Guest Post: My First Experience Giving a HandUp Gift Card

“Can you spare some change?”

This question – or some variation of it – is as much a part of San Francisco life as Karl the Fog.

My friend Joel always seems to have a buck for someone in need. But most of my friends and I are less comfortable handing out cash. After all, it’s hard to see how all those micro-contributions can make a real difference, and no one wants to feel like a walking ATM. So we put on a smile and offer a weak “Sorry.” We remind ourselves of all the charities we support. And we keep walking, nursing a mixture of guilt and annoyance.

But what if there were some other way? What if this typical encounter could be recast into something more positive and productive for everyone?

Recently I discovered an interesting alternative.

The clever folks at HandUp.org have created a gift-card program that combines centralized giving with personal outreach in an effort to help those experiencing homelessness. It turns donors into a distribution channel of sorts to broaden the reach of social services for those who may benefit.

When you purchase HandUp gift cards online, 100% of your donation goes to people served by homeless support organizations. When you give a HandUp gift card, you connect the recipient not only with the food or clothes he or she needs immediately but also with the social services that can provide more lasting support.

Here’s how they work:

  1. Buy gift cards at HandUp.org and get them in the mail.

  2. Offer a gift card to someone in need, showing them the redemption instructions printed on the back. When recipients redeem their cards at a HandUp partner site, they are given their choice of Safeway, Walgreens, Marshalls or other store cards of the same value. They can also get free hygiene supplies, glasses, dentures, and a variety of other services. Plus they can register for the Handup.org “crowd funding” site to support a specific financial goal, such as an apartment deposit or bus ticket.

  3. Get an email telling you when one of your cards is redeemed.

My first experience giving a HandUp card was with Michael, a young man who approached my friends and me in Union Square. I offered him a card and he redeemed it for a grocery store gift card the very next morning. After I explained the card to another person -- this time an older man panhandling on Ninth Avenue -- and asked if he might use it, he gave me a big smile and, to my surprise, a bear hug. Most recently, the young mother I spoke with on Market Street told me she’d use the card for food to tide her and her four-year-old son over until their SNAP benefit became available later that week.

The value associated with expired cards is distributed to the people fundraising on Handup.org, so you know your donation is going to good use even if your cards aren’t redeemed.

Curious about the redemption experience, I visited HandUp partner Project Homeless Connect to check it out. The organization occupies a space in the centrally located old Masonic Temple at 25 Van Ness. When I arrived mid-morning, several clients were waiting for caseworkers to free up. Ian, a staffer, greeted new arrivals. He explained the range of services to me and told me that the beauty of the HandUp gift card program is that it connects people with a wide range of assistance. Two of the clients waiting nearby chimed in to tell me how much they appreciated the organization and those who support it.

This is the genius behind the HandsUp gift cards: they act as incentives to encourage those in need to visit a social services site. And they enable people like me to facilitate that connection.

HandUp gift cards have given me a new way to respond when I’m asked for help. And in slowing down and taking a moment to explain the cards, I’ve connected with people on the street in a new way. The cards empower me to start a conversation with the person behind the outreached hand. That may just be the biggest benefit of all.

Ann Shepherd is a tech marketer, data geek, SF history lover, and Scrabble addict. She also an incredible supporter of HandUp and we are grateful to have her share this experience with us.