchers design double-blind studies and look for control groups. Yet a challenge with these approaches is that they are designed to give outsiders – funders, government agencies, the general public – tools to evaluate a nonprofit’s work, or even compare performance among nonprofits. We are still left wondering: are these approaches making it easier for board members and staff to develop a thoughtful and ongoing way to assess the impact of the organization’s work? Do they understand their role in the organization’s challenges and successes?

A project developed by the BBB Wise Giving Alliance, GuideStar USA, and Independent Sector is looking to address these questions by helping nonprofits evaluate themselves, starting with their leaders. Charting Impact challenges board members and key staff members of nonprofits to ask themselves five questions, and to be candid when publishing the results. The questions are general enough to work no matter what the goal and to fit organizations of any size. Already groups as diverse as the Food Bank for the Heartland [PDF] in Omaha, Nebraska, and the American National Red Cross [PDF] have completed the process and have their Charting Impact Reports online for anyone to see.

The five questions are:

  1. What is your organization aiming to accomplish?
  2. What are your strategies for making this happen?
  3. What are your organization’s capabilities for doing this?
  4. How will your organization know if you are making progress?
  5. What have and haven’t you accomplished so far?

While there’s certainly value in answering these questions, the real innovation in Charting Impact comes in the setup and sharing: organizations answer the questions online and can share their initial responses with up to 10 stakeholders who give anonymous feedback. The result is a personalized report that crystalizes your work, goals, and impact and includes the input of your community.  Organizations that have adopted the Charting Impact approach say that some of that feedback has been really useful in sharpening the descriptions of their work and refining the measures they use to track their own progress.

Because Charting Impact is co-sponsored by Independent Sector, Guidestar, and the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance, organizations that complete the Charting Impact process can have their finished report published on-line at various websites that are often used by donors, foundation staff, and people interested in the program.

What do you think? Will this change the way nonprofits examine and share their effectiveness? Has your organization tried this? Share your thoughts below.

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Should countries make happiness a priority?

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Should we put more emphasis on being happy? (Photo: Rachel Kramer, Flickr/Creative Commons)

As we reported at the end of last year (“Happy Happy New Year!”), the idea that nations should pay attention not just to Gross National Product (GNP) but also to Gross National Happiness (GNH) has been spreading slowly since it was introduced by the former King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, in the 1970s.

This week, GNH will get more attention at the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development.  During this conference, leaders from around the world will gather in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to explore how nations can combat poverty while ensuring environmental protection. While the agenda includes an array of topics such as job creation, food security, and sustainable cities, attendees will also try to answer this question:  Are economic measures of growth enough to determine a nation’s well being?

For Bhutan, a landlocked country in South Asia, the answer is still no.  At the conference, Bhutan will present a paper based on the work of its Center for Bhutan Studies, which measures the nation’s GNH. The center examines nine domains of happiness - including health, education, time use, and good governance – and uses the results to craft recommendations for policy makers, NGOs, and businesses. Though it started as an informal alternative to the Gross National Product (GNP), today more civic leaders around the world are wondering if the GNH provides more holistic picture of a community’s wellbeing.

Starting in our communities

Sustainable Seattle used the concept in my hometown to develop a local happiness index through The Happiness Initiative. The project has two components: a set of objective statistics used to create a profile of the region’s progress toward sustainability, and a personal survey that anyone can take. The results of the first survey completed in 2011 (summary shown in a graph on page 10 of The Happiness Report Card [PDF]), reveal that my neighbors feel a strong sense of trust and community support, yet struggle with time balance.  The Happiness Initiative also developed a set a of recommendations for policy makers and community members to tackle the challenges presented in the survey.

The Happiness Initiative is branching out beyond Seattle and attempting to measure the country’s happiness. Their first national survey conducted in March 2012, for example, indicated Americans are more satisfied with the state of the environment, education, arts, and culture than with government and time balance.  The Happiness Initiative is collecting more national data now; you can contribute to the next report yourself here.

What do you think? Should we expand the ways communities — and nations — measure progress and success?

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Who files 990s for your organization?

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Two weeks from today, May 15th, is the deadline by which most U.S.-based nonprofits need to turn in their Form 990 to the IRS. (The deadline is four months and 15 days after the end of an organization’s fiscal year.)

