Our Donations and Most Meaningful Causes
Learn about what we value and some of the people who inspire us
When I graduated and started my career, I remember being adrift when it came to donating money or time to charitable causes. It was supposed to feel good giving money to charity – but exactly how good should it feel? Where should the ideas on where to give come from? How accountable should I feel for ensuring the investment achieved concrete outcomes? And then there was a vaguely off-putting feeling as to why the way society works is that I get to choose where the resources go.
If you feel something similar, that’s perfectly natural. Just like learning a trade or growing your career, it takes time, experience, and a network to develop a philosophy and intuition. Here are a few big things my family has learned about our charity as we intuit our way through this:
🤗 Ideas come from personal connections. Our donations say a lot about who we care about, as often it’s just as much about supporting a friend or colleague as the cause itself. It takes time to go through enough life to build a network and deal together with crisis and anguish, but we’ve found if you are curious and open and care about your community, it’ll happen naturally as time goes on. As you’ll see, for some charities we have our own first-degree relationship with them. But some of the most meaningful causes are from folks 1 or 2 degrees away in our network - it’s OK to Kevin Bacon your giving.
🧠 + 💖 We use charity to define what we value. Giving reflects what we value in this world. It’s a cerebral and emotional exercise that helps us make simple statements about the world as we wish it to be. We’ve found it helpful to separate assessment of impact (will this gift make a difference? Is it enough?) from just the simple desired-world state (does this cause reflect the change I wish to see?). Like the famous parable of the beach full of starfish, change starts with clarity of conviction.
📢 We talk about why we give. I used to find it hard to talk about donations, as there is a bit of taboo when it comes to talking about things related to money. But it doesn’t matter if you donate $5 or $5 million, 5 hours or 500. Because our giving is a statement of what we value, when we talk about it, we do so with passion – why should we hide that? Hearing about people’s own giving stories over the years is how we’ve forged some deep connections. Talking about this stikes up interesting and meaningful conversation.
The month of October is GIVE month at my company, a time to encourage everyone to use their matching gift benefits and share stories about giving with one another. In that spirit, here are a few causes that we give to and the Why and Who behind them.
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Our Biggest Causes
I can’t think of a better way to get to know our family than to learn about the causes we’ve supported over the past couple of years. The framework used here to describe this might be a useful model for your own thoughts on giving:
Define the area of giving
Pick a tentpole charity for the area based upon both personal connection and what it says about the world you want
You’ll probably end up with a few other charities along the same theme and that’s OK.
🩺 Health: Immunomomentum
What is it: Immunomomentum funds immunotherapy research at Seattle Children’s Hospital as an alternative to chemotherapy to treat childhood cancers. Chemotherapy in children can be effective against cancer but it leaves lasting negative outcomes and shortens lifespans when used on young children.
What it says about the world we want: Technology can still have an extremely positive role to play in our society and a world without childhood cancer is a world worth fighting for. There is something uniquely inspiring about championing the needs of the most vulnerable youth and families.
Why it’s personal: As I write this post, our oldest daughter is on a playdate with one of her best friends, who is an eight-year-old cancer survivor. She’s healthy and has been in remission for four years now (yay!) but the lasting impact of chemotherapy on her body will take a toll as she ages. Her mother is the founder and sponsor of Immunomomentum and it is supporting tireless warriors like her that have given us a deeper meaning in our giving.
Learn more: https:///www.immunomomentum.com
Other charities in this category: Alzheimer’s, MS and Diabetes have touched the lives of some of the people we are closest to. Swedish Hospitals are where both our children were born. Make a Wish is one of the coolest ideas for a charity ever known and even more so now that we know people who personally have been recipients of the charity.
🎓 Economic Opportunity: UCLA
What is it: A large public university that is the engine of economic opportunity for tens of thousands of people every year.
What it says about the world we want: Public universities are one of the biggest crown jewels of the United States and their unique role in at-scale impact of economic opportunity is unparalleled. Their function as an epicenter of culture, research, and learning only happens with continued investment and support. We applaud other forms of economic equality and social justice, but the impact of public universities is one of the best ways of making progress now.
