Why We Give
Altruism isn’t entirely selfless. Many of those who give their time and money are finding it’s a two-way street.
It was May 25, 2012. Suzie Buck was busily helping to plan the September 50th-anniversary gala for Phoenix House—an Arlington nonprofit that provides treatment for people struggling with drug and alcohol addiction—when the phone rang. That’s when she received the news she had feared for nearly 15 years: Her younger son, John, had died from an accidental drug overdose.
“It was a total shock. We really thought he’d been doing well,” Buck says, noting that she and her husband, Bill, had seen great improvements in their son’s health and stability in the two years since he had moved back to Arlington. He had been living in Colonial Village and working as an executive assistant.
John’s death at age 31 devastated his family and shook the community. His memorial service drew a crowd of hundreds. A fund was set up in his name at Phoenix House to help subsidize clients who were having difficulty paying for their care. In just four months, the fund accumulated more than $36,000 in donations.
Although John had never actually sought treatment at Phoenix House (a minor when he was first diagnosed, he enrolled in a youth-specific program in Minnesota), the Bucks saw their connection to the nonprofit as symbolic. They had been making financial contributions to its programs for years. When a friend asked Suzie to serve on its board in 2008, she said yes.
“We used to refer to the place as ‘Arlington’s best-kept secret,’ because no one talked about alcoholism back then,” she says. “We need to take away the stigma. Our son John was a good person who had a bad problem. There are a lot of other good people out there who need help, and it’s just unfair that we lose them to this. If there’s another family that can be spared what we went through, I want to do everything I can to help them.”
The decisions we make about where and how to give are often intensely personal ones. For the Bucks, Phoenix House was always a clear choice among the hundreds of local charities asking for donations. Of the 853 individuals who sought treatment for addiction from its mid-Atlantic facilities last year, 73 percent were male. Nearly half were between the ages of 26 and 49. Just like their son John.
But different causes resonate with different people, depending on their life experiences. Gene and Jeanie Cross, who live in Ballston, spend every Friday morning in the basement of the Central United Methodist Church, serving hearty meals to local residents who are hungry. They founded the soup kitchen in 2008 because they recognized a need (the program now serves upward of 100 homeless people on any given day), but also because its purpose hit home.
“I grew up in a small house with a dirt floor that my father built. These are my people,” says Jeanie, a retired Air Force officer. She’s just emerged from the sweltering kitchen, where roughly a dozen volunteers are turning out protein-dense casseroles, roasted vegetables and piles of potatoes. “A lot of us volunteers come from a background where we understand poverty,” she explains.
Greeting her “regulars” in the dining room with a mile-wide grin, Jeanie stops to chat and then sends each one off with a second bagged meal for later. The personal interaction, she says, makes the experience all the more meaningful. “If you’re going to do something, do something that shortens the distance between you and your donation,” she adds, citing a favorite quote.
Even in the affluent areas in and around Arlington, one need not travel far to find fellow citizens who are coping with hardship. In Arlington County, 10 percent of children live in poverty, according to County Health Rankings & Roadmaps, a national research project supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. And although the county counts among the nation’s most highly educated, nearly 17 percent of residents 16 and older are illiterate.
The economic downturn has also pushed many families to their financial limits. Nearly a quarter of households in Northern Virginia do not have adequate income to cover basic expenditures—housing, food, transportation—without the support of government programs, nonprofits, friends or family, according to a 2011 report from the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia.
The good news? Hundreds of citizens step forward every day to help make up the difference. In 2008, residents of Arlington, Falls Church and McLean collectively donated more than $366 million to charity, according to a recent study by The Chronicle of Philanthropy.
People living in the greater Washington, D.C., area also donated nearly 190 million hours of community service in 2010, according to research by the Corporation for National and Community Service. More than a third of area residents donate their time, giving D.C. a ranking of ninth among the nation’s most prolific metro areas for volunteerism.
Lisa Jackson-Cherry, chair of Marymount University’s department of counseling, notes that the rewards of charitable giving—and volunteering in particular—go both ways. “The benefits of giving really extend beyond [the recipients],” she says. “People who are engaged in service projects not only tend to have a higher degree of empathy and concern, but they also receive something in return: that sense of self-worth, of I’m making a difference.”
