TIME public health

Now Blood Donors Can Get a Text When They Save Lives

blood donation
Getty Images

What we can learn from a revolutionary way Sweden is getting people to blood banks

The usual visit to a blood donation center goes something like this: you enter a sterile room, ease into a seat or lie down and have your blood drawn. Besides a handful of free cookies, you leave with nothing more than the noble sense of being a good citizen, and your part of the transaction is complete.

In Sweden, however, a simple text message is moving blood donation from an activity of the generous to a social media worthy event. Launched three years ago to combat paltry donation rates, the hospital using the pioneering text campaign, Sahlgrenska University Hospital in Gothenburg, Sweden, sends a text to a donor acknowledging their contribution. When the blood has been dispensed to someone in need, the clinic sends a follow-up text.

The system has seen a resurgence in attention thanks to a viral tweet from Swedish designer Robert Lenne:

The text program also includes a “nag me until I become a blood donor” option, reports Ragan’s Health Care Communication News. Choose it, and you’ll receive texts like “We won’t give up until you bleed” to (not so subtly) encourage you to donate.

It’s an attempt by Swedish blood banks—which are struggling with low blood donations—to connect with younger blood donors, reports The Independent.

In a post on behavioral economist Richard Thaler’s just-launched blog “Misbehaving,” Allison Daminger and Jamie Kimmel note the role of “nudges” in getting people to do otherwise mundane or uncomfortable tasks, like giving blood. The idea is simple, they write: offer potential donors proof that their contribution is going to a good use. The problem with blood donation, along with other acts of charity, is that if a donor doesn’t know the recipient of a gift, it’s harder to convince them that donating is beneficial, they write.

It’s not yet clear whether or not the campaign boosts donation rates, say Daminger and Kimmel. “There simply haven’t been many evaluations of similar programs,” they write.

What it does do well, however, is to tap into the ultimate millennial form of flattery, they say—personal connection with a social media twist.

The U.S., too, offers some options to track blood donations. In 2014, they launched a Blood Donor App was to track the journey of the donation, according to Kara Lusk Dudley, public affairs manager in biomedical communications at the American Red Cross. The organization also emails donors when their donation is shipped.

But a text with a witty vampiric nudge? Not quite yet.

TIME universities

A Billionaire Hedge Fund Manager Made Harvard’s Biggest Donation Ever

Harvard Interest Rate Swaps
Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images Harvard University pennants sit on sale at the Harvard Cooperative Society in Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S., on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2009.

It topped the $350 million record

Billionaire hedge fund manager John Paulson donated $400 million to Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, the New York Times reports. Harvard’s engineering school, which is expanding across the river from Cambridge, Mass., will be renamed the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

The gesture marks the largest gift in the university’s 379-year history, surpassing last-year’s record-setting donation by Hong Kong-born investor Gerald Chan, who gave $350 million to the School of Public Health.

Paulson graduated from Harvard Business School in 1980 and went on to found Paulson & Company in 1994. Since then, the company has grown from managing $2 million with one employee to managing more than $19 billion with 125 workers worldwide.

Paulson’s gift is part of a $6.5 billion fundraising campaign the university launched in September 2013. The donation is part of a string of high-sum donations in recent years to schools with already large endowments, highlighting the growing divergence between the have and have-not universities. Moody’s Investors Service followed 208 private universities over 10 years to track giving patterns. The study found that schools with more than $1 billion in cash and investments claimed 67% of total donations in 2013, up from 62% in 2003, while universities with less than $100 million in cash brought in less than 3% of total donations.

Schools with smaller endowments rely more heavily on tuition revenue to keep things running, whereas colleges with large cash reserves can weather bad years and still keep tuition low.

MONEY charitable giving

How Average Americans Can Give to Charity Like Billionaires

hand giving stack of cash
Paul Reid—iStock

Gifts from donor-advised funds, which act like foundations for ordinary folks, are growing faster than gifts from billionaires—and addressing critical issues like the Ebola crisis.