Why it’s personal: UCLA was foundational for us. Not only is it where Helen and I met each other and some of our closest friends, but it is also where we both came of age and developed our worldviews. It was a step-function experience for both of us. Our giving is focused on scholarships and particular programs that we benefited from when we were students, like the Engineering Student Projects fund. This is the most “Pay it Forward” aspect of our giving.
Learn more: Give to UCLA
Other charities in this category: Kirkland Preschool, Lake Washington School District Foundation/Local public school PTAs, and Foster School of Business all have had an impact on our families. We are byproducts of strong public education.
⛰Conservation: Chelan County Land Trust
What is it: This land trust champions conservation and community forests in Eastern Washington – helping protect rivers for salmon restoration or forests for hiking and recreational use.
What it says about the world we want: As Global Warming becomes one of the defining issues of our time and more people live in the state of Washington, our forests and natural spaces will need people to stand up for them. Local and contextual action will be key.
Why it’s personal: This land trust was involved in purchasing a piece of forest near one of our favorite State Parks (Lake Wenatchee). The forest was about to be clear cut and then sold. The land trust was able to put together a local and national coalition to purchase it at a fair market value from the logging company. While we’ve donated to more global conservation groups in the past, we’ve found a lot more meaning by going local.
Other charities in the category: Washington Trails Association has done more to create accessibility to nature in this state than any other organization. The Arboretum Foundation stewards the park where we went on hundreds of walks when our kids were infants, creating a deep connection to the park.
📰 Free Press: KUOW
What is it: Our local public radio
What it says about the world we want: Living in a society with the free flow of high-quality news and information is a privilege. Most people in the world today do not enjoy this privilege and it’s worth fighting and protecting. Recent events have made this all the more important.
Why it’s personal: KUOW was one of our first charities that had such a clear cause and effect to the giving. We experienced the collective benefit of giving every morning and afternoon on our commute. KUOW makes us smarter and so it’s a gift of gratitude most of all.
Learn more: KUOW
Other charities in the category: I talked about my entire reading habits and approach to quality journalism in My Information Diet.
🎭 Culture: Bellevue Arts Museum
What is it: This art museum supports local artists as well as important educational programs to inspire arts and culture in young kids.
What it says about the world we want: Every generation needs to set the tone between art and science. As we both get older, we’ve appreciated art as a balancing force to some of today’s biggest technological ills and an aspect of our lives that engenders introspection.
Why it’s personal: We are personal friends with a few members of the BAM board and their yearly gala is a social event for us. We are more connected to friends who do hard work here than we are with the cause itself.
Other charities in this category: Helen was involved with the board of the Seattle Rep Theater back in business school. My dad has always been interested in the performing arts and he and my mom are connected to local San Diego theater giving. Some have close associations with the 5th Avenue Theater in Seattle. We’ve done less here since our kids were born and are looking for ways to stay involved despite less frequent date nights.
⚖ Justice: Seattle Holocaust Center for Humanity
What is it: A local organization dedicated to fighting hate in all forms and focused on educating students, teachers, and the public about the dangers of intolerance through the lens of history.
What it says about the world we want: “The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.” – MLK Jr. encapsulates the side of history we wish to be on. Progress is key to the industry we’ve chosen but it’s equally important we make progress on social justice, tolerance, and civil society in equal step with new tech.
Why it’s personal: A work colleague of mine was taking a civic leave of absence to work with this organization and a few others. I thought it was so cool to see someone in my network lean in deeply to causes, interrupting his busy life in a meaningful way.
Learn more: Holocaust Center for Humanity
Other charities in this category: This year, we’ve prioritized Asian Americans Advancing Justice and the ACLU. We also discovered the Obama Foundation and its focus on providing support for young changemakers in America.
🆘 Safety Net: Mary’s Place
What is it: Mary’s Place provides shelters and services to help women, children, and families on their journey out of homelessness.
