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’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.

Categories: Community