Category Archives: Good Works

Charities, empowerment, financial and social inclusion, and ways to pay it forward. Everything from being Santa to Kiva microloans.

The International Bank of Stern

I honestly forget who introduced me to Kiva — maybe my former co-worker Dr Jim, definitely one of the more socially minded people at Sun Microsystems in the pre-Oracle days. I just made my 140th Kiva loan, bringing my total notional amount to just shy of $4,000. With a 2017 resolution to do more social good and build bridges, I made a small donation to Kiva and topped off my account so that I was able to fund seven new loans today, primarily using the balance from previous repayments over the last six months.

Some interesting statistics, most taken from my private page, a few from my public lender profile:

  • Loans made: 140. Under 2% of them have run into payment delinquency, and less than 0.7% have defaulted.
  • Total amount loaned: $3,990 (this includes re-loaning funds that have been repaid). I’ve benefitted from six different promotions, and over the course of eight years as Kiva lender I’ve re-loaned each dollar about twelve times. That is a remarkably efficient velocity of money given the frequently retrograde payment, disbursement and records keeping mechanisms in play.
  • I’ve invited 26 people to Kiva and they have made an aggregate of 199 loans. More than half of the total I’ve invested in Kiva ($475 of the $770) has been in the form of gift cards – one of my favorite gifts to give for someone who has everything including elegance in giving their time and energy.
  • Of the $295 out of pocket I’ve invested in Kiva, about $25 has gone to currency loss and $25 to default. At about 0.7% each, those rates are less tha one-third of what you pay in credit card currency translation or the national average credit card default rate. In short, banking the unbanked is better business.
  • Demographics: 35 countries, 16 sectors, 64 field partners and 68% of loans to women. That’s what empowerment looks like – helping women start and grow their own businesses, with local partners interested in job creation and economic expansion rather than fees and interest rates.
  • If you’re wondering about that “International Bank” bit, it’s liberated from The International Bank of Bob: Connecting Our Worlds One $25 Kiva Loan at a Time which is an amazing introduction to the world of unbanked populations, microloans, and social impact.

    In this last batch of loans, I made sure I included a country in which I’d never made a loan before (Congo and Peru), and a segment I hadn’t funded (arts). Of course, I also made a few new loans in Rwanda, where I’ve seen excellent performance of the portfolio and have had a personal interest since our daughter spent a month in the hills teaching English. My investment strategy is simple: I am for loans that are under 12 months in duration (because it allows me to turn the funds over, and because I believe that limits the dynamic range of delinquency events). Look for field partners who have experience, low default rates, low currency risk, and make an about-market return on their funds (so they aren’t taking advantage of their local customers, but aren’t in the money losing business).

    High notional volume, low return, multi-party mutual funding — it’s the model that grew the American insurance businesses through the 1950s, and now it can grow small scale business opportunity. If you grew up in the Tri-State Area and remember Phil Rizzuto pitching for the Money Store, it’s that idea taken globally.

    30 Days of Giving 6 7 8 9 10: Giving Voices

    So much for the daily updates on this topic — I didn’t forget, I just got buried with work projects and post-Thanksgiving turkey recovery. Here’s a quick catch up to get us to the 1/3 point: I’m trying to fund voices that need to be heard.

    Day 6: CaringBridge. When my friends Kevin and Sari’s son was critically injured in a late season ski accident, we were able to his treatment, recovery and progress via CaringBridge. When you want to communicate with a large audience but don’t have the emotional or physical strength to be on email or the phone, CaringBridge provides a mediated, modulated voice to inform those who want to know, and to receive their good words without further taxing your mental reserves.

    Day 7: The Electronic Frontier Foundation. You have a safe voice online because of the work of the EFF, who have been fighting since 1990 to protect encryption, privacy and individual rights. I’ll admit to spluring on this one, going for the $65 funding level so I can get a cool encryption t-shirt.

    Day 8: Immigration Equality, through my friend Alan’s fundraiser. What if you came to the United States seeking safety and asylum, knowing that giving voice to your true identity as LGBQT or HIV+ would effectively be a death sentence in your home country? Immigration Equality provides legal assistance to those people who need it the most.

