Giving is hard.
Specifically, figuring out how to give is hard. How much is one good deed worth? And if someone hands you $500 and tells you to do something good within the next week, what do you do?
Thanks to organizer Justin Rudd and his nonprofit Community Action Team, I had the chance to do just that last month through the Long Beach Giving Project. Rudd gave $500 to 13 teams — a total of $6,500— and told us to spend it on others. Rules included not purchasing anything for ourselves and providing receipts with every transaction. Easy enough, I thought.
I recruited my friend and coworker Jesse Lopez as well as friends Angela and Jeff Scott to help me spend that money, and we were all eager to get started. Unfortunately, the next day I became very ill, and then Angela got sick — and soon after, Jesse was down for the count with a cold. We weren't off to a great start.
But we were all feeling better by the end of the week and organized to meet downtown Friday morning at 6 a.m. Jesse picked up four dozen donuts and we purchased TAP cards loaded with $5 each. Altogether, we spent about $100 between donuts and bus passes.
For the next give, Jeff, an avid sneaker collector, suggested that we help families with their purchases at Nike. We spent $250 on $50 gift cards and left them with the attendants at the register. As we were leaving, we heard one attendant tell a father and his children that someone left a $50 gift card for them.
"There's something to be said about paying for someone's purchase, but leaving before you can take credit for it," Jeff said.
Next, Angela suggested that we walk over to the Aquarium of the Pacific and purchase a few tickets for families. Adult tickets are just short of $30 each, so we purchased four of them, and then the aquarium gave us four more (guests can purchase buy one, get one free adult tickets or receive a free child's ticket with the purchase of an adult ticket by printing out coupons at aquariumofpacific.org/visit/chooseyourdiscount).
At this point, we had about $30 left, which was returned to the nonprofit.
"It doesn't feel like we did enough," Jesse said. "We really put ourselves out there on Friday and I think we fell short by buying the gift cards and tickets."
And he had a point.
During the Giving Project dinner on Sunday, it was clear how much giving actually occurred throughout the week. Stories included paying a neighbor's parking ticket and purchasing meals for those in need — each give was much more robust than ours, I thought.
The recipients of the extra $500 went to a group of teachers from Franklin Middle School. For their give, they said that they asked their students to write a short paragraph on what they would do if they had $100 to spend on anything.
Through that exercise, the group found that some of the parents needed financial help, they said. Their gives included buying groceries, new clothes and school supplies. And we just purchased a stack of Nike gift cards, I thought.
You might be wondering where I'm going with this. The point of the Giving Project is to do nice things for people, and that's exactly what every group did.
The $50 saved on shoes at the Nike Outlet or $30 saved at the Aquarium could have helped a family pay for groceries or college books or pay for a utility bill. They may not have needed the money, but maybe they did. If it helped one person, then that makes it worth it, right? We weren't the judge or jury of who needed the gift card the most.
But Jesse had a point. It is significantly easier to give money away by donating it to a nonprofit, or purchasing a gift card and then passing it off to someone else than it is to make a real connection with someone who could use some help.
However, giving doesn't take just one shape.
My friend Ileana said it best that Saturday. We were at the grocery store, and while waiting at the register, she offered to pay for the groceries of the gentleman in front of us, a total of less than $20.
"Sometimes God puts it on my heart to do things like this, so I listen," she said. "You should too."
Stephanie Stutzman can be reached at email@example.com.