Steven Ketchpel

Giving back is using your time and money to make the world a better place.

Along the way, you’ll discover a new wealth:

  • Friends who share your vision
  • Skills you develop while volunteering
  • Opportunities to work together with your family
  • Gratitude for what you have
  • Insight about what is important to you and how you can impact the world
  • Seeing your children grow in compassion, leadership,and kindness

The Book

Giving Back is a “how-to” book that supports you and your family in your journey.

For those just getting startedGiving Back walks you through finding your first volunteer project or donation.

For those looking to get deeper involved, Giving Back helps you think through your strategy:  unique talents you can bring, your ability to assume a leadership role, or even start your own non-profit.  Donating strategically means maximizing your gift’s impact by finding an efficient organization and taking all available tax benefits.

For families, giving back can be something you do together to strengthen family bonds, build a legacy, and help your children grow into their own.  The book offers lists of volunteering ideas appropriate for different age groups, tools for thinking about kids’ relationship to money, and discussion guides for sharing family values and collaboratively choosing ways to become involved.

Giving Back also includes lists of web resources and books to make the most of your journey.  Quotes from inspiring leaders and stories from real people witness to the transformative power of giving back.

The Site

This website is designed to:

  1. Promote the book to prospective buyers
  2. Supplement the printed copy with content that does better electronically
  3. Enable discussion with the community interested in giving back
  4. Share my latest thoughts (via blog posts)

The Blog

I write about volunteering and donating, primarily, but not exclusively.  I’m also concerned about our environment, and justice as displayed in our economic, political, judicial, and education systems.  Occasionally I rant, but more often I try to synthesize a response to something I’ve read or heard, or share personal experiences.  I welcome suggestions for topics, and feedback on what I’ve written.

Steve Ketchpel


Harbor House Ministries of Oakland

Harbor House Logo

As I consider the contributing factors that have led to my current situation, I’m grateful for many blessings: a loving family with parents who encouraged and supported me; good public schools that gave me a solid background, confidence, and guidance to prepare for higher education; job opportunities and family friends who provided introductions and recommendations; mentors, advisors, and friends willing to share their knowledge and experience; good health and a solid community of support; and the privileges associated with being a white male in America.

While I’d like to think my hard work and creative ideas have also been instrumental in the achievement of respect and financial comfort, I’m forced to admit that all of those earlier factors were prerequisites, and basically none of them was due to anything I can claim responsibility for, just the pure luck of what Warren Buffett calls “the genetic lottery.”

As I learn more about the circumstances of kids growing up in Oakland, I realize that they’re unlikely to have more than one or two of those prerequisites, and that many have none.  But I’ve also learned about a program that tries to provide broad coverage, supporting the kids through an after-school program that really works to fill those gaps.

Harbor House Ministries, in the low-income San Antonio neighborhood of Oakland, offers a high-quality after-school and summer program for kindergarten through eighth grade students. The fee is nominal compared to similar programs ($50 for 3 months), with scholarships for those who can’t afford even that. Although it is a Christian organization, no religious distinction is made in admissions, and current students come from Muslim, Buddhist, Protestant, Catholic, tribal, and agnostic backgrounds.

One of the most effective factors of the program is its reliance on high school and college youth from the community to be interns, giving them front-line responsibility for managing the younger children.  The result is a win-win situation where both the students and interns benefit, and the kids receive:

  1.  A caring surrogate family, starting as early as kindergarten and being continually present up to eighth grade, or up to age 25 for staff members, many of whom grew up in the program.
  2.  Educational support, especially for kids whose parents can’t help because they are not present, don’t speak English, or work too many hours.
  3.  Job opportunities for community youth.  Jobs are the best way to keep youth off the streets and out of trouble. The Harbor House staff experience their first time card, manager, review, and learn to work as a team with colleagues.  The money they earn at this internship, while a small amount, is significant because it is their own and is earned, not a handout.  Do you remember how proud you were of your first paycheck?
  4.  Role models for minority youth, as they see kids who look like them and are just a few years older given responsibility and living up to that responsibility.
  5.  A culture that combats racism – the families of different immigrant groups and races are working together to help their kids succeed, and the kids gain exposure to a diverse staff taking care of them and treating all with respect.
  6.  Assistance with the physical, emotional, and spiritual development of the kids, where they learn of God’s love for them, perhaps for the first time, and start to feel and believe it.