Forty-four donors gave gifts of $50 million or more to charity last year. The top 10 alone totaled $3.3 billion. But if you really want to know how America gives, look at the explosive growth of donor-advised funds, which have become a kind of personal foundation for Everyman.

Last year Fidelity Charitable, the largest donor-advised fund manager with $14.6 billion in assets, granted $2.6 billion to 92,000 charities. That was a record dollar amount, up 24% from last year and represents a nearly four-fold increase in 10 years. Meanwhile, the total of the 10 biggest gifts was down slightly last year and remains 20% below pre-recession levels, according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

In all, about 1,000 charities offer donor-advised funds and gift about $10 billion a year, according to National Philanthropic Trust. These charities have nearly $54 billion in assets. At Fidelity Charitable, individual gifts last year were as little as $50 and the average gift was $4,100, pointing up the Everyman aspect of these funds. Still, 277 gifts of a $1 million or more came from Fidelity Charitable as well.

Donor-advised funds allow individuals to set aside money on their schedule and realize the tax benefits immediately. The money cannot be taken back but the donor can choose when and where to disburse the funds. This is similar to the way large foundations work for the super wealthy. For example, last year’s largest charitable gift was a $1 billion bequest from Detroit businessman Ralph Wilson, who died in March—he left the money to his foundation, and his heirs will direct the donations.

At Fidelity Charitable, individuals can open a donor-advised account with as little as $5,000. About 60% of the accounts have balances below $25,000. Since the money cannot be taken back, it typically does not sit in the account indefinitely: 20% of assets are gifted each year and 90% are distributed as a grant within a decade, Fidelity says.

Other fund groups offer donor-advised options, including Schwab, which has a $5,000 minimum investment, and Vanguard, which requires $25,000 or more to get started. Many community foundations have set up donor-advised funds to meet local needs; to find a foundation near you, check out this locator.

Typically, individuals use donor-advised funds as part of planned annual giving. But because the funds are already set aside, donors also tend to respond to sudden needs. Fidelity Charitable distributed $5.5 million through more than 1,000 individual grants for Ebola relief last year. Almost all of that came in the fourth quarter—the height of the crisis. Wealthy donors get all the attention. But you don’t need a foundation to act like one.

Read next: How to Get the Most Bang for Your Charitable Giving Buck

MONEY First-Time Dad

Why You Should Spend $0 on Baby’s First Christmas

141223_FF_TEPPERBLOG

...And why my wife and I will ignore this advice.

The act of parenting often requires accepting the absurd.

For instance, my son Luke hates lying on his back. He squirms and rotates and flops around like a fish on dry land whenever he’s forced into prostration. All of which puts me in the ridiculous position of begging/bribing my child to remain still while I clean his rear-end.

Mrs. Tepper and I have found ourselves willing to sacrifice anything to make our guy happy. Sometimes that sacrifice is our integrity: To mollify instances of restlessness or crankiness when we’re out, for example, we find ourselves surprisingly okay with giving him whatever he wants (including—gasp!—our smartphones) so long as the show of good faith shuts him up.

Sometimes the sacrifice is also financial—like ordering no less than three outfits and one homeopathic amber bead anklet from Amazon in hopes of improving his sleep. For the record, nothing will make you feel sillier faster than lassoing your child’s leg with a homeopathic anklet.

The end of December presents my wife and I with another seemingly absurd proposition: Should we buy our 10-and-a-half-month old son a Christmas present?

I Say: Call Off Santa

When you reflect on the question, you soon realize that your answer reveals quite a bit about your sense of value and, perhaps, your morality. This is a deep philosophical, maybe ontological, quandary that new parents who give presents on Christmas cannot avoid.

Knowing that parenting dilemmas are often most easily solved by asking those more veteran than ourselves, I tapped blogger Elissha Park, founder of the blog The Broke Mom’s Guide to Everything, for her thoughts.

“I didn’t get anything for my son his first Christmas,” she told me. “We had tons of stuff for him from the grandparents, and we were as usual, financially strapped.”

She added that she wouldn’t recommend we get Luke anything major.

