DNA Ethnicity Test Result Reliability – It’s All About Expectations

Around Thanksgiving, I went to lunch with a group of childhood classmates. During a lull in the conversation, one of them asked – “Hey, who here has done their DNA?”  A number of us raised our hands. His next question was, “What did you think – was it right?” And I sighed a little.

Of course it was right. There are no wrong answers, and DNA really doesn’t lie. The real question he was asking (and he clarified this) is, “Were the ethnicity results what you expected?” For the first quarter of 2018, with an extraordinary number of tests sold during the holidays, we expect literally millions of new DNA test results to flood the test sites. The first thing most people will do is look to see if their ethnicity estimates match their expectations.

People take DNA tests for a lot of reasons.  For me and my close family members who have tested, it was to see if we could find matches to help us take our paper research back a few generations. For adoptees, it is the hope of finding biological family. But for an increasing number of people, it’s just to discover or confirm a cultural or ethnic identity or two. They’re sure they will find that Native American, Asian, or French link they’ve heard about in family stories. Or they KNOW they will be 50% Polish and 50% Irish. Especially in melting pot nations like the United States, there seems to be a longing to identify with a deeper, more long-standing heritage.

Ancestry.com© has a fairly famous commercial, where a man who embraced his German heritage completely – even wearing lederhosen to celebrate his culture – does a DNA test to confirm his ethnicity. He ends up discovering Scottish ancestry, whereupon he just trades in his lederhosen for a kilt. Never mind that when the commercial came out, Ancestry.com did not yet include either Germany or Scotland as a distinct region in their ethnicity results – meaning that the man had to do other research to make his leap. The idea that any company’s DNA admixture estimate alone gives you a complete and accurate map of your genetic heritage is just plain misleading. There are assumptions and subjectivities here, as well as missing data, in every report.

The trouble is, DNA doesn’t lie, but it’s whimsical – and it’s very, very random. And these reports go back, not just the 200 years most of our trees cover, but hundreds and hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of years. Ethnicities (admixtures) can go back to the Romans and their conquests. Back to the Vikings and their settlements throughout Europe and other parts of the world. Back to the Turks and Ottomans, to the Mongols, and to Polynesian migrations… And then there’s everything that happened in between those times and now. People are unpredictable. Borders and governments have changed dozens of times in Europe alone in the past 500 years. Germany has never yet been a unified independent country for 50 consecutive years – yet some of us look for a solid “German” identity in our DNA.

So what can we learn, and what can we understand about what the ethnicities in the reports actually do and don’t tell us?

First of all, DNA can’t always reliably give you the nationality (country) of your ancestors as you understand it – This is especially true in Europe because of the way borders changed and people moved around, inter-married, were invaded, and travelled to trade with other countries. Ethnicity estimates are much more reliable in giving you continental or regional identities. Many ethnicities overlap when placed on a map. My husband’s mom was Polish – both parents were born there in very different regions, and they were married in Warsaw – but there actually was no “Poland” for a period of time, and where its borders are now is not where they were when hubby’s ancestors lived there. Watch this animated map. There are multiple versions of this on the internet, some for other parts of the world as well, but this one works well for our purposes. Keep an eye on Poland. Watch again looking for Germany, then Russia…  Daily Mail’s Interactive Map of Europe over time.

For my mom’s Ulster Scots family, there is no way to actually determine where the Scots begin and the Irish end – there were multiple migrations between the two countries in our family as late as the 1850’s, so we inevitably have some of each through intermarriage. Unless we magically unearth a bunch of family Bibles from 1650 to 1800, we’re going to have to live with not knowing exactly which DNA is which.

My sister and I also have way more British Isles DNA in our results (on 3 sites’ results) than our mother’s 50% could possibly account for. When a paternal family member (who should have been “all German”) took a test, the results were about 20% English/British – YAY! Now my sister and I can choose to keep believing our mom’s Scots ancestors didn’t intermingle with those brutish Sassenach Englishmen! (You’re supposed to laugh here, because these are the kinds of feelings or beliefs we all bring to our first look at our ethnicity estimate reports, and because, after all we apparently still have that English DNA.)

