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Kendra Albert

Direct Donation Models (Or How to Give Away Other People's Money)

Sept 15, 2017 at 11:40am


KENDRA: So I'm gonna start off by saying that I'm still a bit wrecked from Sydette's keynote. I feel like there's many people you have to follow up after, and you're like, “They did something boring. I'm gonna be good. This is gonna be exciting.” But I feel so emotionally impacted that I was like, Should I just be like... Why don't we all just sit and breathe together? But I am gonna give the talk nonetheless. I'm here to talk about direct donation models, and the real title of this talk is: How to give away other people's money. And that's because I spent about four months giving away other people's money. I gave away about $100,000 in other people's money. And I gave that money to trans folks so they could update their documentation to conform to their current gender. And as a sort of result of running this project and because I didn't really think about it, I kind of just did it, I'm sort of using this talk as a way to reflect upon some of the choices I made and what worked and what didn't and also to talk about why I think these kinds of projects are important as a more general matter.

KENDRA:So the first thing I want to talk about is how I did it. Well, how I did it. And why I did it. So like many folks, the days after the election in November were really soul searching for me. Really just rough. And I wasn't really sure where to put my energy and where to put my time. And I sort of found myself just reading endless think pieces on the internet, because I was sure that one of them was going to solve my existential angst. Which it turns out... Kind of did happen? But not quite in the way I was expecting. So I encountered this post on the Mary Sue called The Day After, called what to do if you're trans and live in America now. And it was a post that talked about steps you might take as a trans person who is preparing to sort of confront the reality of the Trump Administration. And my big takeaway from this piece was a quote that said: If you can, get your passport. And what the piece explained and I hadn't known before then was that if you're looking to update sort of your documentation to match your gender, and you're trans, getting a passport was at the time—and I think remains—one of the easiest ways to sort of update things. Because you just need a letter from your doctor. Many states require, like, proof of gender-conforming surgery or you to go before a judge and say like, "Yeah, no, really, I want this." Or publish a name change. But if you just want to get your gender marker changed, that M or F or X, depending on where you live, on your passport, it's a doctor's letter. Of course, medical gatekeeping: not awesome. But still better than having to go before a judge and say, "Yeah, I got the surgery." So I was sort of struck by this advice. I was like... All right. Getting your passport. That's a thing that may be accessible to some folks. But then I found out that getting your passport or your gender designation change on your passport costs about $200. And this was explained in the Mary Sue article. And I had this moment where I was like, I'm a lawyer. I don't make a ton of money, but I could pay $200. I could probably pay $400. But there are lots of folks who couldn't pay $200 or $400. For a lot of people, that money would bankrupt them. Would not be like, “Oh, I get to...” For me, it would have been like, “I get to shrink my budget a little.” For them, it would be like, “I don't eat this month.” So I posted on Facebook, being like, “Hey. Sort of idly wondering... Anybody know anyone who needs a passport update?” And my friend group, unsurprisingly, often has many of the same socioeconomic demographics that I do. So people didn't know... My Facebook friends did not need money to change their passports. But... I had a whole bunch of people who were like, “I would give money for that. I would donate for that.” And I was like, “Oh. Okay. Like... Maybe there's something there.” So... I was like, “Maybe we should just give this money directly to people who need to get their passports updated.” I admit that at the moment it did not occur to me to find an organization that did this. And I'm fine with that, because it turns out those organizations didn't really exist.