Music to my ears! We too are financially strapped, and meanwhile our son has grandparents who have already told us they plan to buy shelves and shelves worth of new clothes and toys for the little guy.

Parks made another point that rang true. Her son wouldn’t have known who the presents were from anyway, and he certainly “had no idea about Santa.”

He’d probably enjoy simply opening the boxes more anyway.

Also, it occurred to me that any funds we save from not buying presents could go toward paying our nanny’s Christmas bonus—or even, gasp, to us having a rare date night. Happy parents equal a happy kid, and it wasn’t like ours would be deprived with the grandparents were already in spoiling mode.

My Wife Says: Cue the Elves!

Going giftless sounds great to me, except the part where I’d have to convince my wife.

Mrs. Tepper derives great joy from buying Luke things—whether that’s a toggled sweater vest she knows he can’t yet say no to or a big loud plastic red firetruck.

It doesn’t matter to her that Luke won’t know who these are from. She’ll know.

And to be fair to Mrs. Tepper, there’s ample research to support the belief that spending money improves the spenders happiness, even more so than if that same person spent the money on him or herself.

Take this one experiment by Harvard researchers from 2008: They went up to random people in the morning in public places and gave them either $5 or $20 and told them they could either spend the money on themselves or on others by day’s end. The researchers took the participants’ baseline happiness levels, and then in the evening registered the change in happiness for each of the four groups.

Their findings reinforced the spirit of Christmas: Those asked to spend their windfall on others were happier at the end of the day than those who bought for themselves.

And I do so like when Mrs. Tepper is happy…

We Say: Open the Flue Partway

So, what does this mean for Luke?

I think my wife and I will strike something of a happy medium.

To satisfy Mrs. Tepper’s gift-giving instinct, we’ve decided to start saving up for him to get a Kindle Fire Kids Edition ($149).

Still, even I would be really forlorn if Luke didn’t have anything to open from us on Christmas. We’re a family now, and families give each other gifts.

But I’m thinking the boxes we’ll give him will be filled with…tissue paper. The crinkling noise when he pulls it out of the box will give Luke undeniable pleasure.

And isn’t that what Christmas is all about?

Taylor Tepper is a reporter at Money. His column on being a new dad, a millennial, and (pretty) broke appears weekly. More First-Time Dad:

MONEY Holidays

Who Do You Tip Around the Holidays?

The mailman, the haircutter, and the doorman: Who do you tip? What do you give? MONEY's George Mannes asks people in New York about their annual tipping tradition.

MONEY Holidays

The Secret to Cheap Gifts People Will Actually Cherish

Forget gift cards or store-bought knickknacks that will just get regifted. The best presents come with something money can't buy.

If you want to really wow someone over the holidays with a token of your affection, chances are it’ll take more than a trip to the mall (or Amazon.com): A survey shows nearly three-quarters of Americans will be unhappy with their gifts this year.

Distinguish yourself from ordinary gift-givers by using your skills to make a present that packs an emotional punch. Artistic? One MONEY staffer’s illustrator boyfriend once gave her a hand-drawn picture book in which she was the main character. Good on Google? Another staffer did some Internet sleuthing and tracked down her father’s long-lost war buddy and was able to give her dad a letter from the friend as a gift.

If these ideas sound too intimidating or time-consuming, there are shortcuts to memorable gifts. Consider ordering a wall calendar from a site like collage.com with your funniest family photos, organized by season. Or a shirt with an inside joke for your closest group of friends from customink.com.

If you’re short on inspiration, your best resource is the vast digital footprint we all leave behind these days (for better or worse): Comb through old texts, emails, and chats for clues as to what your intended gift recipient might really love. And—for even more creative ideas—check out the video above.

MONEY Holidays

The Ultimate Guide to Holiday Tipping

Want to give a holiday tip, but don't have a clue how much to give? Here are some helpful guidelines from the etiquette experts.

