Rule #14: Give Without Strings or Regrets.

14 money rulesA reader asked me if I could break down my ideas into a handful of principles. After some careful thought, I came up with a list of fourteen basic “rules” that summarize my money and life philosophy. I’ll be presenting these as a weekly series.

Charity – in fact, giving of any kind – is often hard to explain in a general sense. Many people fail to see the purpose of giving. “What does it gain for me?” they’ll ask, and it’s difficult to point to how charity brings you a discrete, specific, calculable return.

Instead, giving is a reflection of what truly matters to you in the world. It’s your opportunity to actually make a tangible difference in an area that matters to you. Seeing that your effort has created change in someone’s life – or created slight change in a lot of lives – is incredibly powerful.

The Power of Giving

Figure Out What is Important to You

This comes back to your central values. Perhaps you’re impassioned about the environment and wish to take action to reduce carbon emissions. Perhaps you want to protect animal habitats. Perhaps you’re fueled by a desire to help people in famine situations – or in natural disasters. Perhaps you’re committed to childhood education. Or maybe you just want to help out disadvantaged people in your own community. There are countless other causes that different people find valuable – yours may or may not be on this list.

Sometimes it can feel overwhelming – there are so many things out there that deserve a gift that it’s easier to fall into “analysis paralysis.” You can’t decide, so you choose to do nothing at all.

Just because a reason to give is worthwhile doesn’t mean that it’s the one you have to give to. Spend some time figuring out what matters the most to you. Is it the environment? Is it education? Is it famine and world food distribution? Is it poverty in your community? It could be any of these – or something else.

Once you’ve figured out what matters most to you, look only at ways to give in that area. For example, if I’m concerned about poverty in my community, I might dig into Habitat for Humanity and the local food pantry. If I’m concerned about education, I can get involved with the local school district.

A Small Amount Counts

People often argue that the small amount that they can contribute won’t make a difference. If you’re in that situation, look for ways where you can see that your small gift can make a change.

Give $10 worth of food to the local food pantry, then volunteer there. See for yourself that the food you purchased is going to a family that really needs it. Your gift directly put food on the table for those children.

Take $30 and use it to plant a tree in a park somewhere (obviously, after getting permission). Water it yourself and watch it grow. That tree will help clean the air and will provide shade and natural beauty for the people in the park, and you can see with your own eyes how it benefits others.

Keep a $20 bill in your pocket and wait until you see someone who’s really in a pinch, then just put that $20 in their hand. Watch what happens next – their emotional reaction, the story they tell you. You made a difference.

Giving Doesn’t Always Mean Money

Give your time, too. Spend an afternoon building a Habitat for Humanity house in your community. Spend two hours volunteering at the food pantry in your community. Spend a Thanksgiving afternoon at a homeless shelter.

The Secret Behind Giving

When you give to something that truly matters to you, you feel incredibly good. That good feeling radiates throughout your life. People pick up on your good feelings and they respond better to you.

Your gift also contributes to the happiness of others. Children and families enjoy that tree you planted. A family makes a dinner out of your donation to that food pantry. A family is able to finally have a home of their own thanks to your labor on the Habitat for Humanity project. A family is able to sustainably eat because you gave them chickens via Heifer International.

Someone’s life becomes better. Their outlook moves just a bit higher. They make a few better choices in their life: the family decides that a family afternoon in the park is pretty nice because of the cool shade and decide to do it again. This family bonds a bit more and, later on, their child will make a difficult, positive choice because of that closer bond.

Life is full of these little chaotic effects. Our actions cause many, many things to happen, many of which we don’t see. Giving of ourselves freely in a positive way sends out ripples of good events, and over time, those ripples come back to you and to everyone you care about. You might not see the direct effect, but those indirect effects echo throughout your life.

Give what you can, without regrets. The positive benefits echo throughout your life, the lives of everyone you care about, and lives you’ve never crossed. Walk away knowing that the work of your life has gone to truly make the world a better place.

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  1. Rob says:

    Here in Hartford CT, I see people always asking for money on the street. Sometimes I see people give it away. Sometimes people need some common sense. Whenever someone asks me for money because he/she is hungry, I say c’mon I’ll buy you a burger. They always look at me like I have 3 eyes. Maybe someday someone will take me up on my offer. Otherwise, I let the other suckers pay for their booze or drugs.

