Social media and charitable giving: my own philosophy

It seems as if my email and social media feeds have been filled with fundraising requests ever since Thanksgiving. As these requests pile up, I have been thinking about my own charitable giving policies and how they have evolved over the years.

The spread of social media has provided a ready-made pathway for asking our “friends” for money  — and tor them to return the favor. Back in the day when MySpace was the main social network, fundraising was conducted by individual emails or even letters in the mail. Now, thanks to Facebook (and other sties such as Causes and GoFundMe) it is very easy to set up your own personal campaign and you too can be asking your friends for money. In one way, that is progress: we should encourage more philanthropy and provide help to others when we can.

But the proliferation of sites has raised problems for us all: To which cause do we contribute? How can we be sure that a personal appeal in a GoFundMe campaign is legitimate? What do we really know about the causes we are being asked to support?

I confess that this tsunami of appeals causes me internal conflict. I want to be a good person, but my resources of money and time to sort out many requests are both limited.


I asked two of my friends how they sort out these person-to-person (p2p) requests they receive:

  • Sarah, a non-profit CEO, told me “If the request doesn’t really speak to me, or I feel like it isn’t really an urgent need, I pass it over. If I see it as making a difference, I usually try to support it in some way.  I typically make my decisions based on how well I know the person, or the specific need for the campaign. If it directly helps someone who has experienced a crisis or has a critical need, I am more inclined to give and at a more significant level.”
  • Kitty, a development director, contributed to her high school friend’s medical bills as he was dying of cancer. “I did this so his wife, whom I’ve never met, wouldn’t be burdened with these bills after he was gone.” She told me that she was generous with her donation because of the personal connection, even though the connection was established long ago.

For myself, I draw on my upbringing. When I was a teen, I learned about the Talmudic sage Maimonides and his concept about having eight different levels of charity. The highest levels have to do with what I will call double-blind giving: you don’t know the beneficiary, and they don’t know you are the specific donor. The modern style of p2p giving would be very far down Maimonides’ list.

For many years, my own charitable giving has tried to adhere to the Maimonides model. Almost 20 years ago, I decided to get involved in raising funds for curing various diseases: Juvenile Diabetes, AIDS, cancer, and Multiple Sclerosis. I knew friends and family members who suffered from them and that connection caused me to want to help. I ended up doing an annual bike or walkathon and using my contacts – namely those of you who are reading these missives – to raise money. And thanks to you, for many years I have often been very successful in providing meaningful support for these causes.

Then in 2002, I broke my shoulder training for a ride a month before an event. When I called the organizers, they told me to come to Death Valley (where the event was taking place) anyway: they wanted me to participate, even though I wasn’t going to be able to ride. I was glad I did, because my now wife Shirley (shown here at the JDRF finish line) was also a volunteer for the event, and that is where we met.

I was deeply moved that when I told the people who had made pledges to support the ride that I was not able to participate, virtually everyone said that their support was for the cause, not my individual participation, and they wanted to make the contribution in spite of my injury. That is truly the spirit of philanthropy that inspires me and that inspires you as well.

I asked several of my readers to their reactions to an early draft of this column. “An explanation of why and what you are riding helps me in my decision to give you funds,” said one. “I grew up in a time when asking for donation was an in-person activity,” said another. “Nowadays, we have no sense of community. Instead, these p2p donations have become nothing more than feel-good tax deduction trading.” Another supporter said she gives to my causes because I am doing something (the ride or the walk) in addition to “the ask.” And one reader said he is suffering from “donation fatigue,” even though he tries to give up to 10% of his income every month to various causes. And another wonders when did this public begging become so acceptable? She thinks we are taking a step backwards.

So, with that background, I will continue asking from time to time where I believe in the cause. I will happily consider requests where a broad-based benefit is the object of the giving. Together, each of us choosing our own causes, we can make a real difference.

You are welcome to share your own charitable giving philosophies with me or my readers.

Bike fundraising with my sister

I started riding my bike like most suburban teens and took my first long trip with my friend Karl when we were 16, riding 250 miles in five days to the end of Long Island, camping along the way. Since then, I have always been a big bicycling person. After college, I led a couple of biking trips for teens for one of the hosteling groups, and then to get to grad school I rode my bike across Canada for a summer-long course of about 2500 miles. After grad school I was working in DC and led the effort to get bikes on board the subway trains there. So I wasn’t just a rider, but a biking advocate.

In my late 40s, I decided to take up bike charity fundraising, and started doing a series of annual rides. My first ones were to benefit AIDS research and went from NYC to Boston. I later did rides to benefit diabetes, cancer and MS research, and thanks to many of you, was able to be one of the top fundraisers for my rides.

My sister Carrie’s experience though with riding was completely different. She didn’t touch a bike until after she turned 55. “I figured I survived breast cancer, I might as well tackle a bike.” So she taught herself to ride, got a pretty new bike and signed up for the 24 Baltimore ride and started a team with me and another couple. Carrie and I had done several multi-day breast cancer walking events over the years in different cities. We try to find an event that has some meaning to us, challenging and exciting. One year we did one of the Avon walks in Philadelphia: it was so cold and rainy that we had to be evacuated from our campground to a local high school, where we spent the night sleeping on the floor. At least it was warm and dry.

When we signed up for the 24 ride, I didn’t realize that it would be such a benefit for helping Carrie learn how to be a better bike rider. She had limited experience using gears, for example, and tackling hills. Since she got her bike, she has fallen several times and cracked a few ribs. I am amazed that after these experiences she would want to get anywhere near a bike. But that is the kind of person she is.

This photo of us then represents something very unusual: both of us on bikes, going through the “finish” line on one of our laps. After doing so many of these events with and without her, it is the first time we have been together on two wheels.

