I wanted to support the Red Cross during Harvey… (but I can’t, so I need alternatives…)

File this under “blogs I didn’t expect to, or want to write tonight”.

With hurricane Harvey causing incredible damage and distress to Texas, many of us are looking for ways to help. I’d love to be down there in a boat rescuing animals or humans, bringing free bottled water (as opposed to the horrible alternative), or other forms of support. For those not able to make that commitment, we fall back to supporting charities that are on the ground helping. Tonight started out simple enough:

08-29-2017 21:43:38 Lyger: have you donated anything to any hurricane relief fund?
08-29-2017 21:44:09 jericho: not yet
08-29-2017 21:44:17 jericho: if i do, likely Red Cross
08-29-2017 21:44:38 jericho: may do ASPCA, looks like they are doing relief efforts specifically for animals
08-29-2017 21:44:50 Lyger: was wondering about both of those
08-29-2017 21:45:03 jericho: RC is kind of ‘old faithful’ in that regard
08-29-2017 21:45:03 Lyger: let me know if you do. if reasonable, i’ll match

First, know that I am not only one who donates to charity who is careful where we donate, but I have learned the hard way that not all charities are created equal. I’ve also pointed out how so many of them waste considerable money trying to solicit more donations. I’ve advocated for everyone who will listen to tap into Amazon’s excellent program for giving to charity via your own purchases. I’ve also considered this at a slightly more abstract levels, on smaller amounts, because I really believe that people in a position to help should do so. Please, before you come down on me for warning someone away from charity or Red Cross specifically, I have been very clear it is about supporting charities doing the work you support. In this case, I just wanted to find which charities are specifically helping hurricane Harvey victims, and how.

I started by showing Lyger what Red Cross looks like under Charity Navigator, which is a 501c3 that I support too. With 90% going to program expenses, that is excellent, despite a 3/4 star rating (the CN star rating is more nuanced).

However, things went downhill after that. Start by Googling for “red cross harvey” and you get somewhat expected results:

Follow the links and you get the Red Cross donation page for Harvey:

Unfortunately, this is basically “give us money” with no supporting evidence for what they are doing during Harvey specifically. On the side bar we get a video though! Ignoring the culturally insensitive message suggesting that Hispanic kids have to read a book to figure out who their mother is, we see a building with cots and displaced families, but not a single Red Cross volunteer (the person speaking is almost certainly not a volunteer, as is the person filming them). The blankets and shots are strategic showing a good mix of people, Red Cross branded blankets, and… not much else. The man they briefly interview, I personally don’t think he fully understands if the person that saved him or his family were affiliated with the Red Cross, just that he is grateful that his family was rescued.

At the end of the video, the nice lady encourages you to visit their web site (see screenshot above, that is all the info I could find), or call 1-800-RED-CROSS (800-733-2717). Ignoring the web site issue, and I didn’t pay attention to the number, I called the first number I found on their site: 1-800-HELP NOW (1-800-435-7669). Since I called the ‘Help Now’ number, it wasn’t the intended line to find out more information on how Red Cross is helping during Harvey, which is my fault. But I called, and the nice gentleman I talked to tonight was confused why I would ask about the Red Cross relief efforts (?!). Once I explained and he understood, he told me to call their ‘main line’, 1-800-733-2767 (RED-CROSS). I called that and got an interesting voicemail/routing lineup:

1. Opens with ‘call 911’ or call Houston coast guard if in life threatening situation
2. If experiencing flooding, they give advice to avoid attics, etc.
3. If calling from TX visit redcross.org/shelter or press 1
4. if calling from LA ..
5. To continue in español ..
6. Press 0 for all other inquiries
A. If you are calling about a blood donation, press 1
B. If inquiring on training and certification, press 2
C. To make a financial donation, press 3
a. For all other inquiries press 0 and you will be connected with to the next available representative, you can also visit redcross.org for more information
b. press 0
c. Options for Red Cross / Armed Forces liason
d. Disaster Assistance
e. Else, call back during regular hours

I spent the time trying to find out what the Red Cross is doing during hurricane Harvey, and I am left confused and wanting more information. Again, before you start telling me that of course they are good, wait a minute. The Red Cross took in over half a billion dollars in 2015 via “Contributions, Gifts & Grants“, and ultimately $2,726,672,619 dollars total. That is 2.7 with a B.