    Day 9: Friends of the Wanamaker Organ. Not just once voice but hundreds, carefully restored and playable in what is now the Macys in Center City Philadelphia. I’ve been fascinated with pipe organs since discovering that the late Chris Squire (Yes bassist) made his musical debut on the church organ, and some of the most complex polyphonic classical pieces were written for organ (Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy, long before it was adapted by Jaco Pastorius for bass):

    The former Wanamaker store holds something of a place of honor in various parts of my family, and the organ is cranked up for a fairly regular holiday concert schedule starting about now.

    Day 10: Wikimedia Foundation. The voice of reason in online content, Wikimedia Foundation are the people who bring you Wikipedia, and do so without a single display ad or sponsorship. Wikipedia represents one view of democratic voices: crowdsourcing content such that the truth slowly converges not to what one person or one writer thinks, but to what the most people find the most reputable, corroborated and reliable over time. Imagine if all of life had “citation needed” or “This article needs improvement” overlays: we’d cut down on a lot of misinformation and encourage people to discover facts, figures and forces for themselves.

    30 Days of Giving 5: Heinlein Society

    I was introduced to science fiction by the Laura Donovan Elementary School librarian, who picked out a Robert Silverberg book for me to read. I’m pretty sure I read it at least three times, given the rather narrow selection of the genre in 1969 — but then I was introduced to the Monmouth County Library system, where Robert Heinlein, Silverberg, Isaac Asimov and others awaited. Science fiction has continued to be a staple of my life, with John Scalzi, Cory Doctorow, Charles Stross, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, China Mieville, and a host of others filling my head with visions of what is possible, impacts of the future on current policy and politics, and how we might bridge the present and the near present.

    I discovered the Heinlein Society through a posting on John Scalzi’s annual holiday postings, where he allows readers to represent their artistic and charitable works to a wider audience. The Heinlein Society attempts to pay forward the legacy of one of the greats of the genre, and my donation supports its educational efforts. Hat tip to both Scalzi for networking good works, and to friend Marc for renewing my interest in my first sci-fi literary crush over a series of breakfasts.

    Day 5: Support the Heinlein Society with a one-time, one year membership.

    30 Days of Giving 4: Movember

    I’ve been supporting Movember for three of the past five years. Movember exists to raise awareness and funding for men’s health issues, in particular testicular cancer, prostate cancer, and mental health. The Movember motto is simple: stop men dying young. I’m reminded of Billy Tucker, guitarist of Regressive Aid (for those of you in the Princeton/New York area in the early 80s), and guitar teach to Michael Melchiondo (a/k/a Dean Ween) who committed suicide after a prolonged illness for which he could never find sustained pain relief. More recently, keyboard and prog rock pioneer Keith Emerson also took his own life rather than face diminishment of his virtuosity.

    I’ve supported my own campaign (I’m committed to doing 50% more physical activity this month than usual; rather than growing some gnarly facial hair that scares small children at the onset of the holiday season). But if you want the true experience of supporting someone with a great ‘stache, who does good work in addition to being a good role model, hit up Devils forward Adam Henrique (yes, I supported his campaign too, because I find it weird I’m out pacing him in anything in life — until he chips in his contributions for his work on the ice).

    30 Days of Giving 3: American Special Hockey

    While football is the typical Thanksgiving sports association, once the Bubba started playing travel hockey we took our post-meal show on the road in ice rinks around the Northeast. Hockey tournaments are a unique bonding experience – you can feel just about every emotion from joy to fatigue to friendship to frustration to amazement. I believe that the players I’ve coached and managed benefitted from hockey tournaments by learning how to represent our club, our team and themselves in public, in charged situations, and with grace in both victory and defeat. Each calendar demarcation carries some hockey tournament association – our annual Mites Shamrock St Patrick’s Day weekend, the Thanksgiving “shoot outs”, President’s Weekend, and the last weekend in March, which we historically spent in Lake Placid.