Providing such intensive support for these kids is not easy, but Harbor House (founded in 1971) has a long track record of doing it very well.  The program multiplies each dollar it receives into amazing impact for these hopeful, energetic, delightful kids.  A gift of $100 covers the monthly stipend of an intern who works incredibly hard, helping supervise 20 children doing academic and enrichment activities. In addition to the stipend, the intern also gets an initial job experience and opportunity to build leadership skills, receive mentoring, and spend their time in a more optimistic and future-focused environment than they experience on the streets.

Please consider making a gift to show these kids we haven’t forgotten about them.  We do care, and we want them to thrive.

You can donate online at or by sending a check to Harbor House, 1811 11th Ave., Oakland, CA 94606, Attn: Bronwyn Harris.  Let them know if your employer matches employee gifts.

If you’d like to learn more in person, there is a fund-raising event in Oakland with food, music, and a chance to meet some of the staff and interns on September 28th, 2014 from 4pm – 6pm.  Tickets at:

Responding to Ferguson, Michael Brown’s death

I’ve been following the news coverage about the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson fairly closely.  It continues a disturbing pattern of systemic inequality against minorities in America:

  •   police brutality, differential enforcement and sentencing
  •   economic injustice in hiring and advancement, as well as in access to credit
  •   disparity in the educational resources in communities of color
  •   environmental injustice in the siting of polluting industries

These big picture issues recurred in the more personal stories of racism and exclusion I’d heard from people of color in my own church community during conversations in response to a call for a Sacred Conversation on Race by our denomination (United Church of Christ) in the wake of the 2008 Presidential campaign.

As I wrestle with the question of how I can personally improve the situation, I think about three steps that I encourage others to consider as well:

  1. Raise my personal consciousness of the situation.  Pay attention to the news, read books like The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, and listen to the stories of people of other races.
  2. Cultivate friendships that cross not only race boundaries but economic ones as well.
  3. Speak out against injustice.  Quite frankly, this still scares me.  I find it easier to speak out by writing a check than I do by saying something in person or email.  So, if Citizens United establishes contributions as voice, then my voice will not be silent.  Here are organizations that I believe are prodding or supporting much-needed change:

I’m still in the early stages of this new awareness, and I have yet to take all of my own advice, but I’d welcome additional suggestions for organizations or other ideas you have on making a difference.

American Middle Eastern Network for Dialog at Stanford (AMENDS 2013)

The AMENDS Summit 2013 is a free conference at Stanford that brings youth leaders (generally recent college graduates) from the Middle East (or the US with a strong interest connection there).  I attended (most of) the first session devoted to Impact Entrepreneurship.

Rena Zaubi (Palestine) looking at ways to enhance food security and development.  Shouldn’t focus on export cash crops, but rather providing food locally.  Forced to rely on Israel Civil Authority for access to inputs (fertilizer) and markets (export from Gaza to EU of strawberries, flowers), too often permits aren’t forthcoming.

Yad Faeq (Iraq):  Crowdfunding platform for IT businesses after his own startup failed due to lack of funding.  Still early stages.

Nadia Arouri (Palestine):  Organize children’s dance performances to create peace (focusing first on inner peace).  When they planned a trip for their students and teachers to present the performance in Israel, the Israel Civil Authority demanded magnetic cards first (typically only required of age 16+) after German embassy pushed for permit issuance, they did get 181 of the requested 200, but *none of the teachers/chaperones* so they were still unable to do the performance.

Al-Nasir Bellah Al-Nasiry (Iraq) recent medical school graduate:  talking about the empowerment of youth.  Two youth create a plan to celebrate International Peace Day in Baghdad.  Two years of being thrown road blocks (denied permits, etc.) 100’s of student leaders accomplished it at on 9/21/2011.  Thousands attended.  Inspired by that Peace Day celebration, convened a group of 15 youth leaders.  Want it to be “3 FREE’s” Free of Charge, on their Free time (weekend, evenings), Free of obligations/formalities (peer leadership). Training in leadership, advocacy training, public health awareness, entrepreneurship, environmental protection.  Each one-teach one (or 4) to grow exponentially.