Larger organizations have procedures in place to get this done, and can get an automatic six-month extension just by filing Form 8868. Smaller organizations have an easier form to file: the “e-postcard” Form 990-N. But they often have a harder time remembering to do it. Do you know who’s taking care of this at your favorite organization?

The stakes

As I wrote a few weeks ago, the consequence of not filing for three years in a row is automatic loss of tax-exempt status. Without tax-exempt status, supporters can’t take a tax deduction for their donations. If you miss three 990s, say goodbye to your nonprofit.

And this happens more than you might think: This year over 435,000 organizations appear on the IRS list as no longer exempt. Only 16,000 have asked the IRS to have tax-exempt status restored, which suggests that most of the revocations involve organizations that had already ceased operation. But if you’re connected to a small organization that is hard at work taking care of its mission, you might want to check in to see whether someone is on top of the filing this year.

What to do

For groups with less than $50,000 in annual revenues, here’s how to file online. Larger organizations can file a 990-EZ or full 990 online at the Urban Institute’s website Form990.org. Using the site is free for smaller organizations and inexpensive for larger ones. Filing online results in fewer errors (saving both the filer and the IRS time and trouble) and is much less expensive for the government. Form990.org also offers a way to file Form 8868 when organizations need an extension on their due date. There is no option for an extension for organizations that file Form 990-N.

Here’s hoping we all make it through tax time with ease. Don’t end up “in the soup”!

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Nonprofits have tax deadlines too

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Photo by Alan Cleaver (Flickr/Creative Commons)

If you hurried to the Post Office today to pay your taxes or claim your refund, you’re in good company. Estimates are that 25% of U.S. taxpayers file on the last day each year. But don’t expect long lines at the post office; the IRS is hoping 80% of returns will be filed online, up from 77% last year. The deadline (technically tomorrow this year because of a holiday in Washington, DC) is critical for individual taxpayers – filing late results in penalties and interest for everyone.

Nonprofits get a break on their filing deadline in two ways: First, the due date for organizations with a December 31 fiscal year end is not until May 15th. And second, larger organizations can get an automatic six-months extension to pull their records together just by filing Form 4868.

But the risks for nonprofits of not filing at all are pretty dire. More than 400,000 entries have been removed from the roster of tax-exempt organizations since a 2006 law took effect. The IRS is now required to cull out of the list recognized organizations that don’t file the required reports for three consecutive years. When that happens, donors can’t take deductions from their personal taxes (and may have to file amended personal tax returns – a double whammy) and the organization will probably have to start all over again—filing a new application for recognition and paying the fees—if it wants to continue to operate. Not a good thing.

The “information return” that nonprofits file is called IRS Form 990. It comes in several versions. Time and trouble can be saved by picking the right one.

  • Use Form 990-N (the “e-postcard”) if total revenue from all sources is normally less than $50,000 per year. Note that Form 990-N is only available online (there is no paper verson) and, though there’s no penalty for filing late, there’s also no way to get an extension. So that three-times-you’re-out rule applies to an organization that missed the last couple of years and then files late this year.
  • Use Form 990-EZ if total revenues (the IRS calls it “gross receipts”) are less than $200,000 and total assets are less than $500,000.
  • Bigger organizations use the full Form 990. And private foundations have their own different version called Form 990-PF.

The Urban Institute offers an electronic filing service for groups that need to do a 990-EZ or a full 990 and don’t have anyone else to do it. Information about how that works is online at efile.form990.org. The service is free for organizations with less than $100,000 in revenue and carries a small fee for groups with larger annual budgets.

Larger organizations will usually have staff or outside help with accounting and bookkeeping to keep them on track with these requirements and deadline. Smaller organizations need to be sure they have clear answers to a short, but important, list of questions:

  • When is our filing deadline? It’s always four months and fifteen days after the end of the last fiscal year.
  • What do we need to know to be sure we stay current with all these rules and regs? The IRS website is a good place to start – a list of frequently asked questions is here.
  • Who is going to file our Form 990-N? It takes a few minutes, access to a computer, and knowing the answers to a few simple questions. But somebody has to do it.

If you’re not sure all three questions have been answered for an organization you care about, then tomorrow—after your personal tax return is safely on its way—would be a good time to start getting things sorted out to be sure everything goes smoothly this year.

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Know the rules: Nonprofits in an election year

2012: A leap year. The year the world might end. And of course, an election year, with something on the ballot in every city and state in the U.S. I’ve found that folks who work for social change tend to pay close attention to politics and elections – which makes it extra important that nonprofit professionals know what the rules are about how agencies, staffs, and volunteers can be engaged in politics.

