December 15th, 2011
December 15th, 2011
I believe that a happy life is a purposeful and meaningful one, one filled with connection and service to others. Ten years ago, after being laid-off as a technology lawyer in San Francisco, I wrote a mission for my life: to help people learn and become closer to their communities. During this time, I became a Quaker. Quakers believe in leading a life of integrity, which means acting in line with the Inner Light, an internal voice within everyone that whispers Truth and a higher conscience.
Following my mission, I gave up the law, moved to the East Coast, and began volunteering at a Quaker boarding school. A year later I was hired there to teach a freshman history course called “Global Interdependence.” In the class, we talked about the ethics of today’s global issues, including population, climate change, environmental stewardship, poverty, and distribution of resources. We discussed how what we do with our money, time, and attention create the present and future we all share.
Five years ago I moved to Portland, Oregon and became the coordinator of Partners for a Sustainable Washington County Community, a coalition of eleven local governments working cooperatively on sustainability initiatives. In this job, I feel like I’m working on helping people learn and work together on environmental issues that affect us all. While teaching, I had challenged my students to question the entitlement of their overconsumption while others in the world suffered deprivation. As a sustainability coordinator, I know that a significant part of our environmental impact, for example half of our carbon footprint, come from the production of the goods and materials that we buy. Between both jobs, I had spent years advocating material thrift as an ethical principle and an ecological necessity. Beyond buying “green products”, we need to understand the difference between meeting our needs and indulging our wants.
A year ago on my November birthday, I challenged myself to meet my needs and not my wants by giving away a third of my annual income. I was inspired to take this on from following Jill Ginsberg’s blog called “Hundreds of Hundreds.” The blog chronicles Jill getting an inheritance and deciding to honor her mother by giving $100 bills to the needy she sees every day. As a teacher, I always told my students that the choices we make define our lives and living a meaningful, purposeful life meant dedicating ourselves to something worthy of our beliefs hopes and talents, to a goal that required risk, discipline, and sacrifice. A few months later, I felt I wasn’t risking enough, so I started saving half my income. My commitment then felt challengingly uncomfortable.
At first I gave money on impulse: causes I heard about on the radio or friends supported. That felt haphazard and unsatisfying. I then joined Social Venture Partners Portland a group of donors who gave both their time and money to high-leverage investments in early childhood education. As I continued giving, I realized that I wanted my money to further my mission and help people learn and feel closer to their communities. I created a “seed fund” at the Oregon Community Foundation and committed the rest of my 50% - $15,000 - to the project. This fund encourages budding philanthropists by contributing a “seed” of $5,000 to anyone willing to create a charitable fund of at least $25,000. Hence my $15,000, or three seedlings, is leveraged into at least $75,000 worth of giving, or three charitable funds. I hope that after recipients experience the joy and connection in philanthropy, some will pay that feeling forward by providing a $5,000 seed for someone else, thereby sparking more philanthropy. Who knows what a larger, more connected donor community will inspire?
Through the process, I’ve realized things. I value the act of giving and promoting giving more than any particular charitable cause. I greatly prefer anonymity but by sharing my story, I can help mobilize other potential givers. Initially, I was afraid to discuss philanthropy with friends and colleagues; I worried they would judge me, or worse, that they would feel I was judging them. But I’ve found that most people eagerly talk about giving; it speaks to higher aspirations they have for themselves and their lives. These conversations have brought me joy and closer relationships with people I care about. And by sharing my own example I got to meet one of my heroes: Jill Ginsberg. Not everyone gets to meet their heroes. My hope is that I can inspire others as Jill inspired me, and that we both become part of a larger community of generosity.
I’m new to philanthropy and I sometimes wonder if I’m being naïve. Am I foolish for not “enjoying” my money more and spending it on myself? Should I have invested it all for a secure retirement and at that point made a decision to give? Will I regret the money I gave away if I am laid off, get sick, or start a family? I don’t have answers to these uncomfortable questions. But I believe that I can make and experience a stronger, more resilient community through giving. I’m excited to see what happens.
More on Douglas Tsoi:
Douglas will be hosting the Simple Living | Simple Giving JumpStart Conversation Series on October 14th, 28th, November 11th | 12:00 pm – 1:30 pm EDT.
Douglas has started a new DIY school, Portland Underground Grad School, that offers deep-dive on academic subjects. The goal of PUGS is to unleash the intellectual and social capital of the city. There's so much knowledge in all of us and so many people eager to learn.