Ali Chehade (Lebanon) DreamMatcher (Fulbright  Scholar) “We can all make the dreams come true.”   “What’s a dream you can realize for someone else?”  Someone sitting next to you might have a dream you can help.  Helping others gives you a dopamine boost. virtual and real-life social matching event.  Typical event brings 50-60 dreams from people who have never met before.  Think of your dreams–don’t ignore them.  Be aware of them and share them.  Remember your superpowers, what you can give other people.  Share our resources and where we really care about each other’s happiness.

Sarah Mousa (Egyptian- American, undergrad Princeton studying middle East and public policy, grad Georgetown, Fulbright Scholar in Cairo):  Use of solar energy for development.  In junior year, spent summer in Cairo.  Slums “half-hazards”  half of population of 20M live in “ashwayi” not recognized by government, so lack basic services (trash, water, education, health, sewage, etc).  Homemade solar water heater (made of readily available materials).  Little being done in Arab world in solar, in spite of appropriateness.  Lack of maintenance, and no way for new families to acquire heaters.  (1)  Awareness sessions on solar/renewable energy (2)  Training Workshops (a dozen trained in construction)  3)  Establish business of construction, installation, and maintenance of the hot water heaters.  Expanding team, gathering funding, have written proposals, have core team, applying for funding from NGO’s with a similar vision.  Current economic and political situation very difficult.  Areas that she’s working with are so focused on day-to-day needs, that they’re receptive, but NGO’s are distracted by the macro conditions.

Que Newbill (Washington, DC) Tupac documentary showing in Amman Jordan in 2011 on his first night there.  Slam poetry and spoken word in SF, connected with DJ’s explicitly political nature of the performance with one performance stopped when it became too political.)  Scoble Fellow / Middle East analyst in DC.  Innocence of Muslims film release:  Urban youth share a lot of common problems, could you connect US with Middle East:  Youth Speaks:  connect American Urban Youth with Middle East with goals:  Empowerment, Dialogue.  (Spaces to share experience)  Awareness  (increase social awareness, amplify experiences through global audience).  Pair US with MiddleEastern urban youth for weekly discussion, monthly workshops and annual conferences using rap and slam poetry.  Youth Speaks has 6 people 3 in DC, 3 in Amman, waiting to hear back from grant applications like Open Society Foundation (and other foundations focusing on urban youth and international projects).  Competitive.

Volunteering with Seniors

I had dinner with a friend in San Francisco on Wednesday who mentioned that she was interested in volunteering  with seniors, brightening the day of someone who otherwise probably wouldn’t have a visitor.  She’d be great: she plays piano and guitar; she’s smart and a good conversationalist in both English and Mandarin, and she’s learning French.  The only problem is that she’s twelve years old.  Even though her parents were willing to provide rides or come along, the groups that they checked with require volunteers to be 16 years old.

Finding volunteer groups that accept younger children and early teens can be a challenge.  Some do, some don’t.  Some post their policies on their web sites, others don’t.

In order to help my young friend, I started at GreatNonProfits, where I was able to get a list of rated organizations helping seniors located in San Francisco.  There were a few promising options (with reviews that rated them at 4.5 stars or better).  Some were things that a twelve-year-old couldn’t possibly do (driving or delivering meals-on-wheels) and others seemed a bit of a stretch (becoming a counselor about insurance programs and Medicare), some were outside city limits, and at least one did limit their volunteers to age 16+.  After narrowing it down, it seemed like “Little Brothers – Friends of the Elderly” was the best option.  They had six 5-star reviews (though all from board members, and all posted within a couple days of each other) but perhaps more encouraging, they have a very active Facebook page and a decent website.  While I’m not sure how a 12 year old girl will relate to being a “Little Brother”, the website tells the story of the name, with its founding in Paris, France after WWII.  The San Francisco chapter is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

The site doesn’t say whether they accept young volunteers (or offer an age limit), but the Facebook page does have pictures of families with children younger than 12 participating in some of the social events with seniors (one of which happened yesterday…) and one of the programs they offer is a phone-based one where you just talk with your friend by phone from 1 to 10 hours per month.

I’m really impressed that my young friend is wanting to volunteer with elders, and glad that her parents are supporting her.  I hope that Little Brothers works out, but if it doesn’t my next recommendation would be to look for something even more informal:  a senior who happens to be a member of your church (or a local church if you aren’t active in one) or a neighbor on your street, or a friend made at the library.