Sis and I also each have a few “trace regions,” which the testing companies acknowledge could just be coincidence or noise – some people get very concerned about having traces from unexpected regions, when there may not actually be any actual link there at all, just some coincidental markers.

Next, each testing company has its own algorithm for analysis, and there is a certain amount of subjectivity in them. They each start with regions they select and then find “reference populations” – people they believe had all their ancestors in each specific area for a few hundred years. They then each select hundreds of thousands pieces (but not all) of your DNA to look at. When they find significant common markers between you and a reference group, they identify you with that “ethnicity.” Then, they use algorithms to weed out coincidental or other results which they believe may skew results. Every company publishes info on how they determine ethnicities (admixtures), and this is available for your review. It may really help to review the info links at each site as you review your results. Although there is considerable science involved in their assumptions, they are still assumptions:

  1. Ancestry
  2. 23 and Me
  3. FamilyTree DNA (FTDNA)
  4. MyHeritage

GEDmatch, which doesn’t do its own testing, but takes uploads of tests from other sites, has a variety of admixture analyses available as well. All of these providers are continually upgrading their results through a variety of methodologies, and although they are getting better, they will always rely on some suppositions – so none of them is ever going to be perfect, and all should be taken as estimates, not as reliable facts.

Last, your own DNA is a wild card. The way autosomal DNA (the kind ethnicity reports are based on) works, each person gets 50% from each parent. But no two people (except identical twins) get the same 50%. For all other siblings, it’s like being dealt a different random half of a deck of cards each time. In each generation, only a random half of each parent’s inherited gene pool is passed down to each child, and on the flip side, half is lost. Over hundreds of years (sometimes even less), some ethnicities may remain, and others may become lost or so small/fragmented that they aren’t statistically significant or identifiable anymore. You still had those ancestors, your DNA just didn’t hold onto enough of that DNA in one place to have them show up in an ethnicity estimate report. Your siblings or cousins may still have big enough pieces to see, though. This is why it’s important to test multiple family members if you are trying to answer specific questions. I have a full sister, verified objectively and subjectively – that is, by DNA, and by a nearly identical voice and other traits that each of us pretty noticeably has from each parent. We have differences in our ethnicity reports, though. We also share only about ½ of our DNA “matches” – meaning we each have a variety of people we match that the other doesn’t (yes, your DNA results can show you way more than just an estimated ethnicity.) Our results aren’t even a little unusual; this is common with full siblings.  What this tells us is that no one person’s DNA is a complete map of their ancestors, because of what’s been lost or minimized through random inheritance. Nobody’s DNA contains a complete family tree.

If you are looking for a particular ethnicity, use Google or Bing to search:  DNA ancestry __________  – filling in the blank with the ethnicity you’re searching for. There are tons of resources that will pop up. It may be that your Native American ethnicity is showing up under another description or descriptions. Or…

There are the more difficult possibilities. These include family stories being just that – fabricated or embellished stories that took on lives of their own through the years (we have a beloved French royalty myth in hubby’s Polish line) that may or may not have a basis in reality. Another possibility is that somewhere along the line, the parent or parents listed in the family tree are not the actual parent(s) of a child, unknown to succeeding generations. This could be the result of an informal adoption by a step-parent or other person(s), an affair, or other similar events. Genealogists call these NPEs (non-paternal or non-parental events). One of the most famous recent cases of this was Bill Griffeth’s. Bill was a longtime genealogy hobbyist and respected journalist when he tested his DNA and discovered that his ancestry was not what he expected. He wrote a wonderful book called The Stranger in My Genes detailing his difficult journey.

