Giving on the Street

I have spent my adult life confronted by people asking me for money on the street. In college in Washington DC, as a young graduate in Cairo, a grad student in Boston, and in the various countries of Central Asia. I have a policy now on who I give to, and why I do it. It’s the combination of some great advice I received from a Georgetown professor* and my own knowledge of development and poverty.

Here’s the policy:

I don’t give money to children. I will give them food if I have it, but I don’t give money. Children should be in school, not out earning money on the street. I don’t want to encourage children to beg, or their parents to send them out to beg. In accounting terms, children should not be a profit center – especially not in this way – and I am not going to contribute to it.

I don’t give money and expect it to have any long-term impact. Five dollars or a banana isn’t going to change anybody’s life. It will buy their next meal, or their next beer. It will make this day a little better for them. That is all. When I give money, I give it with that understanding.

I have a budget. I spend ten dollars a week on giving money to people who ask for it. It doesn’t come out of my charitable contribution budget, because I use that for donations that will have an impact. It has its own line in my budget.

If you had to name that line in my budget, I guess you could call it humanity. I give because I don’t want to become someone who ignores the pain of others. We’re all human beings, together, on this planet, and it’s only an accident of luck that means I can give and not receive. I recognize that, and so I give. If I was hungry and alone on the street, I wouldn’t be worried about sustainability, I would be worried about dinner.

That’s it. That’s the policy.

Note #1 – The story my professor at Georgetown told our class: He was in a North African Country – Algeria, I think – and he was very uncomfortable with all the beggars on the street. He’d plan his walk to his university to avoid them. He didn’t look them in the eye. He never knew if he should give. Then, one night, he was walking with an Algerian colleague. His colleague stopped suddenly in the middle of their conversation, and crossed the street in order to give money to a beggar. My professor realized then he needed to find a way to be equally compassionate himself. He went home and told his wife about it, and she suggested a weekly budget for him, and that is what he has done ever since. And also what I do.

Note #2 – I have a friend who used to have a weekly budget for giving to the homeless, when he realized one day that $10 a week is $520 a year. Now, ever January, he writes a $600 check to an organization that works with the homeless and he never gives money on the street. That seems like a reasonable and pragmatic approach to me, but it doesn’t suit my own heart.


photo credit: P Hansen

Tapping the Fanatical Surplus

I have a confession to make: I am a fan. I read fan fiction. I participate in Livejournal communities. I have actually written fan fiction on occasion. It’s been a great hobby in a life where I can’t have hobbies that involve material things, and fan fiction has saved me more than once from death by boredom on trips too long to carry as many books as I need.

It’s traditional to pretend to be ashamed of this hobby, but I’m not. It’s been crucial to my understanding of social media, community, and the way the world has shifted to a new participatory culture. I am proud to be a textual poacher. This level playing field has even changed the way I see international development. And sometimes fans do wonderful things.

Which is a long way of getting to this post by Laurenist. In it, she deconstructs a new charity started by Misha Collins, the actor who plays Castiel on Supernatural. Here’s how she begins:

Now, Misha is attempting to once again tap his social networking prowess (and large fanbase) to raise funds for a new charity, Random Acts. Not awesome. (Sadface.)

Don’t get me wrong. I like charities! I like Misha! I want Misha’s charity to be one that I like. Unfortunately, it seems the people behind it have good intentions, but as we in the international development blogger community know, “Good intentions are not enough.”

Let’s look at how Random Acts says it’s going to spend the money it raises:

  • 33% will be divided between the orphanages we support in Haiti
  • 15% will go to support victims of the horrific flooding in Pakistan
  • 51.99% will go to support random acts of kindness all around the world
  • .01% will be spent bribing public officials

She has two major criticisms: 1) Orphanages are a bad idea and 2) Supporting random acts of kindness is not an effective use of money. I agree with her on both points. Orphanages are a bad idea, almost always. Saundra can tell you why. And the whole random acts idea strikes me as kind of weak. A lot of feel-good; not much actual result.


Misha Collins actually responded to Laurenist’s post with a well-thought-out comment, and here’s what he had to say about the “random acts” portion of his charity: “Part of what made me want to do this project was seeing so many of my followers on Twitter putting so much energy and so many resources into fandom. I think all of that energy is great, but my thinking was, perhaps, if we could harness a fraction of those resources (both creative and fiscal), we could put some of this c-list idolatry to good use.”

He’s got a point. Fans are completely off the hook crazy. I know this because I am one. I once sent a postcard to David Hewlett that said “how are you so awesome?” I have seen every movie Josh Charles ever appeared in, and that takes some serious endurance. Small wonder Misha Collins wants to tap this fanatical surplus.

The thing is, fans are crazy because being a fan is fun. It’s not meaningful, Henry Jenkins aside. It’s not purposeful. It’s just fun. People don’t do fannish things because they want to be useful. They do it to entertain themselves. While a Misha Collins doing-serious-things charity probably wouldn’t capture fannish attention, maybe his doing-silly-things charity will. And while those silly kind things may not be terribly effective, they are not, as the comments on Laurenist’s post pointed out, worthless.

Misha Collins, in his own way, knows the community he’s dealing with: nutso fans. He’s designed a charity that will appeal to nutso fans and use their energy for good. So, this time, I have to say – more power to him. (Except for the orphanages.)


Photo credit: fanpop

Yep, that’s Misha Collins.