Lohri at the Sikh Gurdwara (San Jose)


The friends volunteer to help serve food on Lohri at Sikh Gurdwara


Although I’m interested in learning about other faith traditions, I have to admit that I knew next to nothing about Sikhism.  When Ruchi and Durga invited me to the Lohri celebration at the Sikh temple in San Jose on January 13th, saying it was in honor of their young son, I assumed it would be like a baptism–family and friends standing in solidarity with the parents, offering their prayers and promise of support for the child’s introduction into the faith and the secular world.  Maybe a reception or light meal, and gifts, possibly kicking off a college fund for the child.

I asked Durga and Ruchi more about it, and Durga sent me to the Wikipedia page for Lohri, where I learned that it is a new year celebration (related to the end of the month with the winter solstice) and celebrated with special note by households celebrating a recent marriage or birth.

I was also impressed to learn that caring for the community is a key tenet of Sikhism, practiced by serving  a free meal to all who come.  Since Lohri is an especially auspicious day, the San Jose temple  was expecting a large crowd, serving several thousand meals, perhaps up to 8,000.  So, to honor their son’s birth, my friends sponsored the meal that day.  They prepared some food in advance (Ruchi personally responsible for some 600 rotis, 30-50x the typical volunteer’s output) and were stationed on the serving line during the food distribution.  Their friends also helped out, and rather than asking for gifts for their son, guests were invited to bring rice, flour, sugar, or beans for the temple’s meals.

In addition to the generosity of providing meals, I was impressed by the willingness with which I was welcomed.  As I was casting about looking lost, people helped me find and tie a head covering, stow my shoes, and walk to the main meeting room, even showing how to pay respects to the holy book and leave my gift of rice at the altar.  Not understanding the language, I didn’t stay long for the reading/singing, and went up to the hall where the food was being served.  From time to time the steady music would break into the foreground of my attention, reminding me that the worship service was continuing.

On my way out, I noticed another surprising sign of openness.  The temple’s financial statements were posted on the bulletin board for all to see.  It appeared that this massive building and social program was run on an almost exclusively volunteer basis.  The salary line was a shockingly small percentage of the total.

I came away with a slightly greater understanding, and a general sense that while I was not expected to know much, I was welcome on my own terms.  I was impressed with the community, and sense of equality and service.   I admire my friends for choosing to celebrate in this way, and was glad to be a part of it.

Youth Community Service: Leif Erickson’s presentation

Youth Community Service is a 22 year old Palo Alto-based organization that focuses on the transformational impact of service learning for youth. Leif Erickson has been its Executive Director for nearly 9 years. He spoke about the different programs they have depending on the relationship with the particular schools–in some cases as an extracurricular “club” offering, and other cases their class is part of the school day.

YCS also works with “Continuation” schools, of non-traditional students such as teens raising a family or returning from a period of incarceration. He cited a study that showed average grade improvement from a “D” to a “B” for continuation students (moms, specifically, I think) that were receiving YCS support as one of a number of programs. It was important, he said, for the students to not just engage in isolated service projects, but to incorporate them into the rest of the learning curriculum. Students also need to build up to helping others. Many of the students don’t see what they have to give when the program starts. Working first on identifying values, skills, improving self-esteem means that the students are more secure and ready to help others.

In addition to a small staff managing the operations, the bulk of the YCS employees are teachers who work directly with students. Leif noted that many of the teachers who come up with creative ideas and earn the respect of the students are from the communities served by YCS, offering both a staff familiar with the challenges of the environment, as well as a group of role models that share more in common with the students.

YCS funding used to come primarily from government support, but as that has dried up recently, they have found corporate and family foundations to replace the funding, with individual donors also an important part of the equation. If you’d like to join me in supporting YCS, their donor page is at:

I missed their program on Lytton Plaza in Palo Alto today in celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Fun with Numbers 12-12-12 edition

The promotion that I ran with Amazon (Kindle version available to download free any time on December 12, 2012) has just ended, and being the web metrics geek that I am, I thought I’d share a few thoughts on the results.

First of all, a big Thank You! to all those who helped.

There were lots of emails, Facebook posts, Google Plus shares and Tweets flying around yesterday.  Lots of people heard about Giving Back for the first time, and lots of them were moved to take action and download the book.