So we are back to expectations vs. results. DNA doesn’t lie (in rare cases of suspected test company error, the companies often do a free retest.) Two different TV news shows  (Inside Edition, and more recently the Today Show) tested groups of identical triplets at multiple testing companies. Although they found the tests weren’t 100% identical, they were pretty darned consistent overall. Your DNA ethnicity report won’t reliably give you the tiny island or county your recent ancestors came from, but it should give you a reasonable indicator of the regions or countries your genetic ancestors may have lived in.

It’s best to come to DNA testing without pre-conceived notions – many of us don’t even know the full names, dates, and birthplaces of our 8 great-grandparents with certainty. Three more generations back there 64 direct ancestors – how much do you know about them? You may or may not want to investigate any unexpected results if you find them, but you can’t completely discount them. Discover what random genetics may have given you. Things you don’t expect may appear, and things you expected may have faded away. No matter what any of us find here, we are all what both nature and nurture have made us, for better or worse.

The long and short of this is, you should test your DNA with the understanding that you should take any specific ethnicity estimates with a grain of salt, and that you may find some unexpected results. Upload your results to multiple sites to see what new things you find at each one. Test additional family members. But as many have said before me, don’t turn in your lederhosen for a kilt. You are likely a mix of cultures and ethnicities, and you may be made up of more than you ever imagined. Keep in mind that there are subjectivities in the test algorithms and missing pieces in your random DNA. DNA Ethnicity/Admixture estimates are just that. They can never tell the whole story because your own DNA doesn’t give it to them. All they can do is point you in a reasonable direction for a further research journey.  Bon Voyage.


Some Additional Recommended Reading:














Posted in DNA, Family, Genealogy, Genetics | Tagged , | 7 Comments

Chasing Family – Online Family Trees: To Post or Not to Post?


SPOILER ALERT – This post relates to the hobby of Genealogy.

I’ve been at this genealogy thing in one way or another for about 25 years now. I worked full-time for many of those years, so it was an on-again, off-again hobby when I started. Now I’m retired, have done some serious coursework in Genealogical Research, and have helped some others as well.

About 10 years in, I started getting serious about sharing the information I had acquired. I helped my cousins put together a book for a family reunion of my paternal relatives, complete with disks containing over 1500 images, the text of the book, and digital trees of our ancestors. I’ve done books for my husband’s family as well, and I put together one for each niece or nephew in the next generation as they marry. I even have one of my grandsons interested in family research now!

By the time I go, I’ll have several decades of research on paper and in digital files, and what happens to all that work? Will my kids know how to access it? My paper files speak for themselves, but my digital research is in desktop programs and, to some extent in online trees that need subscriptions for access. I am in the process of collecting that info, with instructions for our children on how to access everything.  I’m sharing much of the actual results with them and some other family as I go, as well.

So why not just put everything in Dropbox?  Or in an Ancestry.com or MyHeritage.com tree?

Well, here’s the thing. Once you put anything online, anywhere, it’s out there in the cloud forever, backed up in multiple places so that it probably can never truly be deleted. Genealogy sites merge or get sold. Any site could get hacked. Digital protocols change. Online security is actually pretty good at the sites I use, but it will never be perfect.

My desktop trees contain personal data and copies of family held records, photos, and stories that probably never need to be public – especially on living individuals. For years I have assured family members that I will never post that information online, so I keep my trees and documentation on local drives and backups. But that frustrates other researchers, who want to compare my trees to theirs. They argue that most sites have “privatization” protocols that keep profiles on living people from appearing. That I can select the data that I upload (photos, stories, etc.). That I am hampering efforts of the very people I hope to find to advance my own research.

But I have promises to keep, so what to do?

Well, there are options. First of all, if my goal is sharing with my family (most of whom are only moderately interested – certainly not enough to pay for subscriptions), the main subscription sites where researchers are clamoring for public trees probably aren’t the answer. If my goal is to help other researchers, or to advance my own research into the past, there is a certain amount of data that can be posted accomplish that. After all, if the living people would be “privatized” and not visible anyway, why include them in an online tree at all?

