I grew up in a household where service was not an extracurricular activity but an inherent expectation and lifestyle.
Location: New York, New York
Author & Founder of @everydayAMB.
Global traveler. Physician-in-training at
What was the first gift you ever gave?:
I grew up in a household where service was not an extracurricular activity but an inherent expectation and lifestyle. My parents involved me and my three siblings in various Girl/Boy Scout activities to serve our communities, and lived lives of service themselves. Throughout my childhood and young adulthood I frequently gave my time to serving underserved communities, and one of the most formative and memorable experiences was volunteering an at HIV/AIDS shelter in my hometown throughout my high school career. At the time I didn’t own a passport (whereas now I’ve filled up nearly five in a decade), but forming relationships with people whose lives were so different than my own was an experience that felt as foreign as international travel, at first. It was very formative for me to realize how much common ground I shared with these new friends, despite our differences, and the act of seeing people as people, and not labels, was a deeply influential for me.
What is your charity of choice?:
There are so many worthy charities in the world, and yet so many organizations who are not well organized or designed, who do more harm than good. My personal motto is that I only donate to organizations who I have seen operate in the field, or whose staff and directors I have seen at work personally. For me, my regular list includes Partners in Health, Keep a Child Alive, and Possible. I have also made financial donations to individuals I have met in my international journeys–for education fees, for medication, for making a step out of poverty–rather than donating to large organizations.
Who inspires you to give?:
I truly believe that the purpose of me being on this Earth is to find ways to transform the endless gifts I’ve been granted–health, education, stability, financial security–into new opportunities for others to progress their own lives. There are millions of people on our planet who, despite technological advances, continue to live in poverty and die of preventable and curable diseases. This is a statement I hear often, but it never feels as real to me as actually witnessing it with my own eyes; seeing people persevere despite immense challenges. How else should someone as fortunate as respond to this struggle, but to give and enable others to overcome? I can’t make sense of it any other way.
What motivates you to give?:
I am motivated to give because I see how effective well-designed giving can be. I’ll be the first to preach about the important of teaching a man to fish instead of giving a man a fish; giving means collaborating, conversing, forming relationships, learning what’s needed, finding creative ways to help communities solve problems, sustainably, for themselves, without reliance on foreign intervention. But for me giving is not only about technical and financial support. As I talk about extensively in Everyday Ambassador, giving is also a way of life. When we’re giving of our attention and our presence to everyone around us, we are not only giving a gift to others but also enriching our own lives, in a very motivating way.
How do you give of your time?:
I like to think that the time I pour into my writing, the Everyday Ambassador book as well as our website and my weekly column, is a form of giving. I strive to share important lessons and insights in the fields of public service, social entrepreneurship, and volunteering so that the ‘industry’ of giving becomes a more humanistic and effective place to operate. On a more personal level, I give of my time within the various social, professional, academic, and familial communities I’m a part of, and try to be generous with my time during every interpersonal interaction.
What advice do you have for others to consider giving?:
Relationships, relationships, relationships. No matter who you’re giving to (an individual or organization), no matter what corner of the Earth (local, national, global), it’s crucial to have a strong relationship with the community you aim to serve. This is the only way to avoid disappointments on both sides (projects not actually helping the community, or projects that leave donors feeling unengaged). Have conversations, make visits, develop strong relationships, and build your giving into a two way street, in which you are always aware of what you’re receiving in return.
From all of your travels, can you share with us one story of making a difference?:
My core belief of giving back, as described deeply in my book Everyday Ambassador, is that giving is a two way street, based on relationships. True giving is always an act of receiving as well, an action that builds and strengthens friendships.
One of my favorite examples of this in my own life and travels has been my relationship with a woman I now consider a sister, Glory Kimonge. Glory and I met when she was a high school student in Tanzania, and I was a 20 year old volunteer helping her and her fellow students run a local HIV testing and education campaign. I was so impressed with her leadership and positivity, and we had a fantastic experience together that summer.
A couple years later, Glory emailed me out of the blue asking reluctantly if I could help her with a problem: she had graduated from high school but her school would not issue her a degree because she owed a few hundred dollars in school fees. I never realized during that summer that Glory, a confident and happy teenager, was also an orphan who was struggling to support herself and her family. I happily paid her fees, and then we talked about her future dreams: she aspired to go to college, work in local tourism, and become a national leader for environmental protection and sustainability. She had big dreams, and although I was also a college student myself at the time, deep in student loan debt, I wanted to help Glory. I told her to enroll in college, and I told her I would find a way to fundraise her college education.
Fast forward three years from then, and Glory was a successful college grad, and the first woman at her college to ever become a student government leader. Thanks to the power of digital crowd-funding, my friend and family were able to fundraise her college education ($3,000/year) every year for three years. Glory is now thriving in a government position, and pursuing her dreams, step by step, thanks to the support of her now global network of friends.
But this act of giving went far beyond a bunch of Americans donating to one Tanzanian girl. Glory made a point to become friends with every person who donated – not just a click of a button on Facebook, but a true effort at international friendship. She remembered and celebrated birthdays, sent thoughtful thank you messages, checked in on people’s well being and respective dreams and efforts. I know from talking to my family and friends that their relationship with Glory is as much a gift to them as their financial donation was to her. Most of her supporters have never left the US and thanks to her they now have a more global per