I view the promotion as a big success.  According to Amazon’s stats, 673 copies were downloaded during the 24 hour period.

That’s about twice as many people as had the book before, (the existing base was mostly print, only a handful of digital copies), bringing the total to more than 1,000.  If you’re running the math on the financial attractiveness of writing a book, my advice is to keep your day job.  🙂

Amazon doesn’t provide a lot of stats about where the “Kindle Direct Publishing” purchases come from, so I’ll make some guesses.  Most people who tweeted, created Facebook posts or forwarded an email used the link that I provided ( which encoded my affiliate tag.  From the Amazon Associates report, I can tell there were 664 clicks on that link on 12/12/12.  I’d assume the conversion rate from “looking at the product page” to “downloading the Free Kindle version” was pretty high, so I think that the affiliate tagged links count for a large fraction (80%+) of all the buyers.

Some of the chronological highlights of the day

But that doesn’t give adequate credit to the people who wrote Facebook posts (13 that I’m aware of), commented on, shared or liked those posts (about 20), liked the Giving Back Facebook page (18 new people yesterday), tweeted or re-tweeted (15 or so), or the 2 Google Plus posts and 2 more shares and 3 posts on Amazon.

In addition to the Kindle downloads, 4 people bought paperback copies.  That may not sound like much, but for me, it’s a big day (like I said, keep your day job.)

The other exciting thing was seeing my book climb the ranks.  That’s one thing that Amazon does very well.  They segment their catalog at a granularity that books can fairly easily rank in *some* category.  My print version lands in the “Books > Business & Investing > Jobs & Careers > Volunteer Work” category, and while I don’t know the full formula, the 4 copies I sold on the 12th were enough to push me up to #16 in the ranking, which will decay over time probably dropping me out of the Top 100 by the end of the day tomorrow (of course, if I sell more copies, I could climb rather than fall….[Wow!  That happened!  3 more copies early on the 13th carried me all the way to #4, though now on the way back down.])

The digital version appears in two categories:

Non-fiction > Advice & How To > Parenting > Family Activities

Non-fiction > Business & Investing > Professions & Industries > Non-Profit Organization & Charities

Amazon tracks “Free” Kindle content separately from “Paid” Kindle content, with Top 100 ranking lists for both types in all of the categories and sub-categories.  So, as the promotion ended, and my content changed from “Free” back to “Paid”, all of the standing I’d built up in the rankings disappeared.  (Presumably, it would return, although be decayed, if I made the content free again.)  Anyway, the top rankings that I received in each category (again, Kindle Free content only) were:

  • Non-Profit Organizations & Charities:  #1
  • Professions and Industries:  #1
  • Family Activities:  #3
  • Parenting:  #6
  • Business & Investing:  #8
  • Advice & How To:  #26
  • Non-Fiction:  Not Ranked.  I never quite made it to the top #100, but I must have been close.  When I was #8 in Business & Investing, the #6 book was #97 in Non-fiction.  So, I’m pretty sure I was in the Top 150.  Plus, if you look at the “Non-fiction” category, a bunch of the top entries are actually fiction.
  • Overall:  #398

For those of you who were around for the “Flash Mob” print-book launch back in August, these results were better, with 20 copies sold at that virtual event.  I sent this invitation to a larger group, and was more intentional about asking people to share it.  And, hey, a free Kindle version is something that’s easier to pass along to a friend or acquaintance than a suggestion to buy an $18 paperback….

I was also surprised/impressed with the amount of free Kindle content that seemed interesting.      See for example, The Top 100 Non-Fiction “best-sellers”.

Finally, I’ll note that promoting the give-away was a good excuse to get back in touch with some friends I hadn’t heard from in years, so that was another great benefit!

[The Facebook page stats are on a longer latency, and I’m still waiting for them to come in.  I’ll perhaps add a bit more color for reach and virality when Facebook provides the information.]


Microfinance in the Philippines

I had a question from a friend and former co-worker about how her family in the Philippines might get involved in microcredit. Here’s my response:

Background information on Microfinance in the Philippines

You can learn more about the overall situation in the Philippines from country level reports from either:

MIX Market’s Country report for the Philippines (with country level stats, and a listing of known microfinance institutions with their number of borrowers and loans outstanding).  The Microfinance Information Exchange (MIX Market) is my go-to source for industry level stats.  It’s self-reported data from the MFI’s, but has the broadest coverage I’m aware of.