My own solution for some time has been to post a public online tree that is limited in scope. Since I use this tree partly to match ancestors with DNA matches on several sites, I have limited it to actual relatives. For example, I don’t include the colonial genealogy of my husband’s sister in-law, which is quite extensive, and available on other trees.  I include all of my own and my husband’s direct line ancestors, back as far as I can go (Note: for DNA matching, going back more than 8 or 9 generations is interesting, but not particularly helpful – but going back only 2 generations doesn’t usually help much either.)  I include names, dates, and locations for birth, marriage and death (BMD) facts. I attach no family docs or photos, although I do include sources readily available online (census records, gravesites, BMD certificates.) I also include the siblings of my direct line ancestors, with their spouses and children. That assures that all meaningful surnames I have for people who might match me are there. I include no living people, other than DNA testers (and in some cases, necessarily, their parents), who I identify only with initials or as “Private”, and no BMD info or other data.

What does this accomplish?  Well, contact, hopefully. And when I contact DNA matches, I can refer them to my public tree and ask if they see any connections. On Ancestry.com, this is also enough data to create “Shared Ancestry Hints” with DNA matches – these suggest how my tree and a match’s tree connect. (Of course the other person has to have posted a public tree that goes back to the common ancestor as well). It accomplishes connection via messaging or email, with people who have pieces to the puzzle I can’t get any other way. And I have pieces to share with them.

This is especially true with overseas ancestors – my family are fairly recent immigrants to the US, so I’m searching in Germany, Scotland, and Ireland. My husband’s maternal side is recently from Poland. And when I say recently, we both grew up with our maternal side immigrants living in our homes. We have some original documents that came with those people, stories they told us, photos of family we never knew. The people we connect with often have the same.

For me, connections, the stories behind the facts, the legacy of determination, the good, bad, and ugly of their journeys – that’s what makes learning about our ancestors so fascinating. I am currently in correspondence with previously unknown family in the US in Pennsylvania, Texas and Oregon, and overseas in Australia, the Netherlands, England, and Northern Ireland – sharing photos and stories of our mutual family and the places they lived.  I “met” all of these people through data in online trees.

I don’t want to just harvest facts and photos from online databases or online trees (which are only ever as accurate as the research of the poster). I want to understand WHY a grandfather’s brother came over to the US in 1903 and his wife and only one of their children came so many years later. WHY one family suddenly moved from a longtime home in one city, across the river to a different city and state. WHY my paternal immigrant great-grandfather left NYC after 20 years to start a farm in Upstate NY. Those are the things only family knows (or believes), and the reasons and the stories are fascinating.

But I digress.

My online research strategy includes a separate, focused and meaningful family tree that I can post a publicly on genealogy sites, without fear of accidently displaying any information on living relatives (as promised), and without getting “into the trees” with in-law histories. By doing this, I have reduced the size of my posted tree from about 4500 documented people to about 540. And I’ve created some great “cousin bait.” Once I connect with someone, I can and do share more, as appropriate – and so do they.

The question of whether to post a family tree online publicly – or at all – doesn’t have to be just a matter of yes or no. It can be matter instead of investing some thought into what your goals are, and some time into developing a meaningful tree that you feel comfortable sharing.

The returns for me have been wonderful so far, and I hope there are many more rewards to come!

Posted in Family, Genealogy, Technology | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Chasing Family… Down a Rabbit Hole and Up a Tree

I haven’t regularly posted to this blog for a while. Life gets in the way sometimes, but since this week marks my 5-year “blogoversary” I’m inspired to jump back in. I’ve recently had eye surgery, and the world is literally a much brighter and clearer place, so I can enjoy reading and writing again.  I plan to take this blog in a slightly different direction on a fairly regular basis now. In addition to musing on retirement, travel, and life in general I will share a little of what’s been eating up my time for the past year or so – my love for history and genealogy.

My sister and I have always loved historical fiction and biographies. That’s a legacy from our mother, who was fascinated with Tudor England and even wrote an occasional story about Henry VIII herself. When we took trips anywhere, she would say things like, “Just think what it was like for the people who traveled in wagons and settled here when there was nothing” or, “Can you imagine the first person who was paddling down the river and heard the thunder of Niagara Falls?” She was transported by every place she visited, and hoped to help us to live a for a moment in another time, and in another person’s shoes.