KENDRA: So I want to talk a little bit about why I think direct donation is a good model for these kinds of things. So first of all: money solves problems. Like, it's obvious—for many people, that's obvious. But the reality is that the $200 between you and a passport can make a huge difference in someone's life. For example, I started a new job a couple of weeks ago. And I had to prevent my passport in order to fill out my I-9. To get authorization to work. Or to show that I had authorization to work. And for me, that was not a stressful process. Although HR is never fun. But for many people, that could be the moment in which your boss discovers that you're the gender on your documentation—doesn't match the gender you're presenting as. And you're suddenly out of a job, or being discriminated against. And so the sort of direct inspiration for this was the Human Utility, which used to be called the Detroit Water Project, which was a project started by Tiffani Ashley Bell, to fund people's water bills. And so I was like... I had given to the Detroit Water Project and I had gone through the slightly weird process of paying somebody else's water bill. And I was sort of like... I could do something like that. The other sort of driving... One of the other driving thoughts behind the “money solves problems” thing is a quote that I think of pretty much every day by Jennifer Peepas, also known as Captain Awkward, who says: “Sometimes the cheapest way to pay for something is with money.” And I think about this in this particular context when I think about things like fee waivers. So for some—not for passports, but in some parts of the country, if you're trying to get a name change, you can get a fee waiver from a judge to, like, sort of... If you can show you don't have to pay. But often that comes with a whole bunch of paperwork you have to fill out, in order to prove that you can't pay. And sometimes they're discretionary. So the clerk at the court that you're trying to get the fee waiver from can just…not give you the fee waiver. You know? For many trans people, this presents a pretty serious problem. The cheapest way to pay for that, pay for those name changes is not a fee waiver. It's with money. The second reason for—I think direct donation models are important—is non-profits can be wonderful. But [they] are often slow and rules-constrained. You know, if you're reporting back to Charity Navigator what percentage of your stuff goes to programs, and you're worried about—reasonably worried about a ProPublica story about how someone defrauded you, you're reasonably more worried than me, who is just like: you want $200 for your passport? Go for it. And slightly more cynically, people are more willing to give money if there's a meaningful amount. $20 to the ACLU versus... We need $300 for this filing fee... My experience at least is that people pony up more money when they can see the direct tangible effect of what they're doing. And finally the insight I mentioned when I was like... I can do $200... A lot of money for some people is not very much money for others.

KENDRA: And for this, I would like to quote one of the other speakers. I'll just read these tweets: 'I don't go three days without seeing a crowdfunding request from a trans person. I know people who have to choose between hormones and antidepressants each month because they cannot afford both. We cannot rely on a nonprofit having resources and willingness to take our cases, and wait years for a low-probability win—so many of us wait week to week, month to month—and the things we wait on aren’t “impact cases.” “Too small,” except for us. We need your help. We need your money. We need people to march with us.'

KENDRA: So I was like, All right. Direct donation model. But also, I kind of am a little bit of an overachiever. And was not content with just giving away some of my money. Instead, I was like, How do you give away $200 at internet scale? And the answer, as with many things, is a Google form. So this is a quote from my friend, Leigh Honeywell. She says, “Overheard,”—this was actually not about me—“they started a Google spreadsheet is always a portent of women about to fuck some shit up elsewhere.” Which I think remains true. So after the initial round of Facebook, where people are like, “I would totally donate”, I was like, “All right. Everyone hold on. I'm gonna create a Google Form,” which was this.

[Kendra motions towards slides]

KENDRA: It says—at the top—in case you can't read it: “Hi there! Welcome to the super technical matching process for the Trans Passport Fees Donation Project.” It involves some Google Forms and a lot of elbow grease. That was true. It also involved a tweet. So I was like, You know, how do I get the word out there to people who might need this? Well, I'll just put it on Twitter. And I said, “If you need money for passport fees, email me. I have volunteers. We'll find you the money.” If this was an Arrested Development episode, there would be the narrator in the background who said, “They did not have volunteers.” I did not have volunteers. I just thought it sounded more official if I said I had volunteers and I figured I could find some volunteers. So why not? I also used the hashtag #translawhelp. And I want to make sure I got his handle right. Founded and moderated by @dtwps, who did a lot of really great work collecting resources in the days after the election. So there's a tweet. There's a Google form. There's an email address. What happens? Well, this. [referring to slide]

