The Pan-handler Fund

A brief holiday post on how I budget for donating to charity at the end of the year. Hopefully it can help you do the same!

You're driving toward an intersection. Standing on the median is a sun-parched man holding a sign. "Please help, homeless veteran! Anything will do." You hope the light doesn't turn so you don't have to stare awkwardly at each other, but inevitably it does and you pull to a stop next to him.

"Is he really in need?" You ask yourself, remembering the story about pan-handlers that make more than you do in a day. "I don't carry cash with me, anyway." You rationalize, knowing full well there's a crumpled dollar bill in your pocket. "He'd probably just spend it on cigarettes and booze."

Maybe your thought process is different, but most of us have built up some sort of a logical justification for why we don't give money to pan-handlers. It's difficult to reach for compassion, especially when you're on your way to some errand or stuck in traffic on the way home from work.

You're right, actually. Giving to pan-handlers is an ineffective way to help people. But every time you're exposed to one is a reminder that you ought to be helping out. I use this as a heuristic throughout the year:

When you're asked for money by anyone, put a dollar into your charity fund.

You can afford it—it doesn't happen that often. Make it part of your daily routine when you get home. Keep a jar by the door and drop a coin into it to keep track. At the end of the year, count the coins and donate $1 for each. Or, if you're very bad at budgeting, use physical dollar bills to keep track.

I typically donate this pool of money to local soup kitchens or secular charities involved directly in the care of homeless people. (I've personally upped it to $5 per pan-handler, since I don't get asked much, but do whatever's comfortable!)

It takes me a surprising amount of time to find charities that are efficient with their money and meet my criteria. This year, I split my donation between two charities: Second Harvest Food Bank and HomeFirst, a local homeless shelter and outreach program in Santa Clara.

We can't make the holidays happy for everyone, but at least we can make it a little warmer and a little less cold for those who need it most.