    Along the way, we got to know some of the players and coaches with American Special Hockey, a program that provides hockey experiences for players with a variety of disabilities. Our New Jersey Devils Youth club has created the Dare Devils Program that matches junior mentor coaches with players and hosts an annual Halloween weekend hockey tournament for other special needs teams, so that players of all abilities get to enjoy this unique experience, forever tied to a holiday weekend. Get a personal look at the impact of the program in this (now 10 year old) clip from Linda Ellerbee’s Nick News and yes, you may recognize one of those junior coaches in his much younger days.
    If you want to cut to the special hockey segment, it starts at 19:11

    Day Three: I’m giving to American Special Hockey (you can choose a specific local club to support; I’m putting my donation to work for our NJ Dare Devils).

    Fighting the Loss Of Peoplehood

    Thanksgiving seems an appropriate time to reflect on what it means to be part of a people – not a person, but a member of a group that provides some context for your life. Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday to provide a respite in the fighting of the Civil War, a much needed break to reflect on a tortuous path to the present.

    I became fascinated with the idea of peoplehood five years ago when my wife and I participated in a two-year project to explore where we came from with cohorts from Israel and northern New Jersey. Our group included those of Ukranian, Georgian, Moldovan, Russian, Moroccan, Yemenite, eastern European, western European, Latin American and Israeli descent. For two years we wrestled with the question of “what does it mean to be a people” – not a race, not a religion, not a geography, not any physically identifying characteristic – just a people. It’s a hard question. It gets to the issue of what it means to be part of the American people.

    Things crystallized for me over the course of just a few months. In April 2013 we visited Babi Yar, the site of a WWII mass murder of Jews on the outskirts of Kiev. I lost my composure; I could not help but think, as we stood on the side of a ravine while people pushed baby strollers and skateboarded through the park, that I was standing grave side for some members of my family that never left that part of Russia in the early 20th century. Our peoplehood survived that horror.

    Two days later, we were back in Israel, celebrating Independence Day, when my Twitter feed lit up about the Boston Marathon bombing, an attempt to strike fear into the very city that had been so critical in defining American peoplehood. Our Israeli hosts, most of whom had been literally under rocket attacks over the previous months, instantly knew how to comfort us. Our peoplehood bridged that horror.

    It wasn’t until months later, during a family celebration that involved reading the Torah portion Ki Tavo that the pieces fell into place. Ki Tavo starts with a celebration of all of the wonders that the promised land will bring the Jews, if only they can act ethically and morally. The passage contains a long and Biblically colorful list of curses — not verbal but life-affecting disasters — that befall those who fail to keep their end of the behavioral bargain. The last curse is that you’ll be returned to Egypt – the implication is that you’re reverted to slavery. You have to read the passage in an undervoice so as not to call undue attention to it.

    The worst curse in the Torah is that you lose your place in a people, your sense of peoplehood, your personal set of tribes.

    That’s why I’m dedicated to standing up and working with those who feel that their peoplehood is threatened. Whether skin color or country of origin or the way you express your faith, your love, your gender, your desire to control your own body, your need for healthcare, your need for chronic care, or just your eating preferences, the most American – ethical, moral, leading the world – thing I can think of is to help protect your rights of being and belonging.

    [Ed note: if you want an interesting take on the need to co-exist within peoples of all stripes and shapes, read the interpretation of “exile” in this Torah portion.]

    [Ed note 2: I decided to transcribe this into a blog post after reading this piece in the Times (NSFW language), h/t to Alan and others for sharing it]

    30 Days of Giving 1: Neighbors Together

    In the spirit of thirty days of thanks, thirty days of giving, and perhaps a touch of advent, I decided that I’m going to make 30 small donations to causes, organizations and efforts that I find timely, important, and deserving of wider recognition. A confluence of thoughts pushed me down this path: really trying to make this a meaningful holiday season, the joy of having my entire family together for the first time in nearly two months, and a post by my cousin about an effort she’s driving to make Thanksgiving dinners for nearly 400 people who need a hot meal. Hat tip to a hockey parent who told me that her son will give part of his post-practice or post-game treat to one of the homeless people he sees while leaving one of our rinks; it’s such a simple example of standing up for people who can use an ally.

    I’m avoiding disease societies, “walks” of any kind, religious organizations, personal fund raisers (GoFundMe and the like), and instead focusing on small causes with large impacts. And each one will have something of a story.