‘Tis the season to be jolly, but instead I often find myself stressed when I realize I have no clue how much to tip my hairdresser. Or my housekeeper. Or my garbage collectors. If you’re like me, you have a list of people you want to thank for helping to make your life easier throughout the year. If you’re also like me, you have no clue about what gratuity levels are considered typical, stingy, or even generous.

That’s why this year I reached out to a couple of highly regarded experts to get the inside scoop. Diane Gottsman, national etiquette expert and the owner of The Protocol School of Texas says, “The first rule of thought is to gift and tip within your budget. No one wants to see you struggle to tip through the holidays if you have just lost your job, or you are having trouble paying the rent.”

“Tips are subjective,” adds Jodi RR Smith of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting in Marblehead, Mass. “Tips are dependent on your relationship with the individual and the norms for your area, as well as your budget.”

With that in mind, here are some helpful guidelines from the experts to help you (and me!) navigate gratuity gifts as the year comes to an end.

Home Services

These are the people who help out around the house, so you have more time to earn money to hire people to help out around the house!

  • Babysitter: Cash or gift card equivalent to one or two night’s pay. I talked to someone who used to sit for my kids and she told me, “It’s nice to know you’re appreciated. A small gift is a nice token of appreciation and helps keep a sitter loyal to a family.”
  • Nanny/Au Pair: The equivalent of one week’s salary and a handmade gift from your child. “A live-in nanny or a nanny that spends most of the day with your children is invaluable,” says Gottsman.
  • Housekeeper: A cash gift equal to one week’s pay. “If you use a service, and you don’t see the same person on a regular basis, or the person is brand new,” says Gottsman, “you may not feel obliged give a tip at all. If you have a relationship with the person(s), or they come weekly, consider a gift card per person or a tip equivalent to one visit.”
  • Pet Sitter: One day to one week’s worth of service. “Our pets are our family and someone that takes care of them while we are on a trip, or walks the dog on a regular basis is worth their weight in gold,” says Gottsman.

Apartment Living

You’ll want to keep happy all those folks who make apartment living nice.

  • Doorman: Between $20 and $200. (This range seems huge to me. I’ve never lived in an apartment with a doorman so I’d love to hear those of you who do ring in on this one.)
  • Custodian/Superintendent/Handyman: $20 – $100. “If they have saved you in the middle of the night when your toilet was overflowing or jumped your car more than once when you forgot to turn off your headlights,” says Gottsman, a holiday tip would be helpful.”
  • Parking Attendant: $10 – $50
  • Landlord or Building Manager: $50 (cash or gift card)

Homeowners

While homeowners don’t typically have doormen to tip, they do have a host of service providers to gift.

  • Garbage Collector: Between $10 and $25 per crew person. In many areas, tips left taped to the trashcan lids can be stolen (I’ve had several friends tell me this happened to them.) If you miss your crew during the day, Gottsman suggests arranging to drop the gift off at their corporate office.
  • Lawncare: $10 per crew person.
  • Snow Removal: $10 per person.
  • Pool Cleaner: One week’s pay.

Work

These gifts are more personal than those traded during the office Secret Santa.

  • Your Boss: $0 or a group office gift. “It’s not necessary to give your boss a large or expensive gift,” says Gottsman. “Consider an office gift pool or bring a tray or holiday goodies for the office.”
  • Your Office Assistant: A bonus, gift card, or small gift.

School

Show teachers and staff you appreciate all their efforts to educate Junior (even if Junior doesn’t).

  • Your Child’s Teacher: Many schools encourage parents to contribute to a class gift. If your child’s school doesn’t, consider a small gift with a note and/or a handmade gift from your child. A teacher friend of mine told me, “I always love and save handwritten notes. If they come with a gift or gift card — to anywhere at all — that is appreciated, too. But, it’s the notes that keep me going.”
  • Classroom Aide: If there is not a group classroom gift, a small gift with a note and/or a handmade gift from your child.
  • School Lunch Attendant: $20 per attendant, if you have a child with special dietary needs, and school policy allows such gifts (check with your child’s school office to be sure). Says Gottsman, “A lunch attendant who is vigilant when it comes to your child’s food allergy is worth their weight in gold.”
  • School Secretary: A small gift or gift certificate.

