By Virginia Brumby

thumb_3.jpgAccording to the strict definition of ‘volunteer,’ I was never really up to snuff. Sure, on scorching, gnat-dappled summer days, my cousin and I were out picking up Krystal burger wrappers along the roadside (complete with ‘fashionista’ orange reflector vest, a-la county jail.) True, Christmas mornings found us cranking out dubious renditions of carols on the out-of-tune nursing home piano… whether the residents wanted to hear them or not. Yes, I sold Girl Scout cookies (mostly to my little brother, in an ill-fated pyramid scheme), went on a ‘Food & Friendship’ mission to post-cold war Moscow, and walked for cancer, without wearing sunscreen.


But I can’t say any of it was exactly my idea. My parents run a non-profit foundation to improve literacy. Both my grandmothers spent untold quantities of time and money propping up a plethora of ill-funded associations, underprivileged children, battered pets, distant relatives, and lost causes… So in our family, giving back was never really an option.  My father favored ‘motivational techniques’ such as: "Stop whining and get that orange vest on, pronto… if you haven’t filled up 2 garbage bags by noon, you can kiss your florescent yellow Swatch phone goodbye!


"Strangely enough, long after I left the Brumby den of enforced philanthropy, the habit stuck: organizing outings for my university’s Service League, mentoring a disadvantaged high school senior in DC (who surprised us both and got into Howard University), collecting surplus clothing for a Delhi orphanage, translating websites and shingling roofs outside Buenos Aires (luckily, it doesn’t rain much there.)


It looks nice on paper. The truth, however, is that I’ve done very little. Like most people, I spend the vast majority of my time ‘working’, eating, drinking, sleeping, eating, searching my closet with night goggles for the ghosts of British soldiers (did I just say that out loud?), and updating my Facebook status.


Virginia is…

"About to start philanthropy article. Soooo excited to get my motivational thoughts & experiences on paper ;-)"

"REALLY gonna start my article, like as soon as I finish this 3rd Kit Kat and one more episode of Mad Men for inspiration…"

"Message to less service-minded ‘friends’: How can I change lives with my eloquence if you keep distracting me with your FB status updates?"

"OMG - What’s the point of writing this &$%* article anyway, with so much pain & suffering in the world? Late night karaoke, anyone?"

As you can see, with my insanely busy and important schedule, it’s easy to see why I don’t have as much time for volunteerism as I’d like to. Nonetheless, when we started our lifestyle business, Survival Chic, hubby and I decided to choose a charity to be an integral part of our business plan (In fact, we decided not to waste time actually writing one of those, but you get the point.)

As penny-pinching entrepreneurs ourselves, we were instantly seduced by Kiva. An innovative micro-finance organization, their motto says it best: “Loans that change lives.” Kiva is simple, easy, and immediate:

  1. Go to and choose personally from a careful selection of small business owners in need, around the world.
  2. Make a loan to the entrepreneur who catches your eye and your heart.
  3. Start to feel darn good.

Each time our business grows, we put a percentage into Kiva, and we choose exactly where that money goes. For example, a Survival Chic Kiva loan helped Maria Nela, Nicaraguan mother of four, buy rice, beans, and cooking oil to expand her corner store business, which she runs daily, from 6AM to 9PM. You can form lending teams with colleagues and friends. You can follow the progress of your loan recipients. You can feel that your support is making a distinct difference to a particular individual and community. It’s magical.


As much as we love Kiva, however, once in a while it’s nice to be hands-on. So this weekend, Team Survival Chic will be ‘volunteering’ at UNIFEM’s SNOW Ball, a charity gala for the UN organization dedicated to empowering women. Personally, I will be serving as a ‘table concierge’ which involves a questionable Great Gatsby-inspired getup, a 17-page set of guidelines to memorize (I am NOT making this up), and undoubtedly some irate guests at my table-- as a waitress in my younger days, I once set a diner’s eyebrow on fire with the crème brulée torch.


The Table Concierge volunteer role brings back memories of ‘Happy Service’, a term (in) famously coined by my grandfather in the early nineties. Happy Service basically meant that at major family meals, we grandchildren were expected to clear the plates, wash them, dry them, put them away… and ENJOY EVERY MINUTE OF IT (or else!).


Strangely enough, despite our endless whining and complaining, despite broken iced tea glasses and Cousin Rick’s suspicious ‘allergy’ to dish soap, despite sneaking sips of beer, and letting Rosie the dog do most of the dirty work with her tongue… in short, despite everything we stood for as sulky, self-important pre-teens.... 


Happy Service turned out to be fun.