I am not saying the Red Cross doesn’t do amazing work, I know they do. I have done the same level of digging tonight in prior years for other disasters and been content they do good things. I have seen videos, first-hand accounts, and a wealth of information showing how they helped. What I am saying is that the Red Cross has completely failed in their social media campaign during Harvey. They are letting down the people they are helping, their countless volunteers who do wonderful work, and their supporters looking to make sure that money donated today goes to help the crisis we’re facing today.

My advice is that Red Cross continue helping during Harvey, but seriously re-evaluate their social media and fundraising efforts afterwards. Consider that my go-to charity to learn about charities, gave a pop-up about how to support during Harvey. And if you scroll down any given page, when the pop-up appears, it shows how you can help in their eyes based on data:

This is clever and helpful and I honestly wish this was a banner at the top of their site right now. That said, clicking on it is revealing in the context of the above. Consider the charities they recommend and where Red Cross places on that list. Of course, verify those other charities ranked higher are actually helping the crisis we face today, just as I tried to do with the Red Cross tonight. Please… make sure that if you donate, your money goes as far as possible. Doesn’t matter if it is $1 or $1,000, just make sure it counts. In the mean time, I am going to keep researching to find a charity I feel will deliver the most good during this incredible time of need, and look to donate tomorrow. Thank you.


The Problem with Facebook…

Maybe that was a bit of a ‘clickbait’ title, since the list of problems with Facebook is epic, tragic, and depressing. So let’s go with, “tonight’s example of an ongoing problem with Facebook”.

One of my biggest gripes about the social media platform is that after all this time, they still do not give us a simple way to view posts chronologically. At some point in the past, they introduced an option to supposedly to that, but it was done via a URL argument and not a user-friendly GUI widget. I’ve used that option to view Facebook to this day, and it is still horrible. Why? Because as you think you finally get the holy grail of simplicity, it is still weighted… just less so. Meaning you are more annoyed when some crappy post pops up four times that day.

OK, so they want weighting and control to deliver the posts your friends make, as they see fit. That means you never see some posts you absolutely want to see, while seeing other posts multiple times a day. Their algorithm has nothing to do with standard weighting, and everything to do with their weird formula that no one can seem to figure out. OK, fine…

Facebook has also been on a tear about ‘honesty’ in the form of user profiles. The last few years have seen nothing but drama and turmoil as Facebook tries to enforce their ‘real name’ policy. A policy that the Chief Product Officer at Facebook apologized for, ensnared a former employee or seven, unfairly targets the LGBT community, and has caused enough headache to warrant a Wikipedia entry. Oh, of course, that the “noble and charitableMark Zuckerberg defends. So… integrity and honesty and clarity is important, right?

That sets up the easiest of questions. Why is Facebook targeting their user base, who they profit off, regardless of a real name attached? Sure, they may make a few more pennies on the dollar if a real name is attached over a pseudonym, but still profitable. For years, it let them defend their absurdly high user count on top of the obvious ploys of ignoring idle accounts and such. Now, jump to tonight, which set up a perfect example of where Facebook shows they don’t care. A rather simple example, but one that should be trivial for them to programatically notice and warn against, in a variety of methods. If a single user is posting something that may be fraudulent, contradictory, or a basic scam (e.g. how many times have you been tagged in an image for Oakley sunglasses, even in 2016), why isn’t there a warning? Even when the account isn’t compromised, the user isn’t warned. When the same image of knock-off sunglasses is posted to hundreds of ‘friends’ from a compromised account, it comes with no warning, either from the subject matter, or the break from the normal behavior (e.g. that user with 87 friends tags one photo with 87 names, when never tagging more than 2 people the last 5 years). We’re not talking AlphaGo or Microsoft Tay, we’re talking a couple decades behind them as far as computer intelligence goes. The fact that one was an amazing success while the other was an amazing failure, speaks to my point. They are cutting edge, trying to solve ‘problems’ that are are incredibly complicated. Meanwhile, Facebook can’t figure out what boils down to mid 1990’s email spam patterns, implementing the most basic of statistical filtering.

That said, I would love to see Facebook answer how the following two posts, from the same user, within 40 minutes of each other, could be posted without a warning to them AND me. Compare them posts carefully, not that there is much to go on as far as the end-user sees. At some level, this is stupidly trivial and any half-assed program should notice. No, it isn’t trivial or worth ignoring, that such articles get posted with such discrepancy. That is how we end up with stupid rumors and lies spread around as if they are fact, and fundamentally why our political climate is like it is. When you stop ignoring the details, especially the obvious contradictions, you are buying into a system that doesn’t serve you; rather, one that only exploits you.



