Giving Back Q&A with Steven Ketchpel


What’s the biggest mistake people make when donating?Giving-Back-book-Stephen-Ketchpel-volunteering-donating-good-neighbor-stories

I had an inkling Steven P. Ketchpel, Ph.D., Bay Area author of Giving Back, would have a very good answer. His well-written and thought-out guidebook helps readers through the process of figuring out their passions and interests, as well as through the planning, implementation, and follow-up of any donation or project.

As a follow-up to my review of his book, he agreed to answer that question and a few more about donating and volunteering.

Good Neighbor Stories: What’s the feedback from readers been like for the book?

Ketchpel: I love hearing back from readers (, and have heard stories of action inspired by the book:  starting to volunteer on a new project, having a discussion about values with their family, or making loans through Kiva.  I’ve also heard from experienced volunteer/leaders who love the book—one described it as a “yellow brick road” with “simple, easy steps we can take to create something important.”

What’s the biggest mistake people make when making donations? What’s the number one thing they can do to avoid mistakes in the future?

Giving piecemeal in reaction to requests, without thinking about the desired strategic impact, can dilute your efforts.  So, yes, support your co-worker for his Team in Training triathlon, but also think about what’s most important to your family, and how to support those causes and organizations at a meaningful level.  Create a plan of how much you’ll allocate to giving, and research the organizations that will use your gift wisely.

If a parent of young children asks you the best way to get started on volunteering as a family, what do you advise? What would be the first step?

Kids want to help at a young age.  Start them thinking about people in “helping professions”, and then step back to smaller examples they can do themselves.  Ask some leading questions:  “I’ll bet our elderly neighbor gets lonely sometimes.  What could we do to cheer her up?”  Or “Do you see anywhere around our neighborhood where we could make it look prettier?”  A small, informal family project is a good start.  Older kids can tackle bigger projects, or work with an organization in the community.

You describe well some ways to stop donating to an organization, but I’m wondering what’s a good way to gracefully bow out of a long-term volunteer commitment?

If you are a “key volunteer,” you can help the organization by:

a)   Share your reasons for leaving.  If you’re burned out, the job may be too big for one volunteer.  Better for the group to know now than train another volunteer only to burn her out soon.

b)   Give enough notice, ideally two or three “cycles” worth.  If you help edit the newsletter each month, offer at least three months notice to find a replacement.

c)    Help find and train your successor.  Write a job description of what you do if there isn’t a current one.  Work jointly with your successor for one cycle, and be available for questions after that.

d)   Resist the urge/request to take back over.  It’s necessary for organizations to change, and overcoming unhealthy reliance on key people is part of that.  There may be balls that get dropped, but those are natural growing pains, and you’ll never leave if you wait for a perfectly smooth transition.

According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, California is ranked 37th in the country for the number of volunteers in the state; the rate is 25.7 percent. San Jose and San Francisco come in at right around 30 percent. Utah ranks first with 40.9 percent. Utah is also number one when it comes to donating, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy; California is 25th. Are there ways our communities can increase giving back, either volunteering or donations?

The families in our communities are really stretched thin, with both time and money.  Most feel they don’t have the time to find even a one-day project, much less make an ongoing commitment.  Organizations can help by making it easy for families to learn about opportunities and just “drop-in” for a morning or afternoon.  Perhaps a community foundation can concentrate the publicity efforts of several groups on projects available on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, which President Obama has designated as the National Day of Service.  Have a very clear plan how families will help during their time, and a way to get in touch after the event is over.