Personal Care

The people who keep you and your family looking good should know you appreciate their work, too.

  • Hairstylist: The cost of one session or a gift. “Hair stylists become our confidants,” says Gottsman. “It would be uncomfortable to arrive empty handed the last week of the holiday season.”
  • Shampoo Attendant: A small gift or $5 – $20.
  • Manicurist: The equivalent of one visit or a gift.
  • Massage Therapist: The equivalent of one session or a gift.
  • Personal Trainer: The equivalent of one session or a gift. According to Gottsman, “Personal trainers often double as counselors. A tip of one service or a gift that has personal significance would say happy holidays.”
  • Pet Groomer: The equivalent of one service or a basket of treats from your pet.
  • Personal Healthcare Nurse: The equivalent of one week’s pay.

Gift Wrap Your Gifts, Too

When preparing your holiday gratuities, Smith says, “Tips should be crisp, new bills placed in an envelope with a card or note of appreciation.” For the financially strapped, Smith suggests a heartfelt note of thanks along with a thoughtful and inexpensive gift like homemade cookies. Gottsman agrees and offers further suggestions like a pot of fresh herbs from your garden or a basket of scones with homemade jelly.

When to Skip the Tip

Gottsman also suggests adjusting your tips according to level of relationship and frequency of service. “Everyone has different lifestyle preferences and providers,” says Gottsman. “One person may use a hairstylist once a week while another person may visit the salon every three months. If you don’t see them regularly and they can’t remember your name, you may opt to skip the tip.”

If the relationship is solid, though, Smith says that skipping the tip is akin to telling your service providers they’re not valued or to imply they’ve done something wrong. If a gratuity is not in your budget for this year, consider the alternative suggestions above. However, “when your finances are fluid again,” Smith suggests, “please do tip them.”

Related:
Who Can You Get Away With NOT Tipping Over the Holidays?

Read more articles from Wise Bread:

How to Wrap Gifts with Leftovers
Regifting: A Simple How-To Guide
25 Great Gifts for $5 or Less

MONEY Taxes

9 Rules for Tax-Smart Charitable Giving

donating money to box
Jeffrey Coolidge—Getty Images

When you support a good cause, make sure you also get the tax benefits you deserve.

Year-end is peak charitable giving season. To make sure your generosity pays off on next April’s tax return, know the rules for writing off your donations.

You have to itemize deductions. Sorry, but if you take the standard deduction, you can’t write off your gifts to charity on top of that.

You need to give to a legit charity. To check if a nonprofit is a qualified charity in the eyes of the Internal Revenue Service, use the IRS’s Select Check tool. You can also deduct donations to your church, synagogue, mosque, or temple.

You can donate right down to the wire. For a gift to qualify for a deduction, you simply need to get your check in the mail by December 31. Need more time? You can put your gift on a credit card before year-end and then pay the bill in January. (Keep in mind, though, that when you pay by credit card, processing fees may reduce the value of your gift.)

You should save your backup. Make sure you have a receipt for your gift. A cancelled check or credit card statement may be enough. But if you make a donation worth $250 or more, you must get a written acknowledgment from the charity.

Your time can be worth money. As a volunteer, you can’t deduct the value of your time. But you can deduct 14¢ for every mile you drive as part of your volunteer work, so keep track.

You shouldn’t take credit for giving away actual junk. If you donate clothes or household items, you’ll be able to deduct the fair market value—as long as the items are in good condition or better. Keep any paperwork you have for valuable items, and take photos of your donations for your records. It’s up to you, not the charity, to assign a value to your stuff. To do that, you can use thrift store guides published by the Salvation Army, Goodwill, and others, or the ItsDeductible app.

You can’t inflate the value of your old car. When you donate your old wheels to charity, your deduction is generally limited to what the nonprofit brings in by selling your car, not the Kelley Blue Book value. Plus, when you donate a car or other property worth more than $500, you’ll need to file IRS Form 8283.