When I had my first grandchild over 20 years ago, I started to think about history on a much more personal level. I remembered my grandparents, as my parents remembered theirs. I knew our new generation would remember us, but I suddenly wanted to make sure that there was a way for our grandchildren to know our grandparents and what it took for them to build their families. There were struggles and illnesses to overcome, and some did not survive them long. I began to dip my toe in genealogy.

Back then there was no Ancestry.com, but there were other resources and the web was beginning to coalesce. I bought desktop family tree software and started throwing in data as I found it, writing to family members and obtaining civil and church birth, marriage, and death records. I saved everything I could dig up. I put online inquiries on Message Boards in several groups. I combed through boxes of “stuff” from my grandparents, my parents, and my husband’s family.

About eight years into this, my father’s family had a big reunion. My cousins and I put together everything we had. Then we wrote to everyone in the family asking a number of questions – some concrete and some very open-ended. We also requested the loan of photos. We ended up with a lovely book of memories and stories, and over 1500 images on CD to share. I also ended up with a backlog of stuff to document in my tree. The process inspired me to start putting together books and CDs for other branches. The idea was to put the info collected into as many hands as possible, to assure it was available for the next curious descendants, if and when they were ready.

I’ve done a variety family books now. As each niece or nephew marries, I contact the closest relatives and request a little assistance so I can put together a family tree and small history/memory book as a wedding gift to the new “branch.”  In doing these books, I often go back to see where in the heck I found existing info. Thankfully, I have always made at least some kind of note, but I have sometimes been frustrated in trying to locate my original source data from decades ago to review it. That’s how I went from a Sunday hobbyist to a budding genealogist. I started actually citing my new sources in a meaningful way, and went back to review older info. In doing that I found research errors I had made, and, well, this is where it went from just a fun thing to do when I had time to slipping down the rabbit hole into careful, more detailed research. I love a puzzle.

So… I’ve been taking this more seriously. With many online resources worldwide now at my fingertips – and free time to visit archives, cemeteries, churches, and old homesteads – the family tapestry I’m weaving together gets richer every day. I’ve also taken courses online and at Genealogy Fairs. This time last year I was knee-deep in the Boston University Certificate in Genealogical Research program: sixteen weeks of college level coursework, with tons of reading and lots of practical research. I also did an online course at the University of Strathclyde last year. It’s a less rigorous course, but still a great foundation for anyone who wants to understand good research fundamentals – and it’s free.

Some members of our family have also done DNA testing, and that has been a whole other kind of fun – genetic genealogy.

So now you know (if you were wondering at all) partly where I’ve been for the last year or so. I hope now to begin sharing some of this adventure with you. If you are already researching your own family history, I hope my experiences will enrich yours, and that you will share what you’ve learned as well. If you’ve wondered what all the fuss is about, maybe you’ll catch a little research fever. Maybe you’ll decide to do a DNA test at one of the several sites that has had success in helping people find their roots, and perhaps even connect with some new living family.

Or maybe you’ll just think I’m that crazy lady – you know, the one wandering around the cemetery taking headstone photos requested by other families, or in the bookstore wearing the t-shirt that says “I Seek Dead People.” Mostly, I hope you’ll enjoy the stories and background that go with each new discovery as I share this sometimes confounding journey. Nothing is ever exactly what you expect in genealogy, but it’s always interesting, once you start to look. And we can always learn from history, especially if we just imagine ourselves for just a moment in the world of our ancestors.