    Growing up, my grandfather ran a general store in Smithburg, New Jersey, on the outskirts of what’s now the larger township of Freehold. He had a wonderful, kind vision of “credit” – you could buy agricultural products, food, or parts for anything and be extended store credit if he felt you needed it. Not every marker was eventually called; Grandpa Herman had an innate way of knowing who needed the help and didn’t make a big deal of extending them courtesy.

    So here’s day one: Neighbors Together.

    CAH’s Sensible Hanukah

    “Sensible” and “Cards Against Humanity” do not often co-habitate the same paragraph, let alone the same sentence. But this year’s holiday special, Eight Sensible Gifts sets the bar very, very, atmospherically high in terms of social good, humor and layered intricacies. Just reading the cartographic notes on the castle map (Night 8: I was given a 3-minute reign of Sensible Castle, an actual property purchased with some of this year’s proceeds) has had me laughing for over an hour – and then I registered my femto-liege and doubled down on the potential appelations and titles in the drop-downs. Each night comes with a parental note, some ephemera to convey the richness of the gift and the season, and an underlying set of messages: Do something meaningful and good if you’re handed a lot of money, especially for a game. Be silly, because laughter is the glue of the season. Think big, because nobody else will, not at that scale.

    Some of this year’s craziness included the purchase of a Picasso, a $150,000 TIPS investment (of which I own $1), the afore-mentioned castle, and a hefty sized donation to Chicago’s NPR station. The most touching reward is the week of vacation given to the workers in the Chinese factory that prints the card sets; included in the envelope were personal notes from people whose work environment doesn’t include a paid vacation. And finally, yes, this year’s CAH holiday comics included another above-the-fold strip from awesome artist Richard Stevens. This is the best $15 I’ve spent in ages.

    And if you haven’t played Cards Against Humanity, buy it, play it, and let your not so correct freak flag fly. It’s no worse than the Republican debates.

    2015 Gift Guide, Snowman Style

    I’ve slightly edited my gift guide for 2015, based on availability, practicality, and functionality. It’s what to get for people who have things, or for whom gift giving is remarkably hard, or who have unique tastes, or if you just want to elicit the massive exhalation upon gift wrap deconstruction.

    Jewelry For A Cause. It’s jewelry with a purpose, for a social movement, and it’s beautifully crafted. My favorite is the Caliber Collection, cuff links and bracelets made from bullet casings and destroyed guns taken off the streets, leaving the serial numbers as a bas-relief link between construction and destruction. Take the admonition to “beat swords into plowshares” and spur interesting conversation at work or a party. Be good and look good. (About $250).

    Schneider iPro Lens Kit. This is now my “go to” for concerts and just walking around new cities. Wide-angle, telephoto and macro lenses in a single carrying “tube” that slips into your pocket easily. (Yes, someone at a Phish show asked me what kind of pipe that was, and when I said it was for my iPhone, he said “Cool, a pipe for your phone”). Even if you eschew the phone-wielding crowd at shows (a camp to which I’m gravitating), it’s nice to be able to capture some landscape shots outdoors with a simple snap-on to the phone. You can buy the case (in case you upgrade or in my situation, lose, your phone) and keep the same lenses, or just buy specific lenses: iPro Lens System Trio Kit for iPhone 6 For $200 it fits the intermediate point between a vanilla iPhone and a full-size DSLR body (Between $180 and $300).

    Borrowlenses gift card. Let’s say the photo-nerd in your life won’t spring for that $5,000 piece of glass, but really wants to be able to get some high-quality shots on your next trip, or you want to use an extra wide aperature lens to shoot an event without having to invest the equivalent of 100 tickets in the process. Enter BorrowLenses, where you can rent a wide variety of photo gear for 3 days to a month. I’ve used this to get super telephoto lenses, or to audition gear before deciding what to buy (better to spend $180 on a weekend rental than be to annoyed with an $800 lens that isn’t quite as fast as you had hoped). Their gift certificates encourage experimentation, which is part of the fun of photography. You can now pick up your lenses at their retail locations in New York City and the San Francisco bay area, which saves on shipping and time. ($100 for something reasonable, but gift cards in any amount).