How do the rules apply to you?

First of all, it matters what kind of a nonprofit you work or volunteer with.

  • For 501(c)(3)s in the U.S., the election rules are pretty simple: such organizations must not do anything that furthers, or hinders, the chances of election of any candidate for any public office. Charitable resources must not be used for political contributions of any sort.
  • Other sorts of organizations have many more opportunities to get involved in the political process than c3s, but even they must be careful not to step over the lines in federal, state and local rules. Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code is the reference point for foundations and other public charities. State and local laws may make further, different distinctions, so any organization which might get involved in politics in any way will need to check those too.

What makes this complicated?

Nothing about that flat prohibition on “electioneering” says that nonprofits cannot work to improve democracy. They can encourage people to vote, help to clarify issues, and make known their own views on policy goals. They just have to do these things in a way that is impartial among the candidates who are running for office.

What you can and can’t do

NonprofitVOTE.org published Nonprofits, Voting & Elections: An online guide to nonpartisan voter participation activities for 501(c)(3) organizations, which can help your nonprofit’s board and executives understand the ins and outs of doing business in an election year.

But what about volunteers and staff members? Does any of this apply to them as they go about their daily routines? Yes and no:

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    Photo: Sonya Green, Flickr/Creative Commons

    Whenever people are representing a nonprofit in any official capacity, they have to make sure that they steer clear of that prohibition on electioneering. That certainly means avoiding doing anything that might be seen as the nonprofit itself endorsing one candidate, or dissing another…

  • But employees and volunteers don’t give up their rights as citizens. They can do things—on the job and off—that indicate their personal support for a candidate, like having a campaign sign in the window of their own car in the front yard of their house. They can sign petitions, contribute money, and go door-knocking. It’s just that they have to mute their connections to the nonprofit where they work while doing those things.

To learn more, check out these resources from NonprofitVOTE and the Alliance for Justice: What Staff Can Do and Election Activities of Individuals Associated with 501(c)(3) Organizations (PDF).

P.S. Idealist can help!

Want to promote election year events? Recruit Get Out the Vote (GOTV) volunteers? Announce a nonpartisan voter guide? You can use your organization page on Idealist to do all of these things. Get started here.

And comment below to tell us, and others, about your organization’s plans to participate in the democratic process this year.

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Nonprofit Finance Fund survey deadline: Feb 15

Another day, another dollar, another survey

imageEach year, the Nonprofit Finance Fund surveys U.S. nonprofits. The goals are to document the issues being faced by community-serving organizations and to identify ways the fund itself, and other supporters of the work of nonprofits, can be most useful.

It takes maybe 15 minutes to complete the survey, which requires a pretty broad knowledge of an organization’s activities – from the state of the finances to relationships with funders to the board of directors.

Do you have that knowledge? Take the survey today! And if that’s not you, consider passing the request along to someone who has a good handle on how things are going. The survey closes on February 15.

Why take the survey?
Accurate information about what nonprofits can and can’t do is really important now as governments at every level struggle to meet community needs. Many foundations are cutting back on grants; others are shifting their priorities to meet new challenges; and individuals—whether donors, patrons, visitors, or clients—are feeling the pinch and watching their wallets with new caution. Accurate and up-to-date information about the state of nonprofits and their finances will help policy-makers, philanthropists, and program managers avoid mistakes that could make a bad situation worse.

Want to learn more about nonprofit finances?

Here are more resources:

  • The Urban Institute’s annual fundraising survey, conducted with the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University and other collaborators.
  • From the IRS, a new search tool that allows you to check on the exempt status of an organization directly on the web.
  • The final version of the Form 990 for 2011 (the one larger organizations will need to file by May 15, 2012) is now available for download (PDF). The form 990-EZ will be published soon. There is no change in the Form 990-N (“e-postcard”) used by small organizations to maintain exempt status.

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You worked hard to find donors. Now don’t lose them!

