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Kickstarter, Kiva, and Online Dana (Giving)

September 26, 2012

UWest students give food to monks at Metta Forest Monastery near Escondido, CA, in a 2010 visit. Photo by BudaWest.

Dana, or giving, is a common part of our Buddhist lives.  It has always been the role of the laity to support the Buddhist institutions through dana.  Laypeople supply food, robes, materials, property, and funds to support both monastic clergy and newer non-ordained Dharma teachers so that they may focus on the study, preservation, cultivation, and teaching of the Dharma.  However, dana has more than a utilitarian benefit.

The Buddha often treated giving as the most rudimentary virtue of the spiritual life, for giving serves o break down the egocentric frame of mind on the basis of which we habitually interact with others. – Bhikkhu Bodhi, In the Buddha’s Words, p. 152

Giving, therefore, has several aspects.  First, as mentioned, laity are encouraged to give regularly to support and preserve the teachings of the Buddha.  Second, all Buddhists are driven by loving-kindness and compassion to care for the poor and disadvantaged.  This has prompted the foundation of many Buddhist charities organized and run by Buddhist institutions in recent years, such as Buddhist Global Relief, Tzu Chi Foundation, and Buddha’s Light International Association. These are three of the largest Buddhist charitable organizations.  They focus on health, poverty, disaster relief, education, and community service primarily in Asia, but also in the United States.  (My local health clinic is run by Tzu Chi and my university is supported by BLIA.)  Third and finally, there is the effect that giving has on us.  As a habit, giving helps us loosen our grip on what is “me” and “mine,” gently shedding our ego.  Moreover, it can be very rewarding and bring immediate “feel-good” benefits.

Rather than lecture everyone on the merits of generosity, either to self or others, I’d like to focus on two giving mechanisms that I personally use and appreciate: Kickstarter and Kiva.  I give my time and effort to my school, volunteering where I can, but I give my money to Kickstarter and Kiva.  Why?  Because they’re easy, reliable, and support causes I appreciate.  So what are they?

Kickstarter is an online funding platform to support independent artists, creators, and small businesses do innovative work that can’t access regular venture capital or business loans either because they’re too small, unproven, or just not “profitable” enough.  If you go to Kickstarter right now you can help fund an art gallery that teaches people about chemistry, a television show pilot called “Literary Death Match”,  Kerfuffles handmade, all-natural marshmallows, or Captain Feline T-Shirts. These projects create products and “backers,” or people who give money, get rewards – like a ticket to the gallery opening, a DVD of the final show, a batch of yummy marshmallows, or an awesome tee-shirt with a cat hero print.

Kickstarter claims to have raised $367 million dollars from 2.8 million individual backers to support over 30,000 successful projects.  One recently funded project is a dissertation about “Nechung: The God of a Tibetan Monastery.”  I have personally chosen to support a documentary film about Buddhism in America: Seeking Heartwood.  One of the great things about Kickstarter is that the project creators have a platform to really talk about their work and keep backers updated on their project.  They aim for funding goals and only receive money if enough people pledge to reach their goal.  If too few people pledge, no one is charged anything and the project is not funded.  So everyone who gives only ends of giving to projects which are fully funded and thus have a good chance of success.  I hope you’ll take a minute to check out Seeking Heartwoord and consider giving a buck or two, or three, or three-hundred, to support this ambitious one-man film.

The other online charity I support is Kiva, a micro-lending platform that supports small business people primarily in industrializing nations.  I support Kiva for two reasons: 1) it’s a proven way to effectively help people lift themselves out of poverty (Republicans should love that) and 2) I get my money back.  The second point is important to me because I don’t actually have a lot to give.  When I make a loan of $25 to support higher education for girls in Peru, I can count on being repaid in six months or less.

This isn’t an investment and there’s no interest.  My $25 is added to $4,925 from other funders to reach the amount needed to meet the person or group’s goals, in this case, university tuition.  So far, I’ve made ten loans of $25 each, but I’ve only actually given $100.  That’s because when a loan is repaid I can choose to withdraw those funds or lend them to someone else.  Sometimes I haven’t been doing so well myself and I’ve had to use that money for groceries, but sometimes I can re-lend it and help someone else.  This makes Kiva a great option for a college student like me.  I can use the same money to help multiple people – including a livestock herder in Armenia, shop owner in Mongolia, and  farmers in Vietnam. The non-profit organizations that manage these funds don’t make any money off of the loans either, not like big commercial banks, and micro-lending is a proven method of helping.  They post regular updates from borrowers.

If you’re still skeptical, check out this balanced article from How Stuff Works to hear about both good and bad micro-lending.  But even if micro-lending weren’t all that effective, at least it doesn’t do much harm to the lenders.  Kiva has a tiny 2.7% default rate, better than my former mortgage company!

Consider giving to your local Buddhist temple or center if you haven’t already.  If you don’t have a lot of money, you can always give time and energy to help out with events or maintenance.  If you’re like me, busy and poor, consider Kickstarter and Kiva.  They’re great platforms to hook you up with worthwhile projects and businesses.  I’ve gotten a lot of “good vibes” from these two websites.  Happy giving!

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