Saturday, April 26, 2014

Motivational Pearl: Look for ways to help others that cost you little or nothing.

I have a dear friend, Norm, who suffered a brain injury in an automobile accident fifteen years ago when a driver talking on his cell phone rear-ended Norm’s car in stop-and-go traffic. Norm, who is a very smart software consultant, has not been able to work since the accident. He now has only a limited income from disability insurance payments (see Norm’s story). Some years ago, a mutual friend and I set up a benefit fund to help Norm. We collect donations from generous people and forward them to Norm. One evening we put on a fundraising event with three well-known speakers from the software community here in Portland, Oregon. A lot of people came and it generated some nice donations for Norm. Every dollar helps when you don’t have much money.

This fundraiser led me to brainstorm how I might be able to help a friend or family in need at little cost to myself. I came up with an idea. My business website,, offers a variety of useful software items for downloading: document templates, spreadsheet tools, checklists, sample project documents, and the like. Several years ago I identified these items as being shareware, not freeware. The idea behind shareware is that if you download a software application or some other item and find it useful, you’re asked to make a nominal payment to the author. Shareware payments are voluntary but are much appreciated by the hard-working people who create useful materials. Every penny of the shareware payments I receive goes directly to the Norm Kerth Benefit Fund to help Norm defray medical costs, house payments, and other daily expenses. I’m glad that I’m able to generate some revenue for a worthy cause in a way that costs me nothing more than a few minutes a month.

Unfortunately, only a tiny fraction—less than 0.1%—of the people who downloaded items from made any shareware payment at all. For instance, in May of 2011, nearly 38,000 items were downloaded, yet I received only eleven donations totaling just $150. If even one percent of the people who downloaded items were to send in a few dollars for Norm, that would be a huge improvement. People have become accustomed to expecting everything on the Internet to be free. Eventually, I changed the approach from shareware to simply charging a few dollars for sets of downloadable items. But there are other ways to easily help people in need.

I once received a donation check in the mail for the Norm Kerth Benefit Fund with a note attached. The donor wrote, “Thank you for making these materials available. I will be using them for my software engineering class. I also had a good conversation with my teenage son about why I choose to pay for something ‘free’. I hope it sunk in!”

It was nice to hear that my shareware provided a parent with a teachable moment to share her own pearl of wisdom with her son. There are two aspects to this lesson, I think. First, even if you’re getting a product or service at no cost, remember that someone spent some time and money to provide you with that “free” item. And second, when you see an opportunity to make a small donation for a worthy cause, think about throwing a few bucks in the pot. You probably won’t miss the money at all, and those little donations can make a big difference in the lives of people who are truly needy. Small amounts do add up.

Here’s another example. A few years ago I was invited to write a chapter for a software book. The editors of the book are generously donating their royalties to provide pumps that supply clean water to villages in Africa (see Children playing on a merry-go-round supply the energy for the pump. I spent a little time writing the chapter, but it cost me nothing out of pocket. That effort just might help enhance the lives of underprivileged people, so I was happy to contribute.

Various on-line services let you generate money for charitable causes without any effort or expense on your part. As one example, an Internet search engine called donates a penny to the charitable cause of your choice each time you perform a search. I direct all of my donations to Oregon’s Clackamas County Meals on Wheels program. GoodSearch has a companion service called GoodShop. If you click through from the GoodShop page into any of dozens of on-line retailers, the merchant will donate a percentage of what you spend there to your selected charity. These programs cost me nothing. It’s just a matter of remembering to use GoodSearch and GoodShop when I do my routine Internet activities. The result is free money for some worthy charity. GoodSearch is now my standard search engine (it uses the Yahoo search engine).

Do you like to exercise your brain? If so, visit for numerous multiple-choice quizzes on English vocabulary, mathematics, symbols for chemical elements, geography, art history, foreign languages, and more. For each question you answer correctly, ten grains of rice are donated to the World Food Programme to help end hunger. More than 100 billion grains of rice have been donated through this program so far. And again, it costs you nothing but the time to play the games. You might even learn something in the process.

Can you think of any other ways to contribute to a useful cause in your community that doesn’t cost you much? Maybe you’re short on cash but have some time available. There are many volunteer opportunities to help build a playground for the neighborhood kids, work on a Habitat for Humanity project, help people who have been hit by a flood or other natural disaster, or work at your local food bank or community vegetable garden. People sometimes hold car washes or other benefits for families stricken with large medical expenses. I’m a Meals on Wheels delivery driver. It costs me about two hours of time and one gallon of gas per week to help a dozen senior citizens and people with disabilities live independently and eat a good meal every day. Anything you can do along these lines will help. It feels good to lend a hand to people who really need assistance.

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