Nix the partridge: 12 ways to spread joy past December

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From Flickr user AForestFrolic (Creative Commons)

Happy holidays! While our writers take a couple of days to savor the season, we thought you might enjoy an updated version of this classic post (which originally appeared here).

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 14 different and interesting things to do in my hometown.
  • …And resolve to volunteer in 2014. 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. The Philippines, for example, has lots of recovery work ahead. Google Disaster Relief also 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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‘Tis the season: Tips for end-of-year donations

Happy holidays! While our writers take a couple of days to savor the season, we thought you might enjoy this classic post (which originally appeared here).

It’s December, which means you’ve probably started getting requests for donations from worthy causes. Here in the U.S., the income tax rules and the holiday spirit both nudge in the same direction: give what you can, before January 1.

Here are three tips for making gifts that matter. (And matter they do, no matter the size!)

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From Flickr user Alexandra Campo

Tip #1: Understand the tax rules.

If you choose to itemize deductions on your income tax return and you want to include your charitable contributions in the mix, then it’s important to follow the guidelines that the law, and the IRS, have established:

  • the organization must be eligible (usually it will say so in the materials);
  • you’ll need a receipt or some other documentation of the amount;
  • and the gift must be made before the 1st of January to go on this year’s tax return.

There are other, more complicated, rules about larger gifts and in-kind donations. And if you don’t itemize deductions, you still get some credit in the standard deduction. These are calculated using the giving habits of all non-itemizing households. Check the IRS site if there’s anything unusual about what you’re planning to do.

Tip #2: Choose wisely.

Maybe you’re getting a lot of requests, more than you can afford to give. How do you get through the thicket of year-end appeals that tug at your generosity? If you don’t have a personal philanthropy plan, you can make a simple one:

  • Decide on an amount you’re willing, and able, to give. The average household donates about 2 percent of disposable income each year.
  • Consider the organizations you already know, and know you want to support, so you can decide how much to give to each of them.  Then you’ll know how much you might have left over to respond to new requests.
  • If you’re thinking of giving to a new organization, ask yourself “What does this organization do?” and “Do I admire how they do it?” With nearly 2 million nonprofits at work in the U.S., there are lots to choose from.  Looking at websites, reading fundraising appeals, and searching online to see what others have said about the group are good ways to see how strongly the goals, and the methods, appeal to you.

Tip #3: Maximize.

Financial data—the sort of information many charity “watchdogs” focus in on—can only take you so far.  Some causes are hard to administer, others are hard to raise money for.  Spending less than counterpart organizations doesn’t necessarily mean greater efficiency, it may just mean a different approach to the problem.

There are some things donors can do to help put the maximum resources to work, though:

  • Respond quickly to requests, especially to renewal notices.  It costs money to prepare mailings so a quick response, even if it’s a “not this year,” is doing the organization a favor.
  • Consider making fewer, larger gifts. That will focus your support on program work, not processing costs.
  • Positive you won’t ever support Organization X? Ask them to take you off the mailing list so they won’t waste their money on appeals addressed to you.

Finding the money to build stronger, healthier, more lively communities is hard work. With a little preparation and some thought, your year-end gifts can support that work and make an important difference for causes and organizations you care about.

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Reciprocity + Co: The power of collaboration and perseverance

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One of five tote bags from Reciprocity + Co. The blue straps indicate your money will go to a featured health project. (photo courtesy reciprocityandco.com)

Almost one year ago, we wrote about Samuel McPherson, a young social entrepreneur who was starting a company to help improve education worldwide. The idea for Reciprocity + Co. was simple: buy a canvas tote bag, help a school get needed supplies.

But executing this model proved difficult, and Samuel realized the one-to-one model wasn’t sustainable. Wanting to support more long-lasting projects like installing wells and building schoolhouses, he made some changes.