Shan Yu had a point.

BOOK: Have you ever read the works of Shan Yu?
SIMON: Shan Yu, the psychotic dictator?
BOOK: Yep. Fancied himself quite the warrior poet. Wrote volumes on war, torture… the limits of human endurance.
SIMON: That’s nice…
BOOK: He said “live with a man 40 years, share his house, his meals, speak on every subject. Then tie him up and hold him over the volcano’s edge. And on that day you will finally meet the man.”
SIMON: What if you don’t live near a volcano?
BOOK: I expect he was being poetical.

I am a sucker for a movie or TV show that presents a compelling scene or story, that conveys a complicated topic most humans will never experience, or likely never fully grasp with any bit of reality. I am a bigger sucker when such a scene or story starts taking on a small shred of reality, in a different context, that I can piece together.

While I can’t compare my point to being held over a volcano’s edge, I feel that slowly meeting and getting to know someone over 20 years and watching a variety of mental toils take effect, may come in a distant second. In addition to compassion fatigue, spending decades in an industry you believe in that keeps failing, no matter how hard you try to improve, wears a person down in many ways. Some of them often destructive to themselves and those around them.

We’ve reached a point in InfoSec where there are hundreds, maybe thousands of veterans that are reaching a critical mass. The number of disillusioned professionals that cannot tolerate their beloved industry is incredible. Some I know have sworn off the industry, vowing to work outside their niche market, and forsake the rest of the industry. This is great for them, bad for the industry who could desperately use their experience and knowledge, and absolutely fair to both. I won’t get into the debate of “oh but there is a next generation“, and just say that a community who loses a significant portion of their elders will suffer tremendously, even if they don’t realize it until many decades later.

if Shan Yu were on social media, I think he would be fascinated watching the story unfold, and amazed at how much he could learn about people during their industry-induced downward spirals.


Smile! And your favorite charity benefits.

Recently, Amazon implemented a program called ‘Smile’ that allows you to select a charity who will get a small portion (0.5%) of your purchases. The beauty of this program is that you select your charity one time. Every visit to Amazon after that, they donate. Even better, if you forget to go to the ‘smile’ sub-domain, Amazon will usually remind you and give you a chance to one-click over.

When you consider that Amazon made $74.45 billion in revenue in 2013, this could potentially add up to serious money being donated to charities around the world. If 0.5% of all of their revenue in 2013 was donated, that would be $372,250,000. Yes, $372 million dollars. That is almost 2% of the estimated cost to end homelessness in the U.S. Not bad, that a single company has that capability and puts that power in the hands of their customers.

So click on smile.amazon.com once, choose your charity, and help contribute to your cause. Finally, spread the word. The more that opt in to this program, the more charities benefit.


Unsung Hero

Not fond of sharing commercials, but this one is powerful.


Stupid Recursive Advertising

I am sure there are many more examples, but after a recent Corona commercial it reminded me of previous I had heard. Cases where advertising uses a recursive theme. For those not familiar, you have recursive definitions and recursive acronyms, but the latter is more geek humor while the former is a mathematical thing.

At this rate, there should be a “recursive marketing”. Hell, knowing a slight bit about the industry, I am sure they have a term for it. The three examples that come to mind, and make me laugh as they are utterly ridiculous:

“Corona Lite, the only lite beer that is still a Corona…”

“Wendy’s, it’s better than fast food. It’s Wendy’s!”

“It’s the only truck built Ford tough.”


Moving toward 10%…

I took notes for this blog in October, 2010 and never finished it off.

The concept of the tithe goes back thousands of years. Most people I know associate it with churches in England hundreds of years ago. These days I can’t say I have heard of many, if any at all, following the practice in the context of the church.

Over time, very few people or families seem to do it in modern society. With many they simply can’t afford to, as 10% of the take-home cuts too far into life’s necessities. Other families take home more than enough and have become accustomed to spending it on luxury, donating a much smaller fraction to their church.

While I am not a religious person, the idea of a tithe to charitable organizations that I believe in registers on my moral compass. Like most in our society, I spend too much money on things I do not need when other organizations could benefit greatly. I donate from time to time and support a handful of organizations, but I think it’s past time for me to step it up. Either a greater amount of support, or find additional organizations to donate to.

When I started this blog, I had sent off checks to the USO, the Colorado State Lodge Fraternal Order of Police ($20), the Denver Dumb Friend’s League, and Prairie Dog Coalition. Only $105 to four organizations in that month. That is pretty dismal.