We’re 10 days into the new year, which means it’s a great time for some of us to reflect on our organizations’ year-end fundraising efforts, our personal giving decisions, or both. Here’s a report (a PDF) from the Fundraising Effectiveness Project that affirms:

  • Nonprofits of every size and description make a special effort to identify supporters and secure additional support in the closing weeks, days, and even hours of the year. (Network for Good has an entire year-end fundraising guide if you’re already looking ahead to 2012 holiday season.)
  • Sadly, a large number of those donors won’t be found in the roster of supporters during the following year.
  • And, if you look closely, there’s an amazing range from the most to the least successful organizations when it comes to maintaining a strong group of supporters who renew their gifts year after year.

Finding new donors is much more difficult (and expensive) than staying in touch with people who already know about the organization and have shown their interest through making a donation. So why do so many organizations spend so much time trying to reach new donors, rather than building relationships with the old ones?

Why don’t donors continue to give?

Of course, there are some perfectly good reasons why a donor might give once and never again – such as gifts that celebrate a milestone or great accomplishment, or a memorial gift that honors a person who has passed on.

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Beth Kanter posted this photo to Flickr with a thank you note and update to donors after her campaign raised money for students in Cambodia. (Photo: cambodia4kidsorg / Creative Commons)

But the most common reason donors offer for not continuing to support an organization is lack of information about what has been accomplished with the money given so far before there’s a request for more. Finding out what donors want to know and making sure to tell them during the year is just as important—maybe even more important—than getting the year-end appeal in the mail on time.

What savvy development professionals can do

Looking ahead to the 2012 fundraising program, you’re probably already thinking about your communications with donors and prospective donors. How will you tell them—clearly, accurately, and persuasively—what the work they have supported is accomplishing and how important this support is to the morale of the people who do it? The books listed toward the end of the 2011 Donor Retention Supplement (the first link on that page) are full of ideas on how to do this well.

What savvy donors can do

If you’re looking ahead to the contributions you might make in 2012, consider your own priorities. What kind of community do you want to live in? What kind of world do you hope to see? Then find out which organizations are most likely to bring those visions to life.

If you have lingering questions about organizations you’ve supported in the past, you’ll do them a favor by asking. The request doesn’t need to be a demand, and the response doesn’t need to be a burden. If you can spark better communication between an organization and the donors who support it, that will be good for organization and donor alike.

How do you plan to communicate with your supporters (or learn more about the organizations you support) this year?

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A happy Happy New Year

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Is your community's "happiness flag" showing signs of wear and tear? (Photo: Rachel Kramer, Flickr/Creative Commons)

How happy are we?

Most everyone would agree that being happy is a good thing—along with the coming of spring, a robust economy, and clean air to breathe. For most nations, there are detailed, current statistics about the weather, the state of the economy, and the atmosphere (not to mention many other things). Statistics about happiness are a little harder to come by.

The government of the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan has made it a priority to measure “Gross National Happiness” as a summary of national wellbeing. Since 2005 a national effort has been underway to assess not just economic activity in the nation (“Gross National Product” in economist-speak), but to attend to data from eight other “domains” that impact people’s lives, such as health, education, community vitality, and cultural resilience. The website GrossNationalHappiness.com provides the official explanation of the project and reports on the results of the calculation of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index for 2010.

There is no such national index for the USA so far. In my hometown, Sustainable Seattle is using the concept to develop a happiness index for communities. The idea is to supplement its other initiatives and build a long-term future of health and well-being. The project has two components: a set of objective statistics that create a profile of a region’s progress toward meeting goals related to sustainability, and a personal happiness survey that anyone can take. At the end of the survey, each respondent’s answers are compared to the overall response from all survey-takers. Food for thought as a new year begins.

No such thing as personal happiness?

For his 2008 book The Geography of Bliss, reporter Eric Weiner visited nine varied countries, looking for the happiest place on earth. He found some very disappointing spots, including one place where people “derive more pleasure from their neighbor’s failure than their own success. I can’t imagine anything less happy.”

In contrast, when he talked with Bhutanese scholar Karma Ura, he heard “There is no such thing as personal happiness. Happiness is one hundred percent relational.” Weiner reflected: “At the time I didn’t take him literally. I thought he was exaggerating to make his point…But now I realize Karma meant exactly what he said. Our happiness is completely and utterly intertwined with other people: family and friends and neighbors and…people you hardly notice. Happiness is not a noun or verb. It’s a conjunction. Connective tissue.”

This general point is repeated over and over again in the literature. Arthur Brooks, President of the Heritage Foundation, concludes his book “Gross National Happiness” with a quick review of social scientists’ results demonstrating that all sorts of activities that benefit others—from the most direct sorts of help to family and friends to the abstractions of making donations to help people in far-away lands—are closely related to general feelings of happiness and well-being.