In the time since we last spoke, Samuel developed a partnership with the crowdfunding website GlobalGiving, with the goal of raising $1,000 for projects across five issues: health, hunger, human rights, children, and education. Now when you buy a Reciprocity + Co. tote bag, a portion of your money goes to a cause of your choice.

During his journey, Samuel realized the power of collaboration—and perseverance. He wrote on his blog after a meeting with GlobalGiving:

As I was leaving their office, filled with adrenaline and excitement, I began thinking about the history of Reciprocity + Co. and all that has happened over the years. I started to reflect on one of the most important lessons I have learned about starting the company: nothing is more important than never giving up.

There were a number of times when most signs were suggesting that I should close up shop and consider Reciprocity + Co. a failed attempt. There were times when I had no sense of direction, nobody asking what was next, and moments when I realized my friends and family were convinced it was done.

There came a time about a year ago when I had to decide if I was going to keep the website or shut it down. I couldn’t bring myself to do this. It was not in the cards. I began working through ways to reinvent the company. I took a fresh perspective and brought new life into the idea. I started from scratch and rebuilt everything.

How did Samuel know he needed to keep going and make it through the dip? It was a gut feeling.

Have you ever wanted to quit but your instincts told you otherwise? Tell us about it!

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GiveDirectly: What happens when we just give money to the poor?

When you first hear from an organization that’s asking for money to fight poverty, how do you respond? If you’re like me, it’s usually with a healthy dose of skepticism: how would my money be used?

Would it go to financing the nonprofit’s advertising costs, or administrative costs, or maybe even… to financing staff birthday parties?

The fact that there’s been some buzz recently about GiveDirectly—an organization that distributes donors’ cash gifts directly to people in need—is evidence that these questions have indeed been on a lot of people’s minds.

GiveDirectly’s answer is unusual: just give the money to people in need, and trust them to do something worthwhile with it.

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A Kenyan recipient of a GiveDirectly donation
(photo via GiveDirectly.org)

To be fair, the idea isn’t really new—governments and NGOs have been distributing money directly for years. What is new is that the development of phone-based banking has made it possible to send money from anywhere instantly and with fewer middlemen—a concept that could be attractive to donors who dislike the overhead of more traditional organizations.

GiveDirectly, founded in 2008 and recently featured on NPR, finds people living in extreme poverty in Kenya, and sends them the equivalent of up to 1,000 USD by phone. The recipients can spend the money however they like—no prescriptions, no strings attached.

How is this laissez-faire approach going over in the new era of accountability? First of all, it’s not quite as hands-off as it sounds. GiveDirectly has conducted follow-up interviews with some of its donation recipients to find out how they used the money.

Many said they used it for one-time items that would contribute to their future economic well-being, like money-saving home improvements or business startup costs. So there is some continuing relationship, and some results are being measured.

But effectiveness is as important to donors as accountability, if not more. GiveDirectly’s website cites nearly thirty academic studies on the effectiveness of direct giving which help to dash a common suspicion about the model: namely, that people will spend the cash on frivolous or even harmful things like alcohol or drugs.

These studies found no evidence of that.

Even so, not everyone is sold. Aside from potential misuse of the money, some fear that giving cash introduces a risk of dependency that doesn’t exist with other kinds of development assistance, like infrastructure improvements.

However, proponents of direct giving could argue in return that giving money is at least better than giving material goods, as the local economy is stimulated when people have more cash to spend (when goods are given, local merchants don’t stand to profit).

There’s another, less obvious benefit to going the direct-giving route: discovering how people choose to help themselves, given the resources, can provide great data to help NGOs better understand how to meet their community’s unique needs—instead of imposing what they or their or donors might think is needed—and to refocus their efforts in that direction.

For example, GiveDirectly’s data show that a vast majority of recipients spent the money they received on a new, durable metal roof to replace their old grass roof. They’ll save on maintenance costs for years, allowing them to put more money toward educating their families, starting or growing businesses, and general well-being.