KENDRA: For a whole set of reasons, I was really uncomfortable putting the link to the Google form on social media. I was worried it would get gamed. I was kind of just nervous about the whole thing. Not about giving out the money. That part, strangely enough, didn't worry me at all. But rather what would happen if a whole bunch of people brigaded the Google link. So I had people email me instead. Which actually turned out, I think, to be a surprisingly effective strategy. It also meant that I had sort of personal contact with people. I could talk about what we could fund and what we couldn't fund. And when I said what we could fund and what we couldn't fund, I'm obfuscating, because what that means is what I felt comfortable funding in that moment or not. Once they got a link, people both who wanted to donate or request would fill out the Google form. They would get hand matched in the spreadsheet by someone. In the beginning, me. There would be a copy-pasted email that would get sent to them. And I would send it from my email address. And sort of in scaling this project, I followed a principle called the Shirk and Turk principle, from Daniel Reeves, who makes a productivity app called Beeminder. So he says: When you make a feature, manually make it, and tweak it behind the scenes as you need to. So I'm sure people thought they were getting automated responses. There were no automated emails. It was literally just me. I haven't gone back and counted how many emails it was, but my guess is probably 7,000 over the course of a lot of months. So one of the other key skills of this project was answering a lot of email. So by the end of the project, the only part that we had actually automated, based on the Shirk and Turk principle, was it automated the match email from the spreadsheet. We eliminated the need to copy and paste. And I ended up finding volunteers. And rather than putting their names at the end, I would like to thank them here. Maggie, Katie, Liz, Leigh, and Bailey helped me sort of run this harebrained scheme for a couple of months.

KENDRA: So when I designed the form and the email language, I made some choices that actually I think resonated a lot with the last talk we heard. And were really informed by my experiences in a project that I did when I was in law school. The basic principle was: “Fuck everything everyone told you about professional communication.” Or at least…[what] everyone told me about professional communication. You may have been told differently. I don't want to assume. And that was because I worked on this project in law school that helped people figure out how to file for bankruptcy without a lawyer. And the essential part of that project was a character called Blob. Who was the person in the center. And Blob's goal was to get people through filing bankruptcy. And one of the core insights of this project was that one of the things that keeps people from filing for bankruptcy isn't just the sort of complication of the forms, although certainly they are complicated enough. But rather, people's own experience of shame and not wanting to sort of deal with the... Sort of what has gone on in their life. Right? And feeling ashamed about asking for help or asking for this clean slate. So I really brought the things I learned about language from this project to the forms. And that led to something pretty different than what people's typical expectation of a…”Oh, I'm asking for money” form look[s] like.

KENDRA: So this was the language that you would read if you were requesting money before you filled out the form. “Look. Before we get started, remember that you are amazing and worthy and you deserve to have documentation that matches your gender. Asking for help is not weakness. We all need help sometimes.” Okay. So... And then it went into the form. There were a whole lot of other sort of weird quirks about the language. One of which is: I never actually asked for people's pronouns. The only thing I wanted was people's first name, because I wanted to address them politely, and it said on the form: So we can address you politely. I don't know the last names of most of the people who got money through this project. I didn't need to know how they identified. Because it really wasn't any of my business. In fact, when I wrote the match email, which is this... I very carefully avoided pronouns for everyone. And what I said was: “I’m connecting the two of you so you can figure out the best way to verify details and make that happen.” That being the exchange of money. Most people use PayPal. Or Venmo. Some people sent checks. Some people did money orders. “Please take me off the email thread.” That was the understatement. Please, sweet Jesus, take me off the email thread. Or move me to BCC once you start coordinating. “Heart. Love and solidarity, Kendra.”

KENDRA: One of the sort of funny things I realized when I looked back over what I'd written was... There were hearts everywhere. These were the two last things you would see if you filled out the form. The first one as a donor, the second one as a recipient. We heart you. Thanks for getting this far. Take care of yourself, okay? Heart. There are just hearts and more hearts. Tons of hearts. It was like playing solitaire when you win. And I think that was because, for me, the project was really about, like, you know, it sounds really corny. But love and solidarity. And it was an incredibly intense emotional experience. And so I want to talk about that.