Opportunity International’s Philippines presence has a strong presence in the Philippines, they started working there in 1981, and now have nearly 3/4 of a million borrowers in their network (about 1/4 of all the borrowers, according to the MIX report).

Funding Loans in the Philippines

Different organizations let you have a direct connection with “your” borrower (in most cases, the borrowers have already received loans, and you are funding them retroactively, allowing the MFI to free its capital to make another loan…), they differ in what you get back.  All provide the satisfaction of knowing you helped another person in need.

Nothing Back (a 100% tax-deductible donation)

Opportunity International lets you fund loans to individuals in the Philippines (and elsewhere) through their “Fund a Loan” program. ($10 minimum)

Josefina Yabut, an Opportunity International borrower who sells school supplies

Principal Back, but no interest lets you choose individuals who will get your money, and you receive repayments from them (through Kiva) as the loan is re-paid.  (There is risk of losing your principal if the borrowers default.)  You can cash out (get a check back from Kiva) or re-cycle your money into another loan.   Right now (December 8, 2012), they’re “fully funded” with no loans that need funding on their site.  (Congratulations!)

Principal Back, plus interest (1-2% typically)

Microplace also offers the ability to choose your borrower, but here, you receive a portion of the interest paid as well as the return of your principal (again, assuming no default).  Microplace has a different set of offerings based on which state you live in (not all of the investments have been approved for all of the states), and you can choose by country, so their current listing for the Philippines (link might not work for you…  Apply Geographic Filter for Southeast Asia, and then Philippines)  is an OikoCredit loan for 1 year offering 1% interest.  This loan appears to cover many different countries, it’s not clear if your money would definitely be going to the Philippines.

Mid-Peninsula Global Coolers initial meeting

I attended the first organizing/exploratory meeting today of a group concerned about climate change, convened by First Presbyterian Church of Palo Alto.  The meeting sprung out of the showing of Bill McKibben’s movie/discussion, which many of the attendees had also viewed.  (See my blog post on Climate Change and Big Carbon for a summary and analysis.)

A few reactions to today’s meeting:

  1. The focus on Divestiture (from Big Oil) companies, suggested by McKibbens’ group was divisive.  Some people were in favor, some felt that it was better to be activist shareholders.  Some thought that it would be too hard to achieve, some thought that even if it were achieved, it wouldn’t impact the behavior of the oil companies.  Some worried about the impact it would have on school endowments or pension funds.  Some felt that personal divestiture was too small to be relevant, but a surprising number of people seemed prepared to take personal action.

  3. Information sharing:  A good chunk of the meeting was spent on sharing what other organizations are already in operation (locally), and what resources they have.  There was more discussion about how to appropriately share information from this meeting (and continue to collaborate in an online, distributed fashion, as well as in real life).  I took the first part as a sign that the climate change fighters are still pretty fragmented, without a clear “go-to” repository for the information.  I took the second part to guess that we’re probably still 12-24 months behind where all of the online support for groups stuff will “just work”.  Google Groups ended up being the tool of choice, and this was probably a less than average tech savvy group from Silicon Valley, but average or better given the country at large.

  5. Personal responsibility vs. having other people do it:  Even in this group of activists, (albeit more aging activists than young ones–someone jokingly said we should call the group “Fossils against Fossil Fuels”) there was still a mix of personal responsibility and personal avoidance.  Aside from the recent Leaf buyer, there wasn’t a lot of talk about making personal reductions in air travel, car trips, or personal/home energy usage.  There were a couple of instances where work was neatly dodged (assigned to someone not in the room, or nearly dropped).  There was the hope/expectation that the younger generation (not really represented in the room) would be more active in the front lines.

  7.  Under-appreciated good ideas:Sven, the Leaf Buyer, had a nice idea that I thought was PR genius:  with the North Pole ice-free during the summer (coming soon!) where will Santa live?