    When I give clothes away, I go to a homeless shelter, and ask people that are hanging around if they want some. I make sure my money, or goods, go to the people, not to some secretary, or minister driving a shiney new car.

  2. Amanda says:

    I used to feel a bit guilty when reading finance blogs on charity. I used to give regularly to the church I grew up in, but haven’t given much or regularly in the last few years.

    But then I considered how my husband and I do give. We’re still close to a organization we were in in college. One of the girls was on the outs with her folks, they had stopped paying for anything and she had to drop out for a semester. We gave her $100 grocery store gift card. We give generously to friends and acquaintances in need. I’ve contributed towards auctions for causes I believe in (even if I do get something in exchange.) I send paypal donations or buy something from blogs and webcomics I appreciate online.

    You don’t have to write a check to an organization or give money to panhandlers to charitable.

  3. It’s good to see a post like this on a PF site.

    This clarifies giving, since it sometimes seems we’re under seige from organizations looking for contributions. We can’t possibly give to all without becoming charity cases ourselves, but identifying a few that we feel partial to and saying no to the rest is perfectly fine.

    Rob (#1) I used feel like you in regard to people begging on the street, in fact I was more hardened about it than you. I wouldn’t even offer to buy them something to eat! You at least make the offer. I’d justify in my mind how either a) they were on drugs or alcohol, b) they were homeless because they chose to be that way, or c) they were people who just didn’t want to work.

    But since becoming a believing Christian (as opposed to one in name only) my attitude on this has softened. Now I’ll hand them a few bucks, and I figure that it’s not my job to judge why they’re where they’re at, I’m just called upon to give if I’m in a position to do so. As far as the person I give money to, it’s between them and God if they have a true need.

    I’d rather be wrong in giving to someone who really doesn’t need it, then to risk saying no to someone who truly does. Imagine that a person who truly has nothing, who hasn’t eaten in days, comes up asking for money, and I (with $20 in my wallet) turn them away and say something like “get a job”? What does that say about me?

  4. Johanna says:

    From my view, there’s a bit of self-contradiction in this post. It first says “give without strings,” and then says to choose causes where you can see that your gift made a difference. But isn’t that a string, if it keeps you from donating to the many worthy causes for which it’s more or less impossible to see the effect of your individual donation?

    And isn’t the focus on “ripples of good events” that “come back to you and to everyone you care about” also a string, if it means you’re giving with the expectation that ultimately, it will make your own life better?

    The cause I care about most, and to which I donate almost exclusively, is the alleviation of poverty in developing countries. But giving to an organization that operates on the other side of the world makes it pretty much impossible to see the effects of your individual gift. And while it’s certainly possible that your gift will set off a very complicated set of ripples that will someday affect you in a positive way, it’s also conceivable that those ripples could affect you negatively.

    For example, a child in India who otherwise would have died in infancy of diarrhea or some other disease could, because of your gift, receive the treatment or medicine he needs, survive, get a good education, emigrate to the US, and take a job that you otherwise would have gotten. Still, making that gift was the right thing to do.

    I’m not trying to argue that my altruism is better than your altruism because I get less out of it for myself. But it frustrates me when I see people who obviously have such passion and commitment to giving rule out large (and worthy) swaths of the world’s population simply because they’re too far away to see.

  5. Maureen says:

    An alternative, and very worthwhile way to give, is to volunteer your time and skills instead of cash. I spent countless hours volunteering in my daughters’ school. I helped in the classrooms, chaperoned field trips, prepped materials for the teachers, marked quizzes, helped with fundraisers and special events, sewed costumes for plays, served hot lunches, became involved in the school council (PTA) and was even specially trained by the board’s speech pathologist to assist students with speech problems. It was very rewarding too!

    My youngest child graduated from there 4 years ago, but I still volunteer there.

  6. Kris says:

    Just one comment. When it comes to helping out people, giving people cash that are begging is not helping them, it is enabling them to continue and embolden those are performing it. Also, after being accosted by many aggressive beggers, I shudder when I see people handing cash out. Also, some of these people are con artists who end up making good money preventing it from help those who really need it.

    There are many good organizations out there that provide assistance. Or if you think you need to help them give them food or gift certificates to restaurants and grocery stores.

