Ukraine Philanthropy Part II – Using Airline Miles

I wrote recently that helping Ukrainian people survive and resist the Russian invasion is the most philanthropically worthy project I can think of right now. But a key question remains: How can I help?

I found a surprisingly easy and satisfying way last week, through an organization called Safe Passage 4 Ukraine

They accept donations of hotel miles, credit card reward points, and airline miles. If you only have a small number of saved miles, the organization can aggregate donations from many people to purchase travel or hotel stays for refugees from the war zone.

Their online form is very easy to use.

For small amounts of miles in airlines I rarely fly, I filled out their form with my pledge, then clicked a button, and the website took me to my own airline miles account. From there, once logged in, I clicked the charity to complete the transfer of miles. The charity then sent me a confirmation email, asking me to click once more to confirm the transfer. Less than 5 minutes of “work” at my desk. Easy peasy.


JetBlue’s minimum donation is 500 miles. I really can’t use my roughly 2,000 miles with them so I donated them. United Airlines’ minimum is 1 thousand miles. I pledged the roughly 2,500 miles I had. 

The Most Satisfying Thing

Then I did an even cooler thing. Although I only had a few JetBlue and United Airline points, I travel American Airlines more frequently. I had accumulated a little over 50 thousand miles at the beginning of last week.

Shortly after I pledged to donate at least 30 thousand of those points, a travel specialist from Safe Passage 4 Ukraine requested over email for me to stand by, as he’d be sending me further details shortly.

With at least 30 thousand American Airlines to pledge I became eligible to purchase a transatlantic flight for an individual Ukrainian refugee.

Two days later, on a Friday afternoon, my assigned travel specialist sent me an individual’s profile, just as promised. It was a Ukrainian woman’s name, her birthdate, and a specific multi-city flight plan – Warsaw to London (Heathrow) to Philadelphia to Orlando, with flight numbers and times. The specialist had already worked out that this one-way transatlantic flight could be purchased with my 30,000 miles, plus $96.15 from me. Very affordable. By the time this column goes to print, she will have arrived in Orlando.

Incidentally, I don’t know about you, but whenever I try to book my own travel with my miles I find I never have quite enough. If I have 25 thousand miles, my flight requires 50 thousand. If I have 50 thousand, my flight needs 90 thousand. I feel like it costs 50 thousand miles just to go from San Antonio to Dallas and back, whenever I search for it myself. To my delight, booking this ticket for a stranger to fly out of Warsaw to Orlando actually cost exactly what the Safe Passage 4 Ukraine travel specialist told me it would cost. Somehow, they found a 4-city transatlantic flight for 30 thousand miles, plus $96.15. 

Actually, initially I had a problem when I went to book it and I found I couldn’t get the flights for less than 79 thousand miles. Then I realized that I’d mistakenly searched for a round trip ticket. I’d forgotten to book just the one-way flight. Right. The Ukrainian refugee just needs to get away right now. She isn’t looking for the round trip yet. 

So Who Gets Safe Passage?

I spoke last week with Rachel Jamison, the founder and Director of Safe Passage 4 Ukraine. Jamison says her organization has flown 505 Ukrainians overseas, fleeing the war. They have flown or housed (with hotel points) 41 injured volunteers. They have flown 39 wounded soldiers receiving prosthetics.

Rachel Jamison, SP4U founder

They have aggregated 17 million airline miles and approximately 2 million hotel points. Because they mostly work with points and miles, their actual financial donations have remained small, an estimated $350 thousand to date.

By day, Jamison is a law professor working for New York University based in the United Arab Emirates. We spoke by Zoom despite the 10 hour time difference. With an all-volunteer organization, she retains her full time job. “I’ve been in a lot of tough places,” she says, “but [Ukraine] is the hardest environment.”

“I come in as an atypical person, not from Ukraine. But this is what I’m most proud of, professionally. Safe Passage 4 Ukraine is also atypical, in that it involves Ukrainians working in partnership with foreigners, and military folks working with civilians. That’s very rare.”

Because they have many more people trying to flee the war than they can serve, their partners on the ground in Ukraine asses criteria for safe passage flights, which are a combination of 

1. A safe landing destination, 

2. Legality, and

3. Need

To determine a safe destination, Jamison says the “most common thing is people have family in the US or Canada, and they need to be reunited with them.” This is especially true as most people they help are women, and women with children.

SP4U mostly helps women and women with children

Next, their partners on the ground in Ukraine do assessment of their legal status.

“Every person we help move to the United States or Canada has a documented legal right to move, and has a sponsor when they arrive, usually a family member,” explains Jamison.

And then finally, there’s the prioritization of the most needy. “There’s an overall needs assessment that starts with: ‘if we don’t help this person, what will happen?’ All of them have been through things that you and I have never experienced,” Jamison continued. “So we are drawing the line at who really needs our help.” 

That often means the recipients of the flights are ill and in need of treatment, or they are people traumatized by bombing or Russian occupation. In the next phase of the war – which may mean towns newly liberated from the Russian army – Jamison expects a huge uptick in people desperate for help. 

“Right after Kharkiv was liberated [in September 2022] there were suddenly many people with serious needs. We are going to need everything we can get.”

An SP4U volunteer

Chris Schools is an ex-marine with operations experience who lives north of Dallas (Celina, TX). He has known Jamison from before she went to law school. Schools deployed to Afghanistan 2010-2011 with the marines as an ordinance specialist but has been out of the military since 2011. When Russia invaded Ukraine, he knew he wanted to help, but asked himself how? 

I asked him whether he considered going to Ukraine? “It runs through your head, but with a 6 and a 3 year-old now, my life is different. I can’t be going into combat zones.”

Instead, when he heard about what Jamison was doing, he reached out online and asked he how he could help. As he told me, “nobody is more action-oriented than Rachel, in everything she does. It was very easy for me to get bought in and know we were on a worthy mission.”

In April 2022 he volunteered to work on partnership outreach, and then extended his work to helping, along with others, to set up their financial systems, managing their PayPal account for incoming donations, as well as making disbursements for example to reimburse partners inside of Ukraine. 

As a logistics guy with a background in working in a complicated war zone, Schools was effusive in praising what Jamison created in a short time. “The organization is unique in that they found a way to give back that hadn’t been done. Anybody can say they need money, but they put together a complicated system in a manageable way, to be innovative and move quickly.”

The Appeal

This charity really appeals to me. I had an extra spare resource – airline miles – that I’ve traditionally found difficult