What it says about the world we want: Homelessness is both a local and national issue and solutions require a mix of public and private partnership. It is not enough to just say that our tax dollars will solve this problem. This is less about changing the world and more about every generation finding the humanity to invest in the safety net.
Why it’s personal: Mary’s Place has long been a favorite charity in many Microsoft Giving campaign events during October and it was via those events that Helen and I were both exposed to the organization.
Learn more: Mary's Place
Other charities in this category: Hopelink and The Sophia Way are two other similar medium-sized charities in this space. The United Way – King County has long been a strong regional partner on this problem. We are leery often of the high overhead costs of the larger mega-charities, but this is one of our exceptions given the need for big picture leadership and regional solutions.
🚨 Crisis Response: OXFAM India
What is it: OXFAM India works with marginalized communities in India to provide at-scale aid relief. Our network identified OXFAM as the organization that could take US donations and was most prepared to drive immediate impact when the Delta variant hit India this past Spring.
What it says about the world we want: Every year there are terrible events and often they impact the most marginalized parts of society more. Global warming will make that more frequent and COVID this year inspired an increased need for action. The charities in this category vary the most from year to year.
Why it’s personal: We work with teams around the globe and in the Spring of 2021, the Delta variant COVID situation in India was having a heartbreaking impact on people we worked with every day. It made the COVID crisis more real for us than many other events, including some that were geographically closer. It really drove home just how much of a global community we are part of.
Other charities in this category: Rural emergency services play an especially critical role in a large part of the United States, outside major cities. Lake Wenatchee Fire & Rescue is one that we support given our connection to the area.
👩 Women Empowerment: Society of Women Engineers
What is it: SWE is a famous organization, especially on college campuses, for giving a voice to women engineers and a conduit for leadership opportunity.
What it says about the world we want: Continued progress on workplace equality for women will be one of the top defining legacies that our time in history leaves upon the world. Not only is it a critical form of equality, but the empowered perspectives of women are sorely needed to navigate tech’s impact on the world.
Why we give: I remember vividly a conversation with my mom about how she wished that more opportunities than nursing and teaching were available to her when she started her career. It wasn’t fair then and even with major progress, it still isn’t. For SWE in particular, I have an awesome member of my team who has long been a leader in the SWE organization.
Learn more: Society of Women Engineers (swe.org)
Other charities in this category: Girls Who Code is building a pipeline of future female engineers. We discovered a great project called Vital Voices this year that champions the unique impact and role that women leaders can have on global problems.
One More Potential Path to Epic: A DAF
For those later in their career who are looking for a more lasting and bigger way of having an impact, we wanted to share one thing that we did as a family last year: we established the Harmetz Family’s Donor Advised Fund (DAF).
DAF’s can be used for many reasons but our DAF’s purpose is to put money away every year with the goal of being able to make a single, large donation to a charity upon our retirement. We don’t know the organization or cause we wish to support yet, but we were intrigued by the notion of being able to have a singularly large impact vs. ongoing yearly support.
DAF’s can be set up with most financial advisors. Think of it as an investment account where proceeds can only be used for charitable causes. While there is a management fee on the money, there are several advantages to a DAF:
You can transfer unsold stock into them to avoid paying capital gains on profits.
You get to deduct the funds when you put them into the account, not when you spend. So you can add funds during high tax rate years or otherwise arbitrage over the years. There is a nominal minimum distribution that must be done every so often, but essentially the money can accumulate.
Profits from investments in the account grow tax-free, although can only be used to donate.
For those with matching gift programs via their work, you get matched by your company upon withdrawal/donation, not when you put the money into the DAF.
I hope you got to know us a little better as you learn about what we value and some of the awesome people we’ve met in this world. The point here is to inspire – feel free to leverage this framework for your own plan even if you support different causes or worldviews.
This framework can be used no matter how much you have or want to give and we aren’t nearly so formal as this write-up implies (indeed, the act of writing this post was 10x more organization and synthesis to our giving than we’ve had before). Just get started.