KENDRA: So the emotional stages of this project were many. At the beginning, it was overwhelming. There was a lot of email. I took a day off from work and answered email for 12 hours. And I still wasn't done with all the email. And I developed better forms and I got a better sense of how to write it. But sort of the defining... If there had been sort of a montage, it would have been the most boring training montage of all time, because it would have been me at my computer, writing email. Me at the coffee shop, writing email. Just literally the same thing over and over. So at the beginning, it was overwhelming. But it also felt really good to be doing something. It was channeling that energy that previously had gone to reading terrible think-pieces into something productive and real. And it was energizing to realize that I could make a difference in people's lives, in this really concrete way. You know, in my day job, I'm a lawyer. But I'm kind of the kind of lawyer who... Like, the consequences of hopefully the good works I will be doing will be seen, like, 20 years down the line. There's often very little actual, like, I helped a person today. It was powerful feeling, to be like, “Wow. That's a lot of money. I did that.” Right? I and my volunteers, who I appreciate very much. We did that. And it felt... You know, important. Like... It was something that mattered.

KENDRA: But also it was anxiety-producing. I would wake up at 4 in the morning and answer email. I didn't sleep very much the first week. And the one person who I decided I didn't feel comfortable matching for money, like, kept me up at night for weeks. Like... I still worry about whether, like, I misread the signs and I made the wrong call. Right? And ultimately, that person hopefully will be fine, no matter what I did. That I'm not actually responsible for the entire fate of the entire world. But it was also really lonely. Because I ran it out of my secondary personal email address, I didn't feel comfortable turning the keys over to anybody else. And so... And at the beginning, it wasn't just like people who needed passport money or name change money. Or other sort of documentation stuff. It was things like: “My parents are abusing me and I need to figure out how to become an emancipated minor, and I live in Texas.” Like... “Can you find me a lawyer?” We found them a lawyer. And learning how to be able to understand that, A, the fact that I have a law degree, even though I do not do anything like this, was a real benefit, because lawyers took me seriously. But also that... Like, I couldn't actually solve everyone's problems. That the... I would sort of walk away from my email and feel so intensely connected to the people I was emailing with, but also so very alone from all of the people I was interacting with on a day-to-day basis. And it was really tiring. You know, as we entered months two and three, a lot of the initial excitement and sort of like good feelings wore off and it became part of my daily routine. And my response time slowed down. I could find somebody the money, usually within 48 hours. When I did the first set. Basically in November. But as the project wore on, it took me longer to get myself to respond to email. And then there was this moment at which it felt like it became a chore. And when I wrote this slide, I kind of felt really shitty about it, because I was like, “That's a really horrible thing to say about something that was this important and mattered this much.” I'm not saying it became a chore like, Oh, God, I have to take out the trash. But rather that my relationship to the project changed. Like, I found it more and more difficult to summon up that initial care that had brought me to the project in the first place. The hearts... You know? They were still in the forms. But it was much harder to get there. And as March turned to April, it sort of took over all of my positive feelings. And I realized that even if I could keep going, even if I had more donors, even if there were more people to be helped, it was only a matter of time before my lack of caring, like, the fact that it no longer felt the same as it did at the beginning, was gonna cause me to cause someone harm. It wasn't just about whether I was tired. Although certainly that is enough of a reason to quit. But because I was certain that my lack... Just finding it a chore was gonna result in harm to someone else. So I quit. I finished. I did a couple more people who I already knew. I had like one backup donor who would help me deal with the last couple. I told all the donors to give money to someone else. And then it was over. And it sort of... A profound sense of loss. But also, it was really cool. And I'm really proud of the fact that with a Google form I gave $100,000 of other people's money, with a lot of love. And I quit!


KENDRA: Thank you.

Kendra Albert

Outdoor portrait of Kendra Albert

Kendra is a lawyer at the Cyberlaw Clinic at Harvard Law School, where they provide pro bono legal services to clients on issues related to the Internet and emerging technologies. They write and speak on a diverse set of Internet issues, from video game archiving to computer security, and teach workshops to help privileged people develop “ally” skills and stand up for targeted groups. When they’re not working or misguidedly turning their hobbies into projects, Kendra enjoys playing Hearthstone and scheming about how to eat more carbs.