    Kiva gift card. Kiva is a microlending site – you make interest-free loans, $25 (or more) at a time, to the unbanked populations around the world. Whether it’s buying supplies for a bodega in Tanzania, or funding engine repair for a driver in South America, the aggregation of those $25 credits into $800-$5,000 short-term loans makes a difference. It’s not charity; it’s a continuous (over the course of tens of months) cycle of re-investment in people. I’ve given Kiva gift cards to people who seem to “have everything” and the reaction is usually quite positive. If the recipient wants to cash out after making one loan, at least you’ve made an epsilon economic improvement wrapped around a gift card. ($25 minimum, and a nice gift).

    Patreon. It’s easy to be a patron of the arts when you have millions laying around. If you have single dollars lounging electronically, direct them to people who are creating art and get a “behind the scenes” view of the process. For $5/month (on average), you get previews, interesting Q&A, and in some cases not-quite-public art. Create a PayPal account, fill it up with gift money, then direct your giftee to use it to support the arts. I’m a huge fan of Jeph Jacques and while I’ve purchased a variety of books and t-shirts from him, I’m kind of full up in those patterns. Supporting his Patreon gives me a bit more of my daily-Jeph-dosing including forays into music and other things that make his slightly left of center mind tick. ($60 is $5 a month for a year)

    Sonos Play:1 or Play:3. I outfitted the house with all Sonos gear this summer, and removed about 80 pounds (seriously!) of speakers, amplifiers, cables and mess. We have a Play:1 in the kitchen, and I use a play of SONOS PLAY:3 Smart Speaker
    in my office. Having music follow you around makes doing any sort of repetitive labor fun, whether it’s prep work in the kitchen or filing those expense reports with the four crumpled paper receipts from Taco Bell. Most important, it’s changed the way I listen to and discover music. I’m hearing subtle details I’ve missed before (that high-end percussive theme on “Promised Land:” glockenspiel!) and I’m able to create loudness from just about any source on the ‘net – radio, streaming services, or the whole family music library I’ve loaded onto a NAS drive in the basement. (About $200 for a single Play:1. $300 for a Play:3)

    Live Music, Now. Give someone a StubHub gift certificate, so they can see the live music (or sporting event) of their choice. I’m noticing that the premium over face on most tickets on StubHub is retreating back to something resembling a fair spread, and in some cases no worse than the collection of insane fees you’d pay to Ticketmaster or Telecharge. (Any amount supports your favorite artists)

    Live Music, Later. Very early in 2015 I started taking bass lessons after 30-plus years of wishing, thinking, procrastinating, and rationalizing my misunderstanding of the bass clef (old saxophone and clarinet players have this treble clef preference that took years to unwind). It’s one of the most fun things I’ve done. Find a studio that accepts adult students, and buy a month of lessons — it’s very important to find a teacher who likes the same music as your potential student, and whose styles mesh. In my case, a huge hat tip to Max at So I Heard Music in Millburn, who has taught me that so much of the music I love goes down in a minor key. (About $150 for a month)

    Meaningful Reading. My go-to is something personalized and signed by John Scalzi for the sci-fi fan on your list, but recently reading through the middle-aged Facebook lamentations of a kindler, simpler Long Beach Island made me think of Tales from an Endless Summer: A Novel of the Beach (A Cormorant Book). I’m also promoting high school classmate James Campion’s Shout It Out Loud: The Story of Kiss’s Destroyer and the Making of an American Icon. (Under $20)

    Strong Community Memberships. My personal new favorite is “Cash Or Trade,” a site that pairs fans sick of Ticketmaster fees and Stubhub market pricing to buy and sell tickets at face value. I’ve used it several times when my late spring Phish tour planning didn’t quite coincide with work or other obligations and I found myself needing to shuffle paper. A gold membership is $24 and is the best value for using the site, since you can get real time notification when new inventory arrives. Slightly more Phish-y and related is a donation to the Mockingbird Foundation, a non profit founded by Phish fans to support music education (see previous idea for music lessons; crowdsource this for someone you don’t know through Mbird). And finally, the Music Maker Foundation fights for the rights, recognition and remuneration of Southern musicians who have suffered poverty, poor contracts, and obscurity.