You can get two tax breaks if you donate winning investments. Another way to save on taxes is to give highly appreciated stocks, bonds, or mutual funds directly to a charity. You won’t owe any taxes on your capital gains. And you can deduct the full market value of the investment as a charitable gift.

You can contribute a big sum now and give it away later. If you open what’s called a donor-advised fund, you can deduct the entire gift on your 2014 tax return and parcel out the money to good causes later. With as little as $5,000, you can open a donor-advised fund at firms such as Fidelity or Schwab.

More tax tips from MONEY 101:
When does it makes sense to itemize?
What kind of expenses can I write off if I’m self-employed?
How can I reduce my tax bill?

MONEY Charity

How to Make the Biggest Impact With Your Breast Cancer Donations

Breast cancer ribbon made out of $100 bill on pink background
Jesus Jauregui—Getty Images/iStockphoto

If you want to give in support of Breast Cancer Awareness month, don't get "pinkwashed." Instead, consider donating to one of these five worthy organizations.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, in case you hadn’t noticed.

But how could you not? This time of year, pink ribbons and other paraphernalia—from clogs to buckets of chicken to NFL jerseys—are more ubiquitous than pumpkins.

While buying those pink products may seem like an easy way to support the 2.9 million people living with breast cancer in the U.S., you should think twice before purchasing.

Not everything with a pink ribbon is supporting research for a cure, says Gayle Sulik, author of Pink Ribbon Blues: How Breast Cancer Culture Undermines Women’s Health. Some of these products give no proceeds to cancer charities, but simply “raise awareness.”

Other times, Sulik adds, sales of the products don’t have any impact on a company’s giving as the firm has already set a cap on its donation amount.

Even worse than buying a pink product that gives nothing back is buying a product from a company that “pinkwashes,” or promotes pink ribbon products while also selling or producing products that contain ingredients known to increase the risk of breast cancer.

All in all, “it doesn’t make much sense to buy pink ribbon products,” says Samantha King, author of Pink Ribbons, Inc: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy. “By doing so, you’re simply subsidizing corporate marketing campaigns. If you want to give, give directly to the breast cancer organization.”

Plus, by giving directly you get to report the tax-deductible charity contribution, rather than letting a corporation have your write-off, notes Sulik.

Of course, with all the different charities vying for your generosity, it can be overwhelming trying to figure out where exactly you should donate.

To make that task easier, MONEY—with the help of Sulik, King and Charity Navigator—identified five breast cancer charities where you can feel confident that your dollars will be put to good use funding prevention research, education, and patient support.

These organizations have high levels of accountability, have successfully sustained their programs over time, and spend a high percentage of their revenue on programs and services rather than administrative or fundraising costs.

If you want to support prevention research:

Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation

Millions of dollars from the government, universities, and nonprofits are spent investigating breast cancer each year, but the majority of those funds are going to support research aimed at treating the disease.

This Santa Monica, Calif.-based nonprofit invests only in research that focuses on understanding the causes of breast cancer. In particular, the organization studies the breast duct, where breast cancer begins, to understand what conditions support or block the development of the disease.

The research foundation spends a high 83% of its revenue on program expenses and received Charity Navigator’s top rating for its standards of accountability and transparency for donors.

California Breast Cancer Research Program

Run out of the University of California, this program is the largest state-funded breast cancer research effort in the nation. While it accepts donations, it also has a stable revenue stream from California’s tobacco tax.

An extremely high 95% of its revenue goes directly to funding research and education. California Breast Cancer Research Program also devotes 50% of its research fund to work that focuses on the environmental causes, risk factors, protective measures, and the impact of income inequality. Both Sulik and King recommended this charity because of the program’s quality of research and prevention focus.

If you want to help young breast cancer patients:

Young Survival Coalition

Founded in 1998 by three women who were all diagnosed with breast cancer before their 35th birthdays, this organization’s mission is to serve the roughly 13,000 women under 40 who are diagnosed with breast cancer each year. (Sulik says this was a neglected population within the breast cancer community for a long time.)