Volunteering has always been a priority for 37-year-old aerospace engineer Pat Hoar. During his high school years at T.C. Williams in Alexandria, he had many friends who came from disadvantaged backgrounds.
“I remember one of my friends had saved enough money to pay for college, but he couldn’t afford to pay for books,” says Hoar, who now lives in Falls Church. “One night we were talking about it in front of my mom, and she asked him how much his books were going to cost. She handed him a check for $300 on the spot. He became the first person in his family to graduate from college.”
The impact of his mother’s gesture inspired Hoar. In college, he worked with at-risk kids in an afterschool program through the University of Virginia’s service organization, Madison House. After graduating in 1997, he volunteered with the I Have a Dream Foundation, working with disadvantaged children in D.C.
Then, in 2004, he signed on with Big Brothers/Big Sisters Northern Virginia Council and was matched with Tavon, an 11-year-old boy in a single-parent household. For the next seven years, he and Tavon spent six hours together every other Saturday.
Today, they remain close friends. Hoar attended Tavon’s 2011 high school graduation, and Tavon, in turn, stood as a groomsman at Hoar’s wedding in March. “Tavon knows that he has a friend in me for life,” Hoar says. “He has a network with my entire family.”
Granted, volunteer work does mean sacrificing time that might otherwise be devoted to family or other priorities. But Arlington resident Kit Ballenger, a mom of two, doesn’t necessarily see that as a negative. She believes that there’s an inherent value in modeling a commitment to service for her children.
“There are nights when my kids give me a kiss at dinner and they know that I am going out to read to the other kids,” says Ballenger, a former attorney for abused and neglected children. Now a stay-at-home mom, she volunteers with The Reading Connection, a literacy program for at-risk youth.
“Sometimes my kids give me books to bring to the other kids,” she says. “I’m proud of how selfless they are.”
Ballenger’s husband, Matt (also an attorney), supports his wife’s volunteer work by coming home early on those nights and taking over child care duties.
Chris and Catherine Guttman-McCabe, both lawyers who live in the Old Glebe neighborhood, have made volunteering a family activity. It started in 2011 when the couple was looking for a way to offer some perspective to their two daughters, Anna, 12, and Abigail, 9. “[We wanted] to help them gain an appreciation for what other people go through,” Catherine explains.
Together, the family created Kids and Teens in Action, a grassroots group that creates and delivers housewarming baskets for individuals who are moving out of homelessness through Arlington’s 100 Homes campaign. New residents receive the baskets on the day they are handed the keys to their new homes.
Filled with items that the Guttman-McCabes solicit through donations, each basket contains more than $100 worth of household goods—paper products, dinnerware, bath towels, soaps, home-baked treats, pantry items and Target gift cards—along with a handwritten note of encouragement.
“You would have thought Abigail was waiting for a movie star the day we delivered our first basket,” Catherine recalls. “The girls are so excited to help and to see that these people who have been through difficult times are getting a new lease on life. It’s nice for the people who are moving in to see that they are being supported by their community, too.”
It’s Tuesday night in Virginia Square and Mike Fernandez is setting up a makeshift triage unit at a meal delivery operation run by A-SPAN (Arlington Street People’s Assistance Network), a local nonprofit that provides services to the area’s homeless. He’s there to help people who need urgent medical attention.
“We figure out whether someone needs to go to the emergency room, or if they have some kind of chronic issue [requiring] long-term treatment,” explains Fernandez, an OB/GYN at Virginia Hospital Center who mans the triage unit in his free time. “It might be something as simple as helping them get a prescription filled.”
Fernandez isn’t an ER doctor, but as a trained physician he can recognize the signs of high blood pressure, diabetes, infection and pneumonia—illnesses that are prevalent among individuals who live on the street. In warmer months, he typically sees five or six patients per week; in winter, when he moves his mobile care unit to A-SPAN’s emergency shelter, their numbers can climb to 30 per week.