  7. I liked it when you told everyone that giving to something you believe in will really make you feel very good. That will encourage people to give.

    John DeFlumeri Jr

  8. Hope D says:

    I can agree with Johanna to a degree. But, I only give to Christian organizations oversees. I believe the problems in third world countries are heart and soul conditions before education, food and money conditions. Over 90 percent of the world’s poorest are not Christian, and the countries considered Christian are the wealthy ones. I give to christian charities that feed the soul as well as mind and body.

    Throwing money at a problem doesn’t always help. Case in point, Slum Dog Millionaire really showed how India has a heart problem. The acting children got money. They received an education. They even got housing. So, the little girls father tries to sell her, because she’s worth more now. The little boy’s father slaps him around for not performing all the time. Both families want more money. They want more and more. It is a heart problem not a money problem.

    Just as giving money to an alcoholic doesn’t help him, so does giving money to people morally lacking doesn’t help them.

    I want to help and will help. I want to give medical care, education, food and shelter. But more than that, I want to feed their souls. Changing the heart changes the person.

  9. Kathryn says:

    I agree with poster #1 mostly. It can be a problem handing folks money because it can be improperly used for drugs/alcohol. For a time i was keeping some food in the car, mostly granola bars, to give to someone who asked. Yet, i still give $ when asked because i do believe in Biblical admonitions to give when asked.

    A friend of mine who has been thru difficult situations does not feel this way. He is very hard when folks ask for money. He worked hard to get where he is & feels that others have no right to ask of him. I’ve been thru difficult times as well, but take a different view. If i’d been stuck somewhere & lost my bus money, i would have had no recourse. I never was evicted from my home, but feeding myself & keeping the lights on was a challenge. For the person on the street with no resources, there but for the Grace of God go i.

  10. Maggie says:

    I feel like when I give something, whether time or money, I need to let it go. If I try to follow it to see the ripple effects, I may discover that the results are not as wonderful as my intentions for them. For example, if there is a stabbing in the shade of your lovely tree, does that minimize your donation of the tree? It was still an attempt on your part to do good.

    People often talk about not wanting to support a drug habit with money to panhandlers, or someone picking up at a food bank in a fancy car, but I don’t think it is my place to judge and we don’t know the whole story just by looking at someone.

  11. steve says:

    It’s not exactly ‘giving without regrets’ unless you stop worrying about how it’s spent.

    For those of you who:
    –constantly fret as to whether or not your recipient is a drug user or con artist; or
    –want to “give with conditions,” as in the case of religious proselytizing;

    …I recommend you stop giving money, specifically. Grant others your other resources instead: time, energy and effort, skills and abilities, materials, or experience. If you can’t do that, then pay someone else you trust to use their other resources in your stead. Money isn’t the only thing that’s useful to those in need.

    The truth is that money is a multi-use tool; a medium of exchange. If you give someone this medium of exchange, don’t be surprised if they purchase something you didn’t expect them to. If your feelings are hurt, then that’s on you.

  12. Larabara says:

    Two things happened that made me stop giving people money forever. Strangely, they both happened at gas stations.

    I realized that if someone is actually hungry (and not trying to get money for drugs or booze), then they will eat when you offer them food. This happened when a young lady approached me for food money for her and her boyfriend. She was thin, but obviously pregnant, and the also thin young man was standing a few feet away, looking protective. The company where I was working had their annual Thanksgiving employee lunch that day, and I had lots of leftovers that I was taking home. I didn’t have money, but I offered her the food that I had. She and her boyfriend stood there and ate like hungry wolves. I gave her all the rest of the food to eat later, and told her about a free clinic that was not too far away (for pre-natal care). They were both very grateful.

    The second incident was a story I’ve told on this blog before. I was at a gas station where there was a guy there with an empty gas container, and he was asking people for money to buy gas for his car that had run out of gas and was stranded a few blocks away. Someone who was pumping gas filled his container with gas, then finished pumping and left. The guy walked to the curb, poured the gas into the gutter, and then went back to begging for gas money, holding the emptied gas container. I saw the whole thing and was furious! Not only was he lying about running out of gas, but he had no problem polluting the environment when his scam didn’t work!!

    Both of these things happened many years ago, and I’ve given my money to charities ever since.

