In 1989 the Berlin Wall fell, and soon after pretty much all of the Warsaw Pact decided that they were going to be capitalist and democratic. It seemed like a miracle.
I felt there were bound to be some growing pains involved in the transition, and it was very much in the self-interest of the US for their experiment with freedom to be a successful one. To that end, I felt that we should send massive aid to the countries of the former Warsaw Pact.
The US government was giving $1-2 billion a year, which I felt was just a drop in the bucket, totally insufficient. In 1995 I had personally had a lucrative year and decided to donate some money of my own to that end.
So I decided to donate over 5% of my job income, several thousand dollars.
I had the money, I felt giving it would be easy, just a matter of finding the nearest appropriate do-gooder and giving them the dough. I found a local Russian Orthodox church in my yellow pages and called them up, asking if they knew of any organizations giving aid to Russia. They said they’d call around. They got back to me with contact information for a Russian Orthodox organization in San Francisco, 45 miles from where I lived.
I wrote out the check and mailed it to them.
They invited me to their annual banquet. They were interested in finding out who this person was, with a non-Russian name, willing to give so much to their cause. When they met me, they were really surprised that I, not having a drop of Russian blood in my veins, and being an atheist to boot, would give so much.
I learned that this organization was involved in 2 activities:
- Sending care packages consisting of foodstuffs to poor people in Moscow.
- Providing aid to recently arrived Russian immigrants in San Francisco.
Neither of these things were really achieving what I had in mind. I suppose it’s good to help the poor, but I really wanted to help industries get going, help the Russian economy overall, which would be good for everybody in the country, including the poor. And I didn’t want my money spent on people who had left Russia, I wanted to help the people who were still there.
Another thing is, I am not Russian Orthodox. I am an atheist. And the organization was clearly mixing a religious pitch in with their charity. The poor people who received the care packages were sending letters talking about how they were “thanking God” for the help, something that was certainly not on my agenda.
And then there was the newsletter I was sent, which had an offhand remark about how, “unsurprisingly”, most of the donations came from religious people.
At the banquet, a woman sitting next to me told me I was lucky to have found their church. There was another Russian Orthodox church across town that was trying to reinstate the Russian monarchy.
Later, I managed to look up where the $1-2 billion the US government was giving was targeted. It was going to key industries, exactly the sort of recipients I had in mind.
Getting rid of money is easy. But if you really want to make a difference in the world, it is necessary to do careful research first.