“I have the sense that people who have the greatest needs are often those who are the most difficult to care for, or who are reluctant to seek assistance,” he says. “I could just write a check, but to me, the work is more valuable when it’s hard.”
Other professionals in the community have similarly discovered that their expertise is one of the most valuable gifts they can give. Courthouse resident Shari Klevens, a partner at the law firm McKenna, Long & Aldridge in Washington, D.C., uses her law degree to help people who can’t otherwise afford legal services. She logs upward of 100 hours of pro bono work each year.
Some of the cases are sobering. In 2005, Klevens represented a young family whose son had fallen out of a second-floor window at the crumbling D.C. housing project where they lived.
“They weren’t looking to collect a lot of money,” she recalls. “They were looking to put safer housing conditions in place.” (The case was resolved with both a payment to the family and an agreement to provide significant upgrades for the housing project.) Three years later, Klevens received her firm’s annual pro bono and community service award for her work with Points of Light, a national organization that promotes volunteerism.
Seasoned philanthropists often say the most difficult aspect of giving isn’t making the time or the financial commitment; it’s wading through a cacophony of solicitation letters and emails and figuring out how to target their resources in the most effective way.
Former AOL senior executive Jean Case, who founded the Case Foundation with her husband, Steve, in 1997, can attest to this challenge. “After I retired, we decided to start a family foundation, but we didn’t really know what we were getting into,” recalls Case, who lives in McLean. “It felt foreign to me. I had this idea that I had to be someone who I really wasn’t.”
The couple experimented with granting large gifts to well-established nonprofits—namely Habitat for Humanity and Special Olympics—but found that they were constantly being solicited for small donations that were impossible to keep up with. “It was like death by a thousand cuts,” she says. “We ended up saying no to everybody just to manage the process.”
The Cases ultimately decided to focus on a problem they knew something about—the nation’s digital divide—and to approach their philanthropic decisions like business decisions. Partnering with other tech companies that could help close the gap (Gateway, Hewlett-Packard, Cisco), as well as nonprofits and government agencies, the Case Foundation set out to create 1,000 afterschool technology centers in low-income neighborhoods nationwide. That goal was achieved within three years.
“We discovered that we needed to bring what is naturally in our DNA, in our experience and skill sets, to this space,” Case explains. “We also saw a clear trend. When people were willing to take risks, try new things, and were actually willing to fail, that’s when we saw breakthrough innovative strategies that moved the needle.”
While few in Arlington, Falls Church and McLean have the financial wherewithal of Jean and Steve Case, many share their entrepreneurial spirit and willingness to take risks.
Lyon Village resident Keith Oberg is one such social entrepreneur. He’s the founder of Bikes for the World, a nonprofit that collects cast-off bicycles in need of rehabilitation and ferries them to countries in Africa and Central America, where they are given a second life.
An economist and environmentalist, Oberg previously worked for the U.S. government in impoverished parts of the Caribbean. “I saw how having access to bikes enabled people to have control over their lives, their time, their ability to make money and cover more ground,” he explains. Out of that perspective, Bikes for the World was launched in 2005. Seven years later, it is the largest program of its kind in the U.S.
“The bikes can be reconditioned overseas where labor is cheaper,” Oberg explains. “In the U.S., they’re plentiful and nearly worthless, so my goal is to transfer them to where they’re valuable and can generate employment through fixing them up as well as through their use.”
This year, Bikes for the World partnered with Dick’s Sporting Goods on a nationwide trade-in program which, combined with other efforts, resulted in approximately 13,000 bikes being donated overseas.
For Sunny Disoco, the desire to give back was manifested closer to home. In 2002, when he was 28, DiSoco established the “Ideal Scholarship” fund at his undergraduate alma mater, the University of Virginia.
Since then, the need-based scholarship has provided $3,000 in tuition assistance every year to a student who demonstrates excellence in leadership, citizenship, academics and idealism.
Now an adjunct professor at American University’s Kogod School of Business in D.C., DiSoco also has served as a mentor to two scholarship recipients (each was awarded his scholarship annually through four years of undergraduate study).