This is an area of my life I clearly need to improve.


Saving the world, one dollar at a time…

From time to time, I am asked if I want to donate a dollar to $CAUSE. It happens in retail establishments like Whole Foods, Safeway, Regal Cinemas, and even gas stations. The causes range from charities fighting disease to helping my state recover from wild fires. In some cases, they don’t even ask for a full dollar. Instead, they ask if they can round up to the next dollar and apply the difference as a donation. When asked, I typically say yes, especially if I think the charity is worthwhile.

For many people, a handful of change or even a dollar is not significant. We routinely waste considerably more in various parts of our daily life. Leaving lights on, running the air conditioner, buying frivolous items we don’t need, and much more. Our entire society is one of extreme waste.

The idea of a business asking for ’round up’ change or a dollar for a purchase is brilliant. Charities that mail asking for $10, $25, $50 or more often have little luck because people don’t want to commit to that much, especially when the economy is not strong. However, being asked in public, face-to-face, often in front of other people… you don’t want want to be the asshole that says no to saving children or curing cancer.

For fun, what if every person donated that 1 dollar as asked. Perhaps every movie-goer in 2012 donated when asked. According to the MPAA, 1.36 billion attended movies last year. What would that kind of money do for a worthy charity? And if each of the 25.1 million Netflix customers gave a dollar? What of Spotify’s 5 million paying customers? And Blizzard’s World of Warcraft, with their 10.2 million customers?

Yep, that kind of money put in the hands of well-run charities could do wonders to feed the hungry, assist in research for curing all manner of ills, or do other amazing feats of good. Just think… what if we saw even 1% of Wal-mart’s 100 million customers a week give an extra dollar to charity?

[Update: Several years ago, I had asked various PetSmart employees about the charity they asked customers to donate to. It is done via the Credit Card terminal you swipe your card in, as part of confirming the transaction. After several times of asking, none of them were able to give me a good answer about the charity, just a generic line about helping animals. After publishing this blog today, Sean V. contacted me to provide a link to the PetSmart Charities web site that goes into a lot more detail. Looking at the charity on Charity Navigator, you can see that they operate with minimal admin overhead, and a majority of the money goes to support their stated purpose. Based on this, I will resume saying ‘yes’ to donating to their charity when I shop at PetSmart.]


Not All Charities Are Created Equal

I support charities. Quite a few of them actually. Maybe it isn’t the best use of the money I donate, as dozens receive small amounts, rather than one or two receiving a sizable donation.

I know that with few exceptions, it seems like my donations are mostly wasted, and it has me questioning my support. In the past, I have taken note of charities and their cost of overhead. However, I haven’t kept up with it and I desperately need to. Before I donate another cent, It is imperative that I research each and every charity that I have donated to, and may donate to again.

If you aren’t sure why I have such a concern, let’s examine two charities that are similar, if not equal, in the eyes of most people. Let’s look at the SPCA International and the Humane Society International. To many, these are both charitable organizations that exist to help animals and prevent cruelty to them. On the surface, this is true.

If you dig deeper, you quickly learn that one of them is not like the other, and is not worthy of your donation. Using CharityNavigator, look at the results:

CharityNavigator – SPCA International
CharityNavigator – Humane Society International

Even a cursory glance shows there are serious issues with the SPCA. It displays a Donor Advisory, outlining past problems and items of interest that should influence your donation choice, as outlined by a CNN article. On the other hand, the Humane Society immediately gives you the current rating, along with important financial information such as the charity spending 79.5% of their money on program expenses (i.e. helping as advertised), 5% on administrative overhead, and 15.3% on fundraising.

Compare that with other well-known charities:

Charity Program
Michael J. Fox Foundation / Parkinson’s Research 91% 2.4% 6.5%
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals 84.7% 1.3% 13.9%
American Cancer Society 71.2% 6.8% 21.8%
George Bush Presidential Library Foundation 45% 40.9% 14%
National Vietnam Veterans Foundation 9.7% 2.4% 87.8%

You can quickly see that some charities are not as efficient as others, spending as much as 87.8% on fundraising. Even though they may keep administrative overhead as low as 2.4%, that is a lot of money spent raising more money, that will only be spent to raise more. This ultimately leads to a cycle where huge amounts of money are wasted, rather than spending it on the stated purpose (program expense). In other cases, you have a charity that is only 14% fundraising, but 40.9% goes to administrative overhead, almost as much as the program expenses. This is often a sign that the charity executives are getting paid obscene amounts of money.