YSC helps these young women by providing support and health information to see them from diagnosis to long-term survivorship. The nonprofit tackles issues specific to this population, like early menopause, effects on fertility, more aggressive cancers and lower survival rates. It also advocates for increased studies on young women with breast cancer.

If you want to support breast cancer education:

National Breast Cancer Coalition Fund

The National Breast Cancer Coalition’s sister organization works to help guide breast cancer patients through the maze of medical information available to them so that they can make informed decisions. Its Project LEAD program, which Sulik called “excellent,” offers courses to prepare people to be active leaders in all forums where breast cancer research decisions are made.

According to Charity Navigator, which has awarded the Fund three stars, the organization spends more than 80% of its revenue on these education program expenses and has extremely high levels of accountability.

If you want to help breast cancer patients avoid debt:

The Pink Fund Inc.

“This is a growing organization designed to meet a practical need,” says Sulik. It provides short-term financial aid to breast cancer patients who have lost all or part of their income during active treatment. The Pink Fund also helps cover patients’ health insurance costs, mortgage payments, utility bills, car insurance and other basic living expenses.

Because the organization was founded in 2007 and has less than $1 million in revenue, it isn’t rated on Charity Navigator. But on our request, analysts from the site vetted The Pink Fund’s finances. And Sandra Miniutti, vice president of Charity Navigator, says that adding a smaller, less-tested charity to your overall giving portfolio can make sense if you believe in the kind of work it is doing.

MONEY Charity

Brother, Should You Spare a Dime? How to Handle a Panhandler

panhandler holding up sign
Laura Eisenberg—Getty Images

A video of a panhandler driving off in a new car has been viewed by millions -- and raises questions about how best to help those in need.

It’s a story right out of a Ronald Reagan campaign speech: Oklahoma City resident Brandi Newman saw an elderly woman asking for money to buy food and generously handed over some cash — only to spot the same woman a few minutes later behind the wheel of what appeared to be a brand new, candy-apple-red Fiat.

Newman says she felt scammed, and she wasn’t the only one. A viral video subsequently recorded by Newman — in which another angry benefactor berates the 78-year-old widow for taking his donations under false pretenses — has been viewed more than 3 million times on Facebook and YouTube.

“You’re asking for money in the middle of the street, and you’re driving a 2013 car?” screams Daniel Ayala. “Listen, I work hard for my money, I don’t appreciate this sh*t!”

Why was this man so angry over what is, after all, just a few dollars? And why has this video seemingly touched a nerve?

For many of us, of course, it’s impossible not to feel compassion for the legions of homeless and hungry who ask us for spare change. And yet, in the back of our minds, this compassion comes packaged with a gnawing suspicion: Is that person really needy? Is my money being wasted? Am I being scammed?

The crooked beggar is a deep and long-standing societal fear: a squanderer of limited resources; a cynical manipulator of our noble instincts; the embodiment of what economists call “moral hazard.” And this bogeyman has at least some basis in reality. Reagan’s famous story during the 1976 presidential primaries about the Cadillac-driving “welfare queen” has been dismissed as an exaggeration, but as Slate‘s Josh Levin has explained, she was actually quite real. More recently, a 45-year-old self-described “lazy” man named Warren Speegle (also, as it happens, in Oklahoma City) reportedly told arresting police that he was able to make $60,000 a year panhandling and consequently saw no reason to try to get a regular job.

On the other hand, at least one recent study of San Francisco’s homeless suggests that these notorious cases are aberrations. The majority of the city’s panhandlers, it found, gather less than $25 a day and 94% use the money they receive for food. (The research also confirmed some less favorable assumptions. For example, 44% used donations on drugs and alcohol.)

Newman’s video, in short, seems to crystallize the moral complexities we face each time we are confronted by someone asking for money on the street.

It also forces us to ask a number of uncomfortable questions: Are we right to care about how our charity is spent? Is our skepticism justified? And, most importantly, how do we get help to the people who need it most? So we decided to put them to some experts.

The community organizer: “Not all homeless people are scammers.”