Five steps to happiness

In the UK, a study for the National Health Service called Five Ways to Well-Being concluded that these simple steps would improve people’s lives in measurable ways (and sharply reduce the risks of mental illness too!):

  • Connect with the people around you
  • Be active
  • Take notice of what’s around you
  • Keep learning
  • Give

How will you do these things in the coming year?

Not to toot our own horn too loudly, it still bears saying that Idealist.org offers lots of opportunities for doing all five. Just a few minutes clicking through listings in your community, or in your area of interest, or for the sorts of things you want to do will turn up things to do and places to go.

With your personal profile from Sustainable Seattle’s survey in front of you, and some reflection about the Five Ways to Well-Being, Idealist’s listings are one way to make sure you have a happy Happy New Year.

Best wishes for 2012 from all of us!

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Nix the partridge: 12 ways to spread joy past December

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From Flickr user AForestFrolic (Creative Commons)

No matter how you look at it, the next couple of weeks are sure to be full of a special seasonal energy. For some, that energy can verge on manic, which kind of takes the fun out of it.

For example, gift buying can get expensive. PNC Wealth Management calculates the 2011 cost of the gifts listed in the familiar “12 Days of Christmas” song at $24,263 – or over $100,000 if you decided to give a partridge in a pear tree twelve times, two turtle doves eleven times, and so forth ’til your true love’s tree would be surrounded by a jumble of 364 amazing gifts.

Here are twelve things you might do to brighten the season for yourself and others that don’t involve so many visits to the ATM.

Give time:

  • Look close to home and find a holiday project where you can pitch in as a volunteer via the search tools at the top of Idealist.org. Just using the word “holiday” in the box marked “What?” and “Seattle” in the box marked “Where?” turned up 11 different and interesting things to do in my hometown.
  • …And resolve to volunteer in 2012. Sure, a soup kitchen is an obvious choice at Thanksgiving and sorting toys is popular come Christmas. But can you commit to things after the holiday rush, fight the winter doldrums and get to know your community better? Set up Idealist Email Alerts to stay informed about volunteer opportunities.

Give attention:

  • Reminisce with family, friends, or neighbors. Look at snapshots from holidays past, talk about the times when things went right (or wrong – hopefully with only comic consequence), and record stories of holidays past. Storycorps has DIY tips.
  • Say ‘thanks’ to someone who works in community service. Look online for the name of the board chair or ED of an organization you admire and write a brief note of appreciation for what the organization contributes to the community.
  • Surprise a neighbor with a homemade treat or hand-picked seasonal bouquet. Best of all, do it anonymously, so there’s a bit of happy mystery about how it happened.
  • Experience your holiday in a new way. Attend a community group’s concert, dance performance, or play that you’ve never been to before. Even better: Take a kid or two along with you!

Give your voice:

  • Read aloud from a favorite holiday story-book. For those who celebrate Christmas, Google Books has an 1849 edition of A Visit from St. Nicholas (or “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”) with fabulous illustrations online for free.
  • Sing! In the shower, with a group caroling in the neighborhood, in your place of worship…

If you can, give money.

  • Give cash. Times are tough for many of us, but for those who can spare even a few dollars, see my 2010 post full of tips for year-end donations.
  • Find a “Giving Tree” (or other community gift exchange for kids) and add your contribution to someone’s holiday cheer. The Marine Corps Reserve’s Toys for Tots is active in many communities.
  • Look abroad to places that need our help even once they’re out of the spotlight. Japan is still recovering from the earthquake, tsunami, and related damage to nuclear power plants and tens of thousands of houses. Haiti still struggles with the effects of the terrible earthquake there two years ago. Google Disaster Relief offers links to reliable ways to help out in many parts of the world, as do familiar newspapers and magazines; try a quick online search.

And, since I doubt your shopping list will disappear entirely…

  • Give experiences or contributions instead of objects. For theater-goers, a gift certificate for a pair of tickets. For mountain bikers, a membership in the local single-trackers club. Whatever your friends and family love to do, nudge them in that direction and you’ll get the vicarious pleasure of imagining them doing what they like best with your help. Alternatively, spread the warm glow by supporting a favorite organization in someone’s name.

Warm wishes from all of us at Idealist.org!

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