The race to the top


This is a tough time for many, especially those who have lost their jobs or are in danger of losing them. But it is also a tough time for those who help others. Local charities and nonprofits have taken a big hit during this difficult financial period. With that in mind, I decided to encourage my grandchildren to take their first step, however modest, into philanthropy. Instead of holiday presents this year , I suggested I write them a check, not to spend on themselves, but to give to any charity or nonprofit of their choice. To be honest, this has been met with mixed reactions.

The local set of three seemed very excited at the possibilities. They were trying to decide between a fund to help wildlife or the arts (not exactly what I had in mind, but it is their choice). On the other coast, my two granddaughters had different reactions. It seems the youngest had already asked her guests at last year’s 8-year-old birthday party to donate to the World Wildlife Fund in lieu of a gift. Donors receive a small stuffed animal in return. Her sister was not so sure she liked the idea at all. It didn’t sound right for a grandmother not to give a present for the holidays. What about using part of it for a small gift for herself, and contributing the rest, she suggested . Why not, as long she gets hooked on giving, even in a very small way.


When I was about 6 years old, my grandfather sent me a check for $15 to buy lollipops. My mother didn’t approve of giving money to children, especially to buy a lifetime supply of candy on a stick. She suggested I send the money to the local newspaper’s Neediest Cases Fund. I wrote a note with the enclosed check, recounting that my grandfather had given me this amount to buy lollipops and I really did not need lollipops but maybe this would help some hungry children who needed food. To my surprise, the newspaper featured my youthful generosity and my note with a big headline which said: "Six Year Old Gives Out of Lollipop Fund.” For a young child, this was pretty heady and much better than any gift.


There are so many ways to give now. Many online sites make it easy and specific. There’s a site where you can give to a school, a classroom and teacher of your choice — Or you can tell your friends about your favorite cause on Facebook and encourage them to give, too. Burlingame has a community wish list site, organized by Councilwoman Terry Nagel,, which encourages donations to local nonprofits. According to the New York Times, Water is a very successful nonprofit in its use of social media. "In the last two years, the small organization ... has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars ... by giving supporters Web pages to run fund-raising drives on their birthdays, and via ‘Twestivals,’ real parties organized on Twitter and held across the world.” Small donors can also make a difference. A man in Tucson asked his neighbors to put a can of food on their doorsteps every Sunday. He collected and delivered the cans to the local food bank. He did 10 houses the first week, another 10 the next. About 140 households in the neighborhood now participate. In a short time, they contributed more than 6,500 pounds of food and $1,262 in cash.

San Mateo High School students have been doing the Tucson experiment on their own every Thanksgiving, raising thousands of dollars in donations and pounds of food for Samaritan House and Second Harvest. So many local nonprofits need help. In addition to those listed above, the Boys and Girl Club and HIP Housing, not to mention your neighborhood school, also welcome your assistance. You don’t need to go online for ideas on where and how to give.


Bill Somerville, the founder of the Peninsula Community Foundation (which has since merged into the Silicon Valley Community Foundation) continues to do extraordinary things at his Philanthropic Ventures Foundation. He believes in giving without requiring nonprofits to go through the laborious process of grant writing (many smaller groups do not have grant writers). He has a very small staff and almost no administrative costs. His latest project shows how effective he can be in targeting need and addressing it (Instead of sending billions to Afghanistan’s corrupt government, the United States should send a group of Bill Somervilles to distribute small amounts where they could do the most good). Bill recently found a Santa Clara County Juvenile Justice Court judge who wanted to help the youth who came before her. The foundation set aside $10,000 to meet some of their needs, including dental work, glasses, a bicycle and money to start a savings account. Because the money could not be given directly to the judge, Somerville worked out an arrangement with other court officials to identify immediate needs which can help stabilize the youth. A similar program is now available throughout the Bay Area. For more information, contact


Fortunately, most Americans don’t follow Ayn Rand’s credo that self interest rather than altruism is man’s ethical ideal. Now is the time to give. Make sure you include a local nonprofit on your holiday shopping list.

Sue Lempert is the former mayor of San Mateo. Her column runs every Monday. She can be reached at

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