Dear Liz,
Hi! So, I’m in a fun little pickle?
I grew up poor. Unstable housing, charity Christmases, food pantry grocery shopping, the whole nine yards. I managed to get into college and cover it with student loans, but I graduated into the Great Recession and never found a real adult job that paid adult money until I hit my thirties. All of sudden, I’m doing better than anyone in my family has ever done. But I don’t know the first thing about handling money. One of the downsides of growing up without any is nobody teaches you that. We lived hand to mouth, so there was no such thing as savings, or a nest-egg, or anything that required a disposable income.
But now, here I am at thirty-five and sitting on more money than I know what to do with. I’m not wealthy, but I’m secure. I make more than enough. I bought a house. Bought a car. And now that my needs are covered, really covered for the first time in my life, I want to give something back. But I don’t know what to do. Where do I start? How do I know the money is going where it needs to go? And how do I get past the existential terror of giving at all, after spending my whole life going without and living on the edge of financial ruin?
Gimme a hand, Liz!
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Hi, Kendra!
First off, I’m so happy for you. Especially after the last year, hearing that you're financially stable is a welcome change. I can’t imagine the stress and fear you must have felt growing up; poverty can dramatically harm a child’s academic performance, emotional well-being, and lifetime earnings. Escaping from that must have been hard-fought, and your achievement deserves recognition and respect.
It also greatly gladdens this heart of mine to know that, now that you’ve taken care of yourself, you’re pursuing the larger question of making the world better. I’ve always believed that one of the greatest, most important obligations facing all of us who have more than enough is to make sure we’re using our surplus for the common good rather than just letting it accrue interest or turning it around in the stock market, both of which have their uses but neither of which ought to be our primary aim. I also absolutely sympathize with your position; money is a tool, one that has to be learned, yet financial literacy is often a luxury people can’t afford. The old canard about how expensive it is to be poor so often comes down to the bitter necessity of short-term planning.
But that’s not a position you’re in anymore, which you rightly recognize. While I can’t do much to help you with the “existential terror of giving,” you mentioned, I can at least point you in the right direction for how to get started, even if just a little bit. 
First off, take a look at your finances—your income versus your expenses on a month-by-month basis—and figure out what exactly your margin for giving is. I understand that, as is often the case for people who have come out of poverty, even the act of looking at your money can be panic-inducing, so if you need, find someone to help you with this part. Whatever your budget surplus, that’s your margin for giving. Start small; find some amount you can give without even thinking about it, rather than one that might prove emotionally difficult, and add it as an off-the-top expense, right alongside your electric bill and your Netflix subscription. Setting that up as a recurring donation removes the barrier of actually making the donation. Over time, as you grow more comfortable, you can raise that amount. But don’t stress too much; chronic poverty can be traumatic, and overcoming that to the point where you are able to give what you can afford will take time. 
The second bit is a little more byzantine. How do you know where to give? 
There is no easy answer here; there are thousands upon thousands of charities out there, and not all of them are really out there doing good work rather than using their money for much beyond paying inflated salaries. So I would recommend starting small, and this is critical, starting local. 
A few years back, after stepping away from the company I co-founded, I made the decision to start a philanthropic fund, the Elizabeth Elting Foundation. I knew what I wanted to see in the world—more women working good jobs that secure their financial futures, a broader social safety net, and women’s full access to healthcare—but I lacked the expertise and expertise to begin a new program. Luckily, there are countless charities right here in New York City doing work to make this place, my city, a better place to live. I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel. Instead, I could directly support grassroots organizations who were already deep into the work, who intimately understood the issues, and who knew exactly where attention, and funds, were needed most. 
By focusing on on-the-ground organizations as well as well-known and trusted charities like the American Heart Association (which I had already worked with for years and which in turn supports community-level organizers), I was able to make sure my money went to laser-focused aims. Local charities and grassroots organizations working within their own communities offer the advantage of being accessible, direct, and—with far less organizational overhead to manage—more efficient. They also have a deeper understanding of the issues they're tackling and the communities they're working within. 
Ultimately, you have to do your research; there will always be crooks and con artists trying to bilk people out of their money. But by starting small, you can much more easily and credibly gauge their real-life impact—and small donations will go so much further. 
In the pandemic economy where much of the COVID safety net has already begun unraveling, food and housing security remain top priorities. Look up local food pantries, rental support funds, and other groups providing direct relief. It’s going to take work. But as Teddy Roosevelt once said, the greatest pleasure in life is to do good work worth doing. 


Liz Elting