Larger NGOs could now enter the picture to help many more people by replacing many more roofs. It’s possible to arrive at the same conclusion through surveys, analysis, or other means, but there’s an attractive elegance to inviting people to literally show potential supporters what kind of help they could really use.

What do you think of GiveDirectly’s approach? Do you believe the direct giving model could—or should—work on a larger scale? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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Do I Have the Charitable-Industrial Complex?

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As we strategize to do good, are we making the right moves?
(photo courtesy Shutterstock)

Last week, Idealist Careers posted an interview with Peter Buffett—composer, philanthropist, and son of Warren Buffett—about his debate-spurring New York Times op-ed “The Charitable-Industrial Complex.”

After reading both articles, my mind buzzed with questions ranging from defensive to simple follow-up, directed at everyone from Buffett to society to myself. An ongoing dialogue ensued between my friends, family, and inner devil’s advocate.

Considering that Buffett’s op-ed was very pertinent to the Idealist community, I wanted to bring some of the dialogue here. Following are some quotations that resonated with me, and the thoughts they sparked. Now, I’d love to hear your take: what do you think?

1) “I noticed that a donor had the urge to ‘save the day’ in some fashion. People (including me) who had very little knowledge of a particular place would think that they could solve a local problem.”

Buffett addresses an issue specific to philanthropy here, and as the article progresses, he directs most of his criticism toward the way we use foundation money, view charity, and run nonprofits; it’s all very big picture and big money.

But as I read, I saw his words as a wake-up call to all of us who work in small pictures, too. Whether we’re in the field, volunteering on weekends, or running grassroots organizations, I think we can also fall prey to the hero complex. With an urgent desire to help, do we proceed blindly? Do we adequately consider culture, geography, and societal norms before acting?

2) “As more lives and communities are destroyed by the system that creates vast wealth for the few, the more heroic it sounds to ‘give back’… But this just keeps the existing structure of inequality in place. The rich sleep better at night, while others get just enough to keep the pot from boiling over.”

Again, Buffett expands his wealth-targeted critique to society at large: people soothe their guilt-ridden consciences with charitable acts, but in doing so, solidify inequalities instead of fighting them. I’m not rich and I can’t donate thousands, but couldn’t the sandwich I give away to someone hungry wreak the same harmful effect? Am I enabling a needy person to stay on the street by giving him “just enough to keep the pot from boiling over”? Suddenly it feels like I’m not solving hunger; I’m solving my own guilt.

It has become too easy to “give back” in ways that, if we push ourselves to be honest, might not be helping much. Charity shouldn’t be something we check off on our weekend to-do list and “nonprofit” shouldn’t be a buzzword we abuse as a marketing term.

As Buffett says, “Is progress really Wi-Fi on every street corner? No. It’s when no 13-year-old girl on the planet gets sold for sex. But as long as most folks are patting themselves on the back for charitable acts, we’ve got a perpetual poverty machine.”

3) “I really think we need two kinds of philanthropy. One is to stop the bleeding: the food, the shelters, all of those are necessary. But there should also be a real appetite for building scaffolding around a new system of behavior, new economies, new ways of looking at markets.”

Here Buffett expresses a kinder attitude toward immediate action: giving away my sandwich doesn’t propagate inequality if there are also people working on solving hunger as a larger issue.

So he’s not actually questioning that we might give back out of guilt, he’s asking us to reconsider how we give back. Is our action informed by “culture, geography or societal norms,” and does it have the backing of big-picture action to get to the problem’s core?

4) “It’s purpose and a paycheck and who wouldn’t want both? Being able to do something meaningful and put food on the table. You can’t argue with that. But then how can you make sure your deepest purpose is to no longer have a job?”

Buffett has a way of calling us out on the most wince-inducing truths. He’s right: how can you make sure your deepest purpose is no longer to have a job at your nonprofit? That got me wondering whether the best way to create change is by volunteering or running a side project. That way, you can start from scratch when something isn’t working; your job security won’t crumble when you decide to dismantle an initiative and rebuild it more effectively.