“I [saw people] letting go of their dreams because they were faced with the reality of bills and student loans,” he says. “I thought if I could reach people as they were entering college, I could relieve some of that pressure.”
Sometimes giving can be a therapeutic way of coping with pain and loss. “There’s often a decrease in depression and anxiety for people who volunteer because they’re not consumed with their own sadness,” notes Jackson-Cherry of Marymount University.
This has been true for Bob Hisaoka, a McLean resident who runs several successful automobile businesses in Northern Virginia, Maryland and Kentucky. When his sister, Joan, a prominent public relations executive, lost her battle with cancer in 2008, he looked for a positive way to continue her legacy.
“Before she passed away, Joan had expressed that she wanted to invest in programs that enriched the lives of people living with cancer, like the ones that benefited her,” Hisaoka explains.
To honor his sister’s wishes, he now orchestrates an annual gala that raises roughly $1 million every year for support organizations such as the Smith Center for Healing and the Arts in D.C. and the Life with Cancer program at Inova Fairfax Hospital. Both programs offer services ranging from support groups and healing retreats to wellness classes.
“We’ve all been touched by cancer in some way,” Hisaoka says. “Our focus is on people who are living with cancer. We’re not trying to raise money for research. We’re trying to change things [for them] immediately.”
Their healing process, he says, has been healing for him, too.
Less Than a year after the loss of their son John, Suzie and Bill Buck are engaged in a similar journey as they come to terms with their grief.
In addition to setting up a memorial fund to subsidize needy clients of Phoenix House, they have pledged a considerable financial gift to the nonprofit—enough to name a basketball gym in the family’s honor—which they will continue to fund in installments over several years.
“We also ended up bringing carloads of John’s clothes down to Phoenix House for the guys who needed outfits for jobs and interviews,” Suzie says, fighting back tears. “It was sad, but it was also cathartic. It made me feel that I was doing a good thing.”
When it comes to financial giving, how can you gain the most philanthropic bang for your buck? Experts offer a few tips.
Concentrate your giving. Spreading out your donations among too many causes brings more direct mail and dilutes the impact of your giving, in that each charity ends up spending a greater percentage of your donation on processing costs. Jeff Schragg, a partner at McLean-based accounting firm Argy, Wiltse & Robinson, estimates that 20 percent of his clients include planned giving in their budget. “They [target] the specific philanthropies they want to support, then decide how much they need to give in order to make an impact,” Schragg says. “This usually works out to about 3 to 5 percent of their discretionary income.”
Make it a habit. Arlington-based personal budget consultant Sara Hjelstrom encourages all of her clients—including those who are on a tight budget or paying down debt—to adopt a culture of giving, even if their contributions are only $5 to $10 per month. “People get a boost in their well-being when they contribute to a cause they like,” she says.
Create teachable moments. If you have kids, involve them in family decisions about giving, Hjelstrom advises. And consider making charitable donations on traditional gift-giving occasions. Some families ask for donations of food, books or toys in lieu of birthday presents. Others employ a “spend, save, give” philosophy in doling out allowances. Many give charitable contributions instead of holiday gifts around Christmas and Hanukkah.
Offer panhandlers an alternative. Instead of handing out cash on the street (with no sense of how it will be used), offer food or assistance. “I always have fruit, snacks or bottles of water in my truck,” says Jan-Michael Sacharko of A-SPAN, a local nonprofit that is working to end homelessness.
Think big. Are you looking to gain traction for your own charitable idea? If so, the Arlington Community Foundation (ACF) may be able to help. Established in 1989, the foundation provides community grants and scholarships, but it also manages “donor advised funds” for individuals and civic groups who want to establish their own tax-deductible fundraising efforts. Arlington’s 100 Homes campaign to end homelessness is a good example. The effort began in 2009 when local developer and philanthropist John Shooshan made an investment of $50,000 with ACF and put the call out to private donors to match the amount. The fund has since grown to $500,000 from private-sector donations, and Arlington County has committed to match that amount for a total of $1 million dedicated to homelessness prevention. For more information, visit www.arlcf.org
A freelance writer in Arlington, Adrienne Wichard-Edds was inspired by the many local residents who shared their stories.