Posted in Blogging, Family, Genealogy, Recreation, Ruminations | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

The Pros and Cons of Fear and Anger


Right this minute, I don’t much care how you voted anymore, because the election is over, and now we have to look ahead and not back. I understand you’re angry at the opposition, and I understand you’re afraid that the other side wants to take something from you. But right now, I’m also more worried about how we can possibly move forward if we all hold onto the “he said, she said” and “he did it first” fallback positions of our childhoods, with our feet planted firmly and our arms folded across our chests, or with our fingers in our ears shouting, “La La La… I can’t hear you!” Right now, I’m the parent who is angry with both squabbling kids. My own position is irrelevant to the resolution. I am heartbroken, and I would feel exactly the same about the divisions in our country if the election had gone the other way.

Anger and Fear are the evil twins of Compassion and Trust.  None of us was built without some capacity for each of these four qualities. We need them all to survive different times and circumstances in our lives, but balancing them is a truly tricky business.

Fear makes us cautious and often protects us, but can also paralyze our actions or cause us to overreact. Trust lets us take steps forward and build new alliances, but can also make us vulnerable to hurt or attack. Allowing fear to inform us, but not direct us, can be a very, very difficult thing to do.


Anger can galvanize us to overcome our fears and to act. It’s also a necessary step in any grieving process. On the other hand, left to boil and grow, it can divert our focus, and ultimately can hurt more than help us. Compassion for others forces us to look outside of ourselves, perhaps consider a greater good. Understanding (while not necessarily agreeing with) the mindsets of others gives context to discussions and can pave the way to compromise and unity. So, while anger certainly has its place and purpose; we must each decide when and how far to let it drive us.


But where does that leave us in the USA as a nation, and each of us individually?  For the past year or so, we and our children have listened to a variety of candidates slash mercilessly at one another. We have watched as both political parties failed to really hear the voices of the opposition, or even to understand the cries of their own constituents. Anger. Frustration. Lack of compassion and understanding. Fear of the unknown. Intolerance of the status quo. Intolerance of one another.

There’s just been so much noise. A media circus on all levels. A continual need for fact-checking, with sometimes even the veracity of the fact-checkers in doubt. Local battles were sometimes as nasty as the national campaign. The fires of various kinds of revolution (economic, social, diplomatic, political) have been stoked at every turn, and the one clear message through all of this was an understanding by just about everyone (including many politicians) that the people of the USA are looking for change…

If only we could find some consensus on what that change should be.

Environmental regulation. Tax reform. Healthcare reform. Gun control. Immigration reform. Term Limits. Supreme Court Appointments. Minimum Wages. The Electoral College. Social Security. Civil Rights. Free Trade. Isolationism. The list goes on.

Some people have said they want to leave the US.  Others live in fear of deportation.

We’ve seen all kinds of reactions to the election results, from the unpleasant and nasty (racial incidents) to devastated Californians in the throes of grief suggesting secession. They are not yet ready to contemplate the potentially negative impacts of leaving the fold. The federal government, while currently the source of their frustration, is also the source of disaster relief during fires and earthquakes. Healthcare, welfare, and Social Security benefits would still have to be figured out and funded or cut going forward. The FDIC would no longer protect their banks. There’s a lot of coastline in California to oversee without a Navy or Coast Guard. The cost of water, gas and oil might become prohibitive, and water availability from other states might even be impacted – a real difficulty for a largely agricultural state. Transport across state lines would become international transport both ways. Just sayin’. Look at Brexit for a laundry list of other things to consider. And still, the idea has some traction.

The point is that tensions and emotions are so high that even previously unthinkable things like secession or migration from the USA, a new House Un-American Activities Committee, and other similar suggestions on both sides of the political spectrum have become part of our conversation again – at least to the extent we can call all shouting and no listening a conversation.

We are no longer indivisible – in fact, we are ideologically split in half.  Face it, folks, there is no clear mandate here either way. Half of the country disagrees with you. We need to take a deep breath, and then realize it’s time to start trying to understand how those people could possibly consider their opposing viewpoints valid (No, they aren’t all just stupid, no matter which side you fall on.) Social media has been good and bad for us. It has forced us all to hear all sorts of things from all sides. It has fed us both information and disinformation. And it has fueled the fires.