The structure of the 24 ride is doing a tight 2+ mile loop over and over again. While it can get tedious, it turned out to be just the right thing for a beginner such as Carrie. This is because she got to try out her gearing and her climbing strategy over the series of laps. Many of the other riders saw that she was a newbie and gave her lots of encouragement, and it was fun to be on my bike with her throughout the day. No, we didn’t go all 24 hours, but we still did more than 25 miles around the course.

I was very proud of her prowess, and how much she enjoyed the event. And glad that we got to do this together too.

Remembering 911

With the wall-to-wall 911 coverage this week, I wanted to take a moment to go back in time to that fateful day ten years ago. Back then, I had just released my second book on home networking and was about to embark on a series of book tours to promote it. The tour never happened. I was living on Long Island and that morning I was out on a bike ride to the end of the peninsula that had a view of the Manhattan skyline. I didn’t know that I was seeing the collapse of the buildings from my vantage point 25 miles away. I lost two acquaintances that day; one a fireman that I had done several charity bike rides with, the other on the plane that went down in Pennsylvania. It took me months to visit the site, and I posted this entry in March 2002. I thought you might want to read what I had written then:

I went down to the former World Trade Center site this week, for the first time since 9/11. It was a dark and stormy night, with an almost surreal atmosphere of ground fog and occasional rain showers. A utility pipe venting steam into the street nearby added to the almost movie-set-like feeling around the dark and deserted streets.

I have been reluctant to return here, an area that I visited often on business and tourist reasons throughout my tenure as a New Yorker. The twin towers were a favorite destination for my family for showing off the city to out of town guests, as well as a place for me to go to power breakfasts for various computer industry events.

I have been back in the neighborhood several times since the disaster, not as a tourist but as a volunteer to help prepare meals for the construction and police crews working there. And while many friends of mine went to see the site in the days after the disaster, I couldn’t bring myself to go. I didn’t want to see what had happened. After losing one friend, Tom Kelly, I didn’t want to approach the area without some further reflection and respect for all of those who perished. It was enough for me to view the skyline from afar, and note the gap, like some extracted tooth from my child’s smile.

But this week I was ready to see what things looked like, and pay my respects. I had dinner with a friend of mine who lives in Battery Park on a high floor, with huge picture windows facing the site. He and his wife watched the buildings crumble that day, and they offered me to come to their apartment and see the view for myself. Until this week, I wasn’t really ready to take them up on their offer.

But once I got to their place, I was glad I came. The foggy evening highlighted the twin searchlight banks that have been setup as a memorial a few blocks away from where the actual towers were located. Their lights cast an eerie glow around the neighborhood, and from above it seemed like you were looking down onto the tops of the towers themselves — the same square patterns of the buildings external skins have been reproduced in the lights. It is a fitting tribute to the people who lost their lives that day, to the strength and determination of the people of this country, and to two huge buildings that are gone forever.

Ironically, their apartment building stands on the landfill that was removed from the original construction site to build the trade center complex many years ago. The site and nearby streets were all under the Hudson River waterline, and to get down to the actual bedrock to build the site required creating this huge “bathtub” retaining wall to keep the water out. The wall is all that remains of that effort, and it is a massive task to ensure its structural integrity, now that the buildings and vast underground complex have been removed.

From my friends’ apartment, you could see the movement of the construction vehicles as workers continue to excavate the site, and they are still working round the clock. There was just one area left — the area of the compressed south tower. The rest was a big hole, reminiscent of the Tyco crater scene in the movie “2001,” lit up with its own array of lights. Like the movie, we are still searching for answers to why this happened. Instead of an alien life, we have other humans who were so determined to harm thousands of us.

I still have lots of complex feelings about the events around 9/11, and I am still sorting them out — as I am sure, you are too. Looking at the lights, I remembered my friend’s Tom’s contribution, and honor his memory and his fellow firefighters and the many others who didn’t make it that day.

NB: I wrote this many years ago, and in December 2018 I returned to the site, now a bustling tourist location with the two memorial pools and a new museum along with the tall Freedom Tower dominating the site. I took this photo of Tom’s name etched into the memorial on another rainy day. Just as I did, a blast of wind sent a stream of mist up in the air and enveloped our family group that had come to see the memorial. I think Tom was crying with us.

Across the USA at 10 mph

When I was a 20-something, I had to get across country to start grad school and decided to make it a summer-long solo journey on my bicycle. I had a blast, pedaled about 2500 miles in 10 weeks and met some great people. As many of you, I continue to ride for recreation and in support of various causes to this day.Now two 20-somethings have done a more modern version: one of them riding (or whatever you call it) on a Segway (the other in a sag wagon, as we call the support vehicle that trails behind) going from Seattle to Boston.They did a film which you can watch on YouTube here.

What they (as did I) find incredible is how friendly people were that they meet along the way. The 10 mph guys (which is about how fast both a Segway and a bike travels) meet up with Llama farmers in Wyoming, bikers (the kind with tattoos) and plenty of people who offered their homes and a meal, almost getting arrested in Illinois and then getting a Segway escort by the Chicago Police. They try out Philly cheesesteaks, drive through torrential rains, have their backer pull out of the project somewhere in Ohio, and appear on stage with Michael Moore.

The 90 minute film is a hoot. It also shows you how when you slow things down, you get to see more and meet more people. I still have many memories from my cross-country trip, including getting a ticket for riding on the freeway outside of Seattle, having my wheel respoked in about an hour by a 16-year old in an Oregon bike shop, riding across the Golden Gate Bridge, sleeping on the beach on Vancouver Island and trying unsuccessfully stay in the Petaluma jail because I had tasted too much wine and didn’t want to ride any further (the cops told me to pitch my tent in a nearby park).