And yet, how can one balance a full-time job, family and friends, and conduct well-informed, structure-shattering, revolutionary nonprofit work? We need a “new code” Buffett, says, “something built from the ground up.” And I agree. But who can write it?

The undertaking seems daunting, overwhelming, maybe unapproachably gigantic. And yet, I don’t read hopelessness in Buffett’s words. I read challenge, complex but palpable tasks, and a call for more honest, critical reflection.

Perhaps most importantly, I read a need for better communication—both within our organizations and between individuals worldwide. There are infinite ‘teams’ in our bodies that work to heal us when we bleed; I imagine we would do well to act in the same way when our world is bleeding, too.

Do these quotations resonate with you? What problems do you see with our current approach to charity? What solutions come to mind?

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Beards BeCAUSE: A growing movement against domestic violence

Each day, people like you have ideas on how to make the world a better place, but don’t know how to put their ideas into action. To help you take the first step, we’re profiling social entrepreneurs who are tackling issues that are important to them, one step at a time.

The idea

I’m of the belief that every man, if their follicles allow it, benefits from a beard. So I was thrilled to discover Beards BeCAUSE, a volunteer-run nonprofit in Charlotte, NC that encourages men to put their razors away during the last few months of the year to raise money to end domestic violence.

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From left: Scott, Wendy, and Jared.

Founded by Jared Yerg, Scott Doerr and Wendy Shanahan in 2007, the charity keeps with the city’s tradition of throwing epic philanthropy parties, but appeals to scruffier donors who can’t afford $90 plates.

“We wanted to do something that was more blue collar,” Jared says. “We wanted to host affordable gatherings for people who wanted to come out, have a good time, and get a little educated about domestic violence here in Charlotte and abroad.”

The idea came to Jared and Scott while they were sitting in a wine bar one Sunday afternoon. A guy with a beard walked in, and the two friends started one-upping another about who could grow a better one. Soon the idea morphed into a city-wide competition. With the Charlotte police receiving close to 32,000 calls about domestic violence per year, adding the charitable layer seemed a no-brainer.

“As a masculine effort we wanted it to be for a feminine cause,” he says.

Now in its sixth year, the rising popularity of beards hasn’t deterred the organization in the least. The number of participants – called growers – remains steady each year, women can now participate, and more importantly, Beards BeCAUSE has become an integral go-to resource in the domestic violence community.

“The beard is less shocking now so it’s one of those things where we can concentrate and focus on the advocacy more,” Jared says.

Obstacles

Within 45 minutes of writing their idea down on a napkin, Jared and Scott had the name, what they wanted to do, and how they wanted to do it. They arranged a meeting with the Community Relations Director of Safe Alliance, a local shelter. One week later they serendipitously met Wendy, their design, IT and PR woman, at a beer stand at Oktoberfest and set up a website shortly after.

Jared is a self-professed connector type who by day is a contract specialist for an energy company, and by night is involved in the arts and music scene. He knows a lot of people. Despite the help, he and the team still faced some challenges making Beards BeCAUSE a viable and long-lasting charity.

Obstacle: Comfort when talking about domestic violence
Solution: At the beginning of each fundraising season they bring in speakers from shelters, the police department, and more for an educational night. They also give growers business cards that explain what they’re doing and why, and buttons that say “Ask me.”

“One of the biggest things that scared me our first year was that someone was going to come up to one of our growers and ask them why they were doing this. And they’d say, ‘Well I don’t have to shave for two months and they have awesome parties,” Jared says.

Obstacle: Maintaining momentum
Solution: Awesome parties, of course. The Clean Shaven event in October gives growers the resources they need to talk comfortably and intelligently about the issue. The 5 O’clock Shadow event in November makes sure things are going smoothly, and helps create camaraderie between growers. Throughout the month, which coincides with No Shave November and Movember, the growers themselves also host their own small fundraisers at happy hours or hockey nights.