  13. Sarah says:

    Wow, Hope, so all non-Christians are “morally lacking,” and one unfortunate example proves that a whole nation with a huge population has “a heart problem?”

    And, of course, the first response to a post about how to allocate your charitable giving in a way that engages you is a comment about how some people just don’t deserve it (with people immediately chiming in to agree).

    If Christianity turns out to be right, I think there are going to be some Christians who are going to be very surprised at the reception they get in the afterlife. I wonder what they will say when Jesus asks them, “Did I tell you to feed the hungry, or to judge them?”

    Meanwhile, us “morally lacking” non-Christians will just have to struggle on with the burden of trying to find the best ways to care for our fellow human beings. Help from those who think God commanded them to love their neighbors as themselves would be much appreciated.

  14. Amy says:

    A few thoughts:

    Don’t forget the tax benefit too!

    There are often unexpected benefits to volunteering and giving. I volunteer with an animal rescue that introduced me to someone who then got me a great job with a great company. I continue to volunteer and give financially with this rescue because it makes me feel good and I will never be able to ‘repay’ the animals the blessings I received through this job.

    I found it interesting that one commenter only gives to religous charities, while I refuse to give to such organizations. When someone is sick or hungry in a third world country (or even closer to home!), I don’t want a condition of their receipt of care and food to be that they listen to someone else’s sermon. It is disrespectful of their own beliefs and culture as well as of the basic needs they have. I realize that others will feel differently and that not all religious charities also share beliefs outright, but understand that some of us find missionary work questionable.

    Do be careful about giving cash to people soliciting at intersections; we’ve recently had a problem with carjackings, robberies, and kidnappings as the solicitor got the drivers to open the window and become vulnerable.

    Our city has been ‘cracking down’ on panhandling by making it illegal to be within a certain distance of a door or intersection when panhandling, and one cannot make noise (ask) for a donation. They put in donation boxes, much like parking meters, in some of these areas so people who feel like donating can put money in them and it goes to local charities who help the homeless.

    I think imagining you are in someone else’s shoes (and realizing animals, children, and the planet cannot stand up for themselves) are part of being a caring and responsible human. When you are in a place that allows you to help another, it’s a shame not to do it.

  15. Rob says:

    “Help from those who think God commanded them to love their neighbors as themselves would be much appreciated.”

    Good point Sarah. Some people need to be told by religion that its good to help thy neighboor, instead of actually having common sense.

  16. Katie says:

    Hope, your post frightens me. Christianity is not the only way to see the world. Christians (and I am one) have had our fair share of bloodshed. We’ve perpetuated violence and hatred. We’re not perfect and to act like countries are poor because they’re not Christian is ridiculous.

    The south is by far the most vocal Christian voice in the nation, yet southern states receive more federal money than they put into the tax system. Effectively, northern (especially northeastern) states subsidize the south (I am not making this up – look at the flows of tax revenue and federal aid if you’re interested). So your view here is a bit off. That’s NOT to say you shouldn’t harness your religion and morals to help others. I’m just pointing out a major flaw I see in your post.

  17. Kris says:

    To Steve (#11),

    Just because a person refuses to give cash to panhandlers or beggars on the street, doesn’t mean that they constantly fret about how the money it spent. I think about the 100% tips we have left in the past when dining out on holidays. Wisdom and common-sense must enter the equation, and it depends on your definition of “help” is; enabling is not a blessing in most cases and is a curse.

  18. chacha1 says:

    I think when Trent said you could think about the ripple effects of your giving, that doesn’t constitute a “string” you’ve attached to your gift. If you plant a tree, you’re not going to stand under it all the time to make sure that only people you approve of get to enjoy it … I trust. :-)

    I don’t give much these days (post layoff), and hardly ever cash, but a few weeks ago on my way to my temp job I took a route that runs under a freeway. People living out of their vehicles often park under this overpass. At a nearby intersection, a 60+ guy was standing holding a “please help” sign.

    For whatever reason, I felt very strongly that I wanted to help this guy. I had $5 to spare, so I rolled down my window and motioned him over. When he saw it was a $5 bill, he almost cried.

    I’m not a Christian, but the Golden Rule is the foundation of all the major religions and I think there are an awful lot of people who need to be reminded of what it really means.

  19. @ Hope,
    Why do you think Christianity has a monopoly on goodness?