Michael Stoops, director of community organizing at the National Coalition for the Homeless, urges people not to assume every panhandler they encounter is a scam artist. When told about the incident in Oklahoma City, he points out that every group has a few bad apples. “If you send me $5, unless you told me you wanted to buy a meal for someone, I could buy a box of jumbo paper clips [instead]” says Stoops. “Sometimes it’s okay to give to the middle man, but not all homeless people are scammers and not all scammers are homeless. There are also scammers in Congress and in the business world.”

Stoops acknowledges that we have reason to be concerned about how our cash is spent once it leaves our hands. But he argues that people who ask for money on the street deserve the same trust we would afford to anyone else. “Do you really have the right to follow someone to the liquor store?” he asks. “The answer is no.” And just because a panhandler has a car, or even a comfortable place to live, doesn’t mean they don’t need help. (Leslie Lenkowsky, a professor of Philanthropy at Indiana University, even told MONEY about one program that provides cars to low-income women to help them travel to work.) “If you could make a lot of money panhandling, I might be out there on the street myself,” Stoops adds dryly.

The civil rights lawyer: “People may present a false image of their plight.”

Mark Weinberg, a Chicago civil rights lawyer who has spent more than a decade defending the rights of panhandlers, understands where our suspicions come from. “It’s an exploitation of people’s empathy,” says Weinberg of the video. “I think that actually goes on in the world of panhandling. People may present a false image of their plight.”

“I don’t think any of these people are rich,” he continues, but his experience can make him skeptical. “I’ve seen all different situations of the past 12 years, and one of the confusing things is it’s hard to tell who’s in that situation of desperation where you truly do want to help, and who’s using the money to pay for their cable TV.”

The fundraiser: “There’s only so much we can do for someone as an individual.”

James Winans works to provide for the needy on a daily basis as the head of development at New York’s Bowery Mission. He says he would never try dissuade anyone from giving money directly to someone on the street. “We all have to do what we think is right,” Winans says.

“But what I do say to people is, first, there’s only so much we can do for someone as an individual; and second, there’s only so much we can know about another person’s situation.” For those worried about their money being misused, the Bowery Mission offers business card-sized printouts on its website listing the organization’s location and range of services. The cards can be given instead of cash, or with money wrapped inside. Says Winsan: “It’s great to connect that person with a community that can help them.”

7.3.5_ResourceCards_2
The Bowery Mission offers resource cards to be given with, or in place of money.

The homeless advocate: “Giving money to people on the street is not going to solve the problem.”

Steve Berg, vice president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, agrees that giving to an individual isn’t a bad thing, but also won’t really fix anything. “It might make life a little easier,” he said in a phone interview, “but it’s not going to solve their homelessness and it’s not going to solve the whole community’s problem with homelessness.”

Instead, Berg urges concerned citizens to support anti-homelessness policies that have been proven to work. Thanks to a $300 million federal program to solve both short- and long-term homelessness among veterans, the number of former service members on the street has decreased from 76,000 in 2010 to fewer than 50,000 in January of 2013—a drop of over 35%. The Obama administration has proposed another $300 million to end chronic homelessness by 2016, and Berg is optimistic that another bipartisan coalition will approve those funds as well. In addition to supporting more federal efforts, he suggests peoples ask their mayor’s office which local organizations need assistance.

For those who want to help a specific person they meet on the street, but want to avoid being misled, all four experts interviewed suggested a simple method: Ask the person what they need and why. “To find out what someone needs takes time and that’s a higher level of sacrifice,” Winans says. “But I think it’s actually more effective. If people are willing to put themselves out there to panhandle, they’re usually willing to tell you about why they’re doing it.”

We also reached out to Charity Navigator for help finding some of the best organizations that work to fight poverty and homelessness. Some charities to consider (in addition to all those mentioned in this article) are The Robin Hood Foundation (which operates in New York City), Feeding America, Habitat for Humanity, LIFT, and the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.

Correction: This article previous stated Leslie Lenkowsky was a professor at the University of Illinois. He is actually a professor at Indiana University.

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