    Vanessa raised what I thought was the most hopeful point of the day, though I think she stopped short of its conclusion:  The cost (per KWH) of carbon-based energy is continuing to rise (although US-based fracking may put the rise on hold for a while…) while the cost of alternative-based energy is falling.  After they cross, why would people buy “dirty” energy?  I guess I view this as the best plan:  move as fast as we can to make alternatives as cheap as we can, making carbon-based fuel uneconomic. Perhaps lobby to also make carbon-based more expensive with a CO2 emission tax to hasten the crossing point.


  9. Energy independence for the US:  Given that people in the room were also (generally) dedicated peace advocates, there was excitement behind the prospect that we could end our reliance on foreign oil, and the meddling in the affairs of the Middle East, and reliance on military might and a trillion dollar defense budget.  That sounded good, but if it did so at the cost of staying on the petroleum-based energy infrastructure, is it a sufficient win?



My take on Divestiture

I’m of the opinion that we should not bother wasting time/political capital on divestiture.  Big Oil is such a huge part of our economy, and of the market indices, you’d need to target not only direct holdings, but also indexed funds, and create an alternative index fund (“ex-Oil”) that got a lot of traction.  Vanguard, the largest shareholder has $20B of XOM, just under 5% of the outstanding shares.  So, even if the largest share holder (which would have to move all of its account holders to this hypothetical market index ex-oil fund) assigned a value of $0 to its holdings (and somehow created poisoned shares that couldn’t be traded, and didn’t increase the value of the remaining shares), it would probably only cut 5% of the value of the company, which would be unfortunate, but probably not game-changing for XOM.

I share the opinion that divestiture wouldn’t really impact company behavior.  A really successful divestiture movement might drive stock price down 20% (destroying $80B of shareholder value in Exxon-Mobil alone…) but macroeconomic conditions might do the same thing, and we wouldn’t really expect XOM to do anything (behave differently). Given the level of profitability, I assume that they’re not really dependent on sale of stock to fund operations or service debt.  Perhaps management and officers of the company would be influenced by the stock price impact that would harm options-based compensation?  Maybe, but I’d cynically bet that the board would let them off the hook, re-price options saying it’s “not their fault”.

People aren’t really ready to boycott petroleum.  On a personal level, the petroleum needed for car and airplane fuel, especially, is just too much a part of our life to imagine doing without.  On a national level, we can’t seem to reach an agreement to cut usage of the rich countries, and can’t find common moral ground to insist poor countries stop short of the energy-intensity required to create products and lifestyles to rival what we have.

What *do* I recommend?

  1. Investment in alternatives, and diffusing them as quickly as possible.  Make carbon-based fuel uneconomical. Redirect Big Oil subsidies into alternatives.
  2. Taxation on carbon emissions.  A cap-and-trade system like the one which recently went live in California.
  3. Measures to limit global population growth.  Access to good family planning resources in the US and the developing world.  Reduction in child mortality to reduce family sizes.
  4. Start planning climate change mitigation strategies.  I’m not ready to try geoengineering (too easy to have unintended consequences), but maybe trying to keep cities farther away from the coast, plan where the best farmland is likely to be, encourage a vegetarian diet, etc.
  5. Making personal commitments to use energy more efficiently and stay informed of the situation.


Congratulations to FK Day, World Bicycle Relief

A friend just pointed me to this week’s cover story from the Christian Science Monitor: “Giving Back” featuring 8 social entrepreneurs from around the world.  The one from the United States was F.K. Day, founder of the World Bicycle Relief.  I got a chance to meet F.K. Day and his wife, Leah Missbach Day, in 2005, not long after they had started World Bicycle Relief.  I was impressed with what they had done, and have been pleased to track the growth of World Bicycle Relief over the years.

Indeed, when I was trying to think of a creative example of money poorly spent by a non-profit, I took WBR, and conjured up a group that did the opposite:  Sports Cars for Africa.  Instead of World Bicycle Relief’s emphasis on using what you know (FK is an executive from bike company SRAM), appropriate technology, training local bike mechanics and even producing the bicycles locally, my hypothetical organization burned through their donations by giving recipients $100,000 sports cars.  With low overhead, and high beneficiary satisfaction ratings, though, a casual observer might be gulled into making a gift to Sports Cars for Africa instead of World Bicycle Relief.  I hope that you won’t be.  Donate to World Bicycle Relief here.  See more about the danger of tracking the wrong metrics here at my earlier blog post More on Metrics.

Congratulations, F.K.!