    Calling attention to two examples from a population of BILLIONS of people – characters from a movie, no less! – and ignoring the millions of wonderful people who also live in poverty, while also ignoring the greed & corruption that has thrived for centuries in Christianity is an extremely narrow-minded perspective.

    That you give to charity is commendable, and I think that you can do whatever you want with your money. I would, however, warn against correlating wealth and goodness. I believe the Bible includes passages that directly contradict that theory…

  20. joan says:

    I believe that charity begins at home. I now give to family members who need the money, or I will buy food or something that I know they need. I don’t loan money. Loaning money can ruin a good relationship. Instead if I have it I just give it to them. I recently paid for a hugh car repair bill for a young man who is working, going to school, and supporting a baby. He was shocked that I would do it. It isn’t a loan, although he said that he didn’t know how; but he would get me paid back. I will never mention it to him. In my eyes he is a very deserving person who needed the help and hopefully he will pass it on when he is in a better position. I also feel that one of the biggest rip offs in charity is the school fund raisers. They want the children to peddle some junk that is totally overpriced and that I feel ashamed to ask people to buy. However, they make the kids feel that they have to sell this junk. I give them money, but I will not buy or help a child sell this junk.

  21. Johanna says:

    @chacha1: It’s a “string” in the sense that it affects what type of gift you give in the first place. In the case of planting a tree, presumably you’d be planting it in your own community, or one you have ties to, rather than in a community 1000 miles away that you never visit and where you don’t know anyone – even if that community is more in need of trees than your own.

  22. Claudia says:

    I give locally to volunteer run food shelves, volunteer run Christmas gift drives, etc. I refuse to give to organized charities unless I have checked them out online. (Check it out- there are several sites that will tell you what percentage of their donations actually go to help people. If they do not respond to requests to supply this information, I think you have your answer!) I will not give to support a CEO of a charity making an outrageous salary. There are several of these “non-profit” charities who exist not to cure cancer or help the needy as they claim; their only purpose of existing is to create well-paying jobs for a handful of upper management. Giving to them does NOT make me feel good! (Incidentally, I work for a non-profit–a true non-profit!)

  23. deRuiter says:

    Giving to big charity like American Way supposts rich executives who make big salaries and travel well on the corporate dole. Also, all you foks handing out money to pan handlers seem to have missed the huge, expensive social net funded by your tax dollars. Every single city and county has a mechanism for sheltering, feeding and clothing the indigent. But beggiing in the street is a nice, cahs free business which supplements welfare payments, section 8, shelters, food stamps or whatever for the enterprising. I don’t give to people oriented charieits aside from hemoraghing my tax dollars involuntarily. On the other hand my dog is from a shelter. Twice a year the shelter has a fund raising event where they work for two days straight hosting a tag sale and pet photos with Santa. I cater and deliver a big lunch both days as my contribution to the workers. And during the year, when I am offered checks for lecture fees, I have the organizations write out the checks to this shelter and have them send the money direct. I KNOW THESE CONTRIBUTIONS MAKE A POSITIVE DIFFERENCE

  24. deRuiter says:

    Giving to big charity like American Way supposts rich executives who make big salaries and travel well on the corporate dole. Also, all you foks handing out money to pan handlers seem to have missed the huge, expensive social net funded by your tax dollars. Every single city and county has a mechanism for sheltering, feeding and clothing the indigent. But beggiing in the street is a nice, cahs free business which supplements welfare payments, section 8, shelters, food stamps or whatever for the enterprising. I don’t give to people oriented charieits aside from hemoraghing my tax dollars involuntarily. On the other hand my dog is from a shelter. Twice a year the shelter has a fund raising event where they work for two days straight hosting a tag sale and pet photos with Santa. I cater and deliver a big lunch both days as my contribution to the workers. And during the year, when I am offered checks for lecture fees, I have the organizations write out the checks to this shelter and have them send the money direct. I KNOW THESE CONTRIBUTIONS MAKE A POSITIVE DIFFERENCE

  25. Claudia says:

    While I agree with deRuiter to an extent, it ends when it comes to supporting animal shelters. Until every child in the world is taken care of, I can not give money to support animals.

  26. Georgia says:

    I am living okay in retirement. Not well off, but not begging either. However, my late husband always said, “If you have enough to give something to someone else who needs it, you are not poor.”