The finale is in December at a local music venue. There are bands, beauticians from local salons doing creative trimming, a silent auction featuring donated items from local businesses, and an awards ceremony.

Obstacle: Staying relevant
Solution: Making sure there is always something going on that keeps their charity in the forefront of people’s minds. During the other ten months of the year, they organize things like the No Laughing Matter comedy night and a fashion show featuring burgeoning designers and models wearing prosthetic beards. It’s a win-win: they raise additional money, and every time someone sees facial hair they think of Beards BeCAUSE.

Advice

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Jared and Scott start clean.

The organization has raised $214,000 to date. The money goes to Safe Alliance’s supplemental needs, taxi fare for a child staying at the shelter to get to school, for example, or replacement textbooks.

In recent years, they’ve tested the Beards BeCAUSE model in Atlanta, Pittsburgh, and Woodstock. Despite meeting with mixed success, they’d love to see the concept work nationally. And if only ends up being just Jared, well that’s fine, too.

“I can honestly say if in 10 years it’s just me, growing a beard for two months and raising $200 for the shelter, then that’s what I’m going to continue to do,” he says.

Jared is aware that the fundraiser works so well in Charlotte because of the team’s widespread and far-reaching connections in the community. While this is always an advantage, here are some other tips from Jared about how to make your idea a reality:

  • Tap into local community businesses and venues to help trim costs.
  • Anticipate your technical needs from the start, and know who you can talk to for help.
  • Just ask. You never really know what you’re going to get.
  • Always thanks people, no matter how small the support.
  • Don’t shortchange any idea you have.

“If you have an idea, just run with it,” he finally says. “We started with an idea on bar napkin and here were are six years later. You never know what you’re going to be able to do until you try.”

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Inspired to adapt the Beards BeCAUSE model to end domestic violence where you live? Reach out to Jared for advice: jared.yerg@gmail.com.

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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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Idea File: "Awesome" way to fund your innovation

If your New Year’s resolution was to make the everyday a little more awesome, check out today’s idea incubating model. Browse more Idea File posts here.

The idea

Every month, a group of 10 volunteer “micro-trustees” from a chapter of the Awesome Foundation each shell out $100 to fund an innovative idea in their city. While the criteria is vague and guidelines are generous to say the least, the overall goal is to fund new projects that make the world more fun and happy to live in. Who doesn’t want that?

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Though this is just one street in Cary, NC, the folks from the foundation are dedicated to “forwarding the interest of Awesome in the universe, $1,000 at a time.” Photo by moonlightbulb (Flickr/Creative Commons).

So far, they’ve helped support everything from an Indiana Jones simulator in Washington, D.C. to a rooftop beekeeping venture in Melbourne to birdhouse-sized free libraries in Chicago. Anyone with a catchy idea and the gusto to see it through can apply.

Why we’re adding it to the Idea File

  • Philanthropy for the people. This crowdsourced model makes philanthropy accessible to anyone, and enables you to sidestep the complex bureaucracy of foundations when seeking funding.
  • Enticing and easy application process. Their lighthearted spin on submitting an idea is a welcome break from the usual dry, jargon-heavy grant applications.
  • Local ideas, local (free!) money. Here’s your chance to revisit those seemingly crazy ideas jotted on a napkin in your drawer, and make an impact where you live.
  • Community building. Being a micro-trustee gives you the opportunity to meet others, not to mention a direct connection to innovators in your area. Besides, imagine how good you’ll feel when you’re walking down the block and see your money put to good use?

How you can replicate it

Currently, there are 29 chapters from Berlin to NYC to Zurich. But they’d love to see more; email contact@awesomefoundation.org to get one going where you live.

If you don’t think being part of the Awesome Foundation is for you, try browsing their blog. You’ll find no shortage of inspiring ideas (like aMoment’s adorable art) to bring to your community.


Like this idea? You might also want to check out the One Percent Foundation and the Sunday Soup Network, or read our post about a secret society that tests the boundaries of philanthropy.

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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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