Giving Back without Greenbacks: 9 Ideas from an Impact Investor w/o Portfolio

In this budget-constrained season, I’m finding “giving back” more of a challenge than usual – especially since I’m not running a portfolio at present and can’t fall back on “I gave at the office”. In addition to forgoing big compensation for the privilege of working in (for profit!!) social investment, I’ve long had a small, but well thought-out charitable giving program to support worthy causes that I believe in, but in which I have no direct impact. This year I gave much less than usual, so I enter the holiday season feeling the need to do more.

My 13 month all-out campaign to launch One Planet Investments and its first two products (a social spectrum fund and a value-added “fund of impact funds” type product) has made 2011 financially constrained for me personally. Scaling everything back to finance the enterprise included a dramatic drop in what was already a very modest philanthropic effort. I very much regret this, as I know that the non-profit sector is feeling the effects of prolonged global financial crises and falling public and private funding sources. With the OPI launch scrubbed, I found myself wondering how I could have an impact this holiday season, when I had no cash in hand.

When I’m actively investing, I know I create value like mad ( in terms of dollars and industry award-winning portfolio companies). When I’m focused on advising and industry thought leadership, as I am at present, it can be harder to assess how much value I’m creating. Influence is trickier to measure than capital gains! Still, if money isn’t everything, then by putting on my creative thinking cap, I expected to find ways to make a difference, using primarily “in-house” resources. I was surprised to find how many small things I could do that would make the holidays warmer for others. Here are some of the ideas I came up with – and I challenge each of you to find ways you can “pay it forward” as well:

1. Good old fashioned volunteer work: The Community section of my local paper highlights volunteer opportunities of all kinds. This year, I signed up to wrap gifts at Barnes & Nobles on behalf of Hospice Caring. I’m raising donations for a good cause and improving my gift wrapping skills, so win-win! Regardless of how much or how little time you can offer, somewhere in your local community there is a need you can fill.

2. Skip the hostess gifts of flowers and chocolate – instead, feed the hungry. I know, my Mom told me not to arrive emptyhanded at a party, and yours probably did too. You can make a small contribution to in honor of your hostess. Every dollar you donate buys 8 meals for hungry Americans through local foodbanks. FeedAmerica will send a snail mail or email card informing the recipient of the donation made in their honor. Your holiday hosts will feel better (and weigh less) than if you were to show up with yet another box of chocolates to share at dessert time.

3. Give hope & innovation instead of “things”: Companies like Global Giving & Kickstarter allow you to make donations in honor of your friends or relatives. You can fund social entrepreneurship in Brazil (look for Sitawi on Global Giving), climate change ventures (funding period closed on Sebastian Copeland’s Antarctic Crossing, but check out his progress at, arts and cultural projects – whatever your friends value, you can make a difference on their behalf. $10 buys a lot more hope than “stuff”.

4. Use business travel to support local homeless shelters: Over the course of the year, I collect airline amenities kits, as well as the soaps, shampoos and sewing kits on offer in the hotels I stay at. I pack each kit to include toothbrush & toothpaste, soap, shampoo, conditioner, moisturizer, a pen and whatever else I turn up (sewing kits, combs, socks, earplugs) and drop them at a nearby shelter where they are much appreciated. Sure, they’d prefer full-size bottles of health & hygiene products (and I’d prefer to be able to give them those things), but sample sizes work too.

5. Bring food to a local foodbank: In lieu of giving cash, I raid my pantry and pull cans and boxes of any item that I have more than one of or that I’ve purchased within the past six months and not put to use. I can usually put together a box of healthy and appealing dried goods without too much effort – and every freebie offered by my grocery store (spend $30, get a free box of stuffing) adds to the package. This is a great opportunity to use coupons, “buy one get one” offers and social media discounts to give more to others without blowing through your own budget. Giftcard offers from CVS and others can help non-profits (A Wider Circle, Hospice, others) to help families going through tough times.

6. Donate your suits to help those looking for work: Dress for Success helps women trying to help themselves by providing suits for interviews and work. You’d be surprised how much of a difference having appropriate clothing can make to self-esteem and first impressions in a job interview. Check your closets – chances are you have a couple of suits that are too big, too small or just don’t fit your current lifestyle. Some Dress for Success chapters partner with local cleaners who will clean your old suits for free and hand them to DfS ready to go.

7. Give warm clothing to your local Interfaith Community Center or Goodwill: We all have sweaters that we never wear, fleece shirts and jackets and other warm clothing items tucked away in our closets. Pull anything you haven’t worn in the past 12 months – surplus to you can make the difference between too cold and comfortable for someone in your community.

8. Recycle those old cellphones: I don’t understand quite how cellphones multiply on their own, but they do. Stop procrastinating about recycling for dollars and donate your cellphones to the troops, or to a local non-profit with a holiday recycling program.

9. Make it yourself: Whether you write a poem, bake cookies, make gift bags with beans & herbs for soup or do something artsy-craftsy to recycle or repurpose things, don’t underestimate the sentimental value of something created with love and purpose. We all like to receive gifts, but for most of us, knowing we are loved and valued is as important as the gift itself. Just because you can’t buy bling or gadgets, doesn’t mean you can’t show how much you care!

What are you doing this holiday season to make a difference? Please share your ideas here! Oh, and one last thought. I recently read an article that noted how sleep deprived many of us are trying to pursue professional success, personal balance and get ready for the holidays. The author noted that instead of pushing harder to “be better people”, it’s worth considering when a little bit more rest and relaxation would leave us refreshed and more productive as a result. Take time this holiday season to recharge your personal batteries. There will still be plenty of good work that needs doing in 2012!

Happy Holidays to all,


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