    I have adopted 2 African children, sent dollars to Smile to help fix a child’s cleft palate, volunteer at the local food bank, and help where I can. It doesn’t feel like enough, but it shows me I am not poor and that gives me a positive outlook on life.

    I also do not sell much of the stuff I am downsizing. If it is usable at all, I will give it to someone who needs it – a bicycle, a great microwave, a tv & VHS player, clothes, food, etc. Jesus said that when we help others, we are helping him.

    Since this is an anonymous board, I feel I can tell these things and hope it encourages others to give. Thank you for this article, Trent.

  27. Rosa says:

    Georgia, that’s a beautiful sentiment.

    I don’t think the “only give where you have a personal tie” philosophy works very well – we mostly have ties to people like us, so if everyone did that the gap between rich and poor would just keep getting bigger. I try to do half and half – half to local organizations including ones I use myself, like the library, and half to people who aren’t like us – I don’t think we quite make 50/50 but it’s pretty close right now. One of the charities I support plants fruit trees in deforested areas of poor countries; they certainly need the trees more than we do, but the trees still benefit everyone.

  28. Holly says:

    In general I disagree with giving to panhandling – but I think you have to go with your gut. If someone approaches you that looks in desperate need (they may not have gotten into the system yet) you should offer to help – not be blinded by hard and fast rules.

  29. Jennifer says:

    deRuiter, you said “Every single city and county has a mechanism for sheltering, feeding and clothing the indigent.” Maybe where you live. I live in a small city in Northern Ontario. There are dozens of tiny communities scattered over hundreds of kilometres that don’t have such thing as a homeless shelter or a soup kitchen. Some people really don’t have anywhere to go or to eat. I’m not saying that panhandling is a great thing, but for some people, it’s all they have.

    That said, I think it’s important that people give to what they feel is important, whether that’s local or international, money or time. There are no strings, unless you desire them. What I understand Trent to be saying is that those who say “what do I get out of it” should look at what’s most important to them, and they can follow it up if they wish. So if they want to make sure people are getting the food they give, they can work at the food bank if they want. Over time, maybe they won’t worry so much about it, and just give because they want to give.

  30. Lana says:

    A few thoughts –

    Giving money to people who beg on the street isn’t the best use of your charity. Support the programs that give people shelter, food and a place to get cleaned up. These programs may be able to leverage your money for greater support, and you’ll be helping more than one person in need.

    I recently gave to a homeless shelter that was asking for contributions of toiletries and the like. Doing five minutes of research on taxes, I learned that if I donated cash or a check to this organization, I’d get a deduction on my state taxes. If I went to the store and bought things for them, I would not. As a result, I ended up giving much more than I would have if I’d had to go to the store and buy toiletries, and the shelter may have sources where they can buy in bulk with the money I donated. And as a bonus, I’ll take a small deduction on my state taxes, which I’ll put into savings so that I can make sure I take care of myself.

    And lastly, for people who disdain panhandlers, who may be using the money they get to buy drugs or alcohol, I say this: Please don’t judge. There are people who live on the street because they’re mentally ill and can’t afford medication. Some illnesses, like schizophrenia, have symptoms that are less severe when the person has been drinking. Please don’t think you know who those people are or why they’re on the street. Every person has a story and most of them would make you feel very grateful for what you have in your own life.

  31. Kevin says:

    @Lana:

    “There are people who live on the street because they’re mentally ill and can’t afford medication.”

    Lana, I’m not so sure you’ve got the cause-and-effect in the right order. Countless medical studies show a direct causal link from drug abuse to mental illness, particularly habits involving inhaling noxious fumes, such as paint, gasoline, or aerosols. Crack, heroin, methamphetamines, and many other drugs also result in serious mental degradation when abused chronically.

    Of course, there’s no way of knowing conclusively how many mentally ill homeless people were already mentally ill before becoming homeless and turning to drugs, and how many had relatively normal brains before turning to drugs and losing their homes. But it does bear consideration before blindly offering drug money to people who are the sole architects of their own mental demise.

  32. Cindy says:

    I give to animal organizations as much as I can.
    I feel the domestic animals in this world are not treated fairly. Humans are supposed to take care of them. Because of the bad economy the animal suffer first.

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