In the end, each of us has a responsibility to take stock. It isn’t enough to know what we don’t want and blame others for where we are. It isn’t enough to just accept the assertions and rhetoric we like best. It isn’t enough to think we know what drives other people. It isn’t even enough to be right.

My heart is absolutely broken, because the country I love is no longer united. We can no longer envision ourselves as a big dysfunctional family, squabbling but still loving one another. We’ve lost our reason and our ability to find consensus. We unrepentantly hurt one another with intent. We’re a very broken family, and things in our lifetimes won’t ever be as they were again, or as we perceive they were. We even sometimes forget that our nation is only one in a greater world community. Right now we’re that crazy family down the block, and everyone else is a little nervous about us. We all need to stop shouting and just shut up for a bit before something truly cataclysmic happens. Something that can’t be rolled back or amended.

We need a little time to cool off, to shake off the bedlam of the past year, to take stock of where we are and where we think we’re headed. Then, the really hard part starts. It’s time to really listen. The challenge is to honestly listen to one another’s fears, and to recognize everyone’s anger, fears, and frustrations are very real to them. It’s time to pull up our big kid panties and show (and in return expect) compassion and respect for the reasons that brought each person to his or her beliefs. It’s time to speak rationally so others will take us seriously.  And it’s time to comprehend that until we work to find some pieces of common ground, we’ll have no place to stand as a nation. Remember, we are still only a small part of the bigger world outside. In the words of Benjamin Franklin, “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”

That means you. It means me. It means all of us.



Posted in Ruminations | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

Starting a New Holiday Tradition

Well, here we are into the first week of Advent! In addition to the Sunday celebration services and advent candle lightings, that means baking, wrapping, decorating, and mailing.

I don’t know about you, but we still send paper Christmas holiday greeting cards each year. In the cards for people we feel close to, my beloved and I even enclose one of those obnoxious little letters sharing a bit about the year that we and our family had. We have moved many times over the years, each time leaving behind some treasured friendships. We also have family and very good friends on three continents – these notes show them how the grandkids are growing, and lets them know that we still think of them and want to keep up with them. Not everyone’s on Facebook.

A while back I saw a post on social media, suggesting that cards to soldiers and veterans be a part of the holidays for more families this year. In the face of recent events and so much international uncertainty, that sounded like an idea that was long overdue for me. My dad and both grandfathers served in the armies of their countries (USA and UK) and my husband’s father served in the US Navy. All of them served in time of war and spent holidays in far-away places.  I wish the world were a better place, and all our boys and girls in uniform could be home for the holidays. But I know some of them will be away for a long time, and some will never return. None of them made the decision to put our troops where they are. So, as I started addressing cards this week, I went online to get more info on how to send messages of holiday thanks and encouragement to our troops.

I quickly realized that I had missed the boat. That post? It meant to do it THEN, the day I read it, and not at my leisure a month later.

The annual deadline for the Red Cross Holiday Mail for Heroes campaign (through their local chapters) had just passed – it was December 2nd.  Valiant Veterans’ Operation Christmas Cards had a December 1st deadline,  and the Hugs for Soldiers’ Christmas for a Soldier annual campaign ended December 1st as well.

But, I learned it’s not altogether too late.

  • A Million Thanks has a Send a Letter program  where you can send letters at any time – including what might be belated holiday greetings – and they have other services as well. All they ask that you be uplifting and thankful in your notes.
  • And missing a holiday card deadline doesn’t mean there’s nothing at all you can do until next year. It tugs at our hearts that there are soldiers and veterans who will not be with family and friends for Christmas (or whatever holiday they celebrate at this time of year), but many are lonely or need support the rest of the year as well. Did you know you could get a military pen-pal? Write to thank a soldier at any time? “Adopt” a military family? Operation We Are Here  has quite a few suggestions. Soldier’s Angels also has community/group opportunities to reach out to deployed US military, veterans, and more.
  • You can also send or drop off cards to your local VA hospital (call first to find out the best way and time to do this). Some Veterans Administration facilities also need drivers, or have “needs lists” which they don’t use to solicit gifts, but offer as guidelines when asked – things as simple as new t-shirts and personal hygiene items.