When picking a charity, you want to avoid any of them have either a high admin overhead, or a high fundraising cost. These charities are simply not efficient. Using these numbers, you can determine the “fundraising efficiency”, what CharityNavigator.org describes as “The amount spent to raise $1 in charitable contributions, and calculates for you. To calculate a charity’s fundraising efficiency, we divide its fundraising expenses by the total contributions it receives.

Looking at the national charities I have donated to in the last 12 months, it becomes educational:

Charity Program
American Red Cross 92.2% 4.0% 3.7%
ACLU 86.0% 5.4% 8.4%
Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation 81.5% 7.0% 11.4%
Dumb Friend’s League 77.8% 8.0% 14.0%
Humane Society of US 77.0% 3.7% 19.1%
World Wildlife Fund 73.0% 6.2% 20.6%
Planned Parenthood 72.8% 8.8% 18.3%
USO 72.2% 10.1% 17.5%
St Jude Children’s Research Hospital 70.3% 9.2% 20.3%
March of Dimes 65.9% 10.9% 23.1%
ASPCA 58.4% 5.2% 36.2%
Wounded Warrior Project 55.0% 8.0% 36.8%
National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund 47.5% 5.5% 46.8%
Paralyzed Veterans of America 33.1% 6.8% 59.9%
National Veterans Services Fund, Inc. 21.1% 3.6% 75.2%
Natnl Cancer Research Center [1] 0.5% 1.6% 97.8%

[1] This is part of the Walker Cancer Research Institute, and has been blogged about before regarding it being a scam. This is why I should have done my due diligence.

There are a few others I have donated to as well. One is a 501(c)(3) but isn’t required to file the paperwork for Charity Navigator to perform an analysis. Several others are legitimate charities, just much smaller so they fly well under the radar of such a site. For example, Lita’s Squirrel Rescue, Ellicott Wildlife Rehab Center, and Cavy Care are such charities.

Based on the chart above, I know that I have donated to one sketchy charity, and not picked so wisely for others. I am not sure what a good ratio is to maintain, but the top percentile is a good guideline. Moving forward, I will only donate to charities that have a good return on investment.

In case you are wondering what prompted this article, it was the relentless snail mail sent by most of these charities. For a few, donating $25 one year led to what seems like solicitations that cost them $50 included pens, calendars, notepads, lapel pins, stickers, address labels, envelopes, cards, stamps, calculators, and more crap. Every time I received one, I wondered why they didn’t use my money to help their cause. Why do they mail me every 10 days asking for more money? This led me to wonder about their fundraising efforts, and as we see above, some charities specialize in it instead of actually helping people.


The Madness after the Boston Madness

The last few days have once again shown how utterly ridiculous parts of our society are. In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, we saw news outlets fumble over themselves, eager to announce the next terror, while feigning disgust. Another device found! A controlled detonation! No, a fire! CNN led the way in pathetic reporting. A timeline of CNN’s inept coverage is as amusing as it is disgusting. A Fox news affiliate is a definite runner up, naming one suspect Zooey Deschanel instead of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. No wonder hundreds of thousands listened to the Boston Police radio live feed and took to Twitter for faster, and more reliable updates.

Of course, pundits, armchair experts, and every dimwit around lent their own conspiracy theories, further blurring facts and needlessly enraging sheeple that want to believe.

While the police response to this tragedy was certainly swift, I can’t help but think how premature everyone involved seems to be. The Boston Police tweeted that the terror is over after taking a second suspect alive:

CAPTURED!!! The hunt is over. The search is done. The terror is over. And justice has won. Suspect in custody.

President Obama went on national television to remind us that such statements are premature, saying that “a chapter” in this tragedy was closed, but the investigation is ongoing. How can the Boston Police, who were unable to question one suspect, and have not had a chance to question the second, know that they were the only two involved? What if the two suspects are part of a larger group, with active members still out there ready to do harm?

How far does this have to go before society collectively realizes the madness we’ve descended into? At what point does the rational side kick in and make the masses aware of how pointless and counterproductive the response has been? Unfortunately, I know the answer to these questions, as the response from society to any and every tragedy has steadily gotten worse. With that follows knee-jerk responses from all walks of life, especially lawmakers.

The frustration of seeing society spiral downward, while being powerless to effect change, is maddening.