Pennies for Elephants

How to raise budding philanthropists.

See our entireSlate 60 special philanthropy issue.

On most Saturday mornings, I take my son Simon to Tot Shabbat at our synagogue. After the kids march around with stuffed red and blue Torah, they sing. One of my favorite songs is about tikkun olam, the Jewish concept of healing the earth. Upstanding morals, catchy tune—all good. Except that there is one verse that has bothered me. It goes like this: “So give your time/ and give your penny/ lend a hand/ to help someone.”

Give your time and lend a hand. Check. But give your penny? Was the lesson that a penny, which Simon at age 4 already knows has practically no worth, is all that you need to part with in order to fulfill your charitable responsibilities? Was the whole thing just a little too pat?

As I mulled over this without broaching my doubt with Simon (who was staging a revolt against Tot Shabbat and didn’t need any encouragement), my older son, Eli, came home from school and told us that his second-grade class was raising money to adopt an orphaned elephant. Her name was Dida. She had fallen down a well in Kenya. To which I confess my first reaction was: an orphaned elephant? What about an orphaned child? They have a lot of those in Kenya. Not to mention in Washington, D.C., a lot closer to home.

These were the roots of my confusion about introducing my kids to philanthropy. In theory, teaching kids to give is a pure good idea. In practice, I wasn’t sure how to do it well. I knew that, as with anything else, you have to simplify, pitch to the level they’re on. Pennies and elephants did this nicely, I had to admit. They are entirely safe. Eli and Simon could picture them before they went to sleep at night and dream easy. But were they too safe? Are we so loath to ripple the smooth surface of our children’s middle-class ponds, even for one minute, that we make philanthropy only about far-away elephants, as opposed to close-to-home human distress?

While I fretted, Eli got busy. He made potholders on a red plastic loom to sell at a school fair. When he ran out of the wool and cotton materials, he asked me to order more, pestered me when I forgot, and then checked the mail every day for their arrival. My parents came to visit, and he showed them Dida’s pictures via the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, “a small, flexible charity, established in 1977,” as the Web site states. When the day of the sale arrived, Eli’s potholders were surrounded by his classmates’ contributions. These included a tray of paper airplanes, hand-painted T-shirts, stenciled greeting cards, Christmas ornaments, homemade cookies, bracelets made from beads provided by the teacher, and a dozen clay candle holders in an egg carton, each resembling a mini volcano with a birthday candle stuck in the top. Some of the loot sold, and some of it didn’t, and when the dust cleared, the second grade as a whole had raised $472, enough to help Dida and other bereft elephants, with money left over for UNICEF.

It was hard to argue with this success, especially because the orphaned elephants were going over a lot better than the philanthropy project my husband I had instituted the previous winter at home (involving donating the loose change around the house to various charities). Why was Dida a bigger hit? It was definitely helpful that she had her own name and photo gallery. The main difference, though, was that Dida had institutional weight and the power of peer pressure behind her. Once the kids in the class bought into her, they spurred each other on. No prodding adults needed. This strategy is in line with the counsel of David Owen, author of The First National Bank of Dad, a book detailing how to teach kids about money. Owen argues that “when parents require their children to give away a certain amount of money every week or every month, the parents are really just craftily confiscating what they believe to be excess resources.” He thinks that young kids, especially, have a natural interest in giving, and that if they see you do it, they’ll follow along unbidden. His own daughter obligingly did so, and she still “gives away money without any prompting from me or her mother or anyone else.”

Such sweet perfection cannot be universal. Some kids must be tightfisted no matter what their parents do, just as some adults are. But Owen’s ideas helped explain the appeal of Dida, and seemed like the odds-on choice over mine. The kids’ Web site Club Penguin was on to something similar earlier this winter, when 2.5 million of its users donated virtual coins—pretend money—to charities by “playing games on Club Penguin to [support]  the environment, children’s health or children in developing countries.” I’m not sure how you play a game to make the world a greener place, but whatever. The contest hit all the hallmarks of online giving, culminating in a real Club Penguin contribution of $1 million to three organizations: the World Wildlife Fund (those cute animals again), the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, and Free the Children.

What I noticed about the two human-aiding organizations, when I check out their Web sites, is that the pictures all show healthy-looking, smiling children. No visible, scary suffering here, only a well-scrubbed developing world. But you know what? I’m done carping about that. Pennies and elephants and other baby steps can lead to larger sums and harder problems down the line. And as Owen points out, to show children grim images of suffering and then ask them to fix it isn’t fair. “You can’t lay that on them,” he says. “They don’t understand where the wrong comes from, and they’re powerless to change it.”

The greater challenge, perhaps, is to fulfill the other directive of the tikkun olam song—the gift of time, the lending of a physical hand. This, of course, takes extra time and a free hand, both of which are often in short supply in families with young kids. We usually take the easy way out of just not dealing. But last Thanksgiving, a poverty-fighting organization I’m involved with in Washington, Bread for the City, put out a call for volunteers to pack holiday dinners for families who needed a turkey and trimmings. Some of the work involved sorting through donations of canned goods. This my kids could do, and one afternoon was a commitment we could manage.

So, one day after school, we took the Metro to a part of town they don’t usually go to, walked along a street that’s rougher than ours, and spent a couple of hours sorting canned corn from canned cranberries. The people who lined up for the dinners weren’t like those in the nicely lit pictures, nor were they the homeless people rolled up in blankets the kids see on the street. Eli and Simon had crossed the Great American Class Divide, if only for an afternoon. I don’t think they imagined themselves as budding philanthropists. But they did tell everyone who would listen about all the cans they piled.