So at least now I have a revised, two-pronged plan for my cards – sending some notes through the Send a Letter program now (and throughout 2016), and marking my calendar to write holiday cards before Thanksgiving next year to get them into the holiday flow.

Guess I’d better get to work.

Here’s wishing you all a blessed holiday season and a bright, hopeful, and peaceful 2016!

Posted in Faith, Giving Back, Ruminations | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

The Giving Season and the Thoughtful Giver

It’s that time of year again.

Since before Hallowe’en, US stores have been sneaking Christmas items onto their shelves. Blue and silver Hannakuh wrapping paper and red and green Christmas candies have appeared everywhere, and seasonal music has begun playing in our retail outlets and on TV commercials. Our mailboxes – electronic and snailmail – are filled with exhortations to purchase holiday gifts, and social media is full of ideas for celebrating whatever holiday(s) are part of our traditions. But they contain another kind of solicitation as well.

During the last quarter of the year, non-profit organizations of all types put on an annual push for donations. You have until the end of the year to make contributions that are tax-deductible for 2015, and they know this. The rush is on in early October to get to each of us first, in order to garner their needed pieces of the pie. The tax deadline and the season dovetail nicely together. We’re full of the spirit of giving, and many of us can receive some benefit for doing it as well.

In 2012, a group in New York had an idea for sparking charitable giving on social media, and Giving Tuesday (the Tuesday after Thanksgiving) was born. Very clever really, to do it after Black Friday and Cyber Monday – its own day, not conflicting with early shopping, and focusing on charitable giving. Today celebrates the fourth Giving Tuesday, and many non-profit and for-profit organizations have jumped on the bandwagon,. Your email, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media pages will be full of the logo above, which we are all encouraged to use to further giving efforts today. And so it gets easier to “do good.” Overall, not a bad thing.

When my beloved and I were in our peak earning years, our charitable giving was barely sacrificial – it was easy to do and opportunities were everywhere. We had United Way automatic withdrawals from our paychecks to our designated favorite charities. We supported some favorite local organizations and an overseas child, our children’s and grandchildren’s school and other fundraising efforts, our alma maters, and our local church. We certainly didn’t always take time to know as much as we might have about some of the organizations we supported.

Now that we have a more or less fixed income, we have to be a little more thoughtful about how we spend our charitable dollars, and that effort has been eye-opening. Of course we will continue to support the efforts of our grandchildren and the church we attend. We continue some designated giving to the schools that gave so much to us. But we’ve received mail solicitations from no fewer than thirty organizations in the past two months, and we can’t just throw money at all of them, no matter how much we appreciate their goals.

 So how do we choose?

Well, to start with, just because an organization is well-known, doesn’t mean it uses its donations well. It isn’t only Wall Street that pays top dollar to executives. And there are many other inefficiencies. It is stunning to see how the dollars you send are used. Thankfully, there are some easy ways to check on this. Some links for groups that watch charitable organizations are included below. Looking at their data may change how you see a few groups, and may make you want to support others more. I guarantee there will be some surprises.

Or, if you want to make a donation for fighting a certain illness, ask your doctor which organizations are best supporting his patients. Ask your pastor or school counselor which organizations are making a difference in your community. Donate to the local food pantry and women’s shelter. There is no end to the ways you can find the charities that are meaningful to you, who will treasure your gifts and use them well.

So, although it’s easier than ever to click and give, we are working this year to find the most meaningful uses for our donations, to really make those dollars count. I’m certainly not suggesting anyone shun the Giving Tuesday movement – it has been wildly successful. I’m just suggesting that you take a moment to think about which clicks will make the most difference in your world.

So Happy Giving Tuesday – May your season be bright and may all your gifts be thoughtful!


Here are a few links to Charity Watchdog organizations:

Posted in Blogging, Faith, Family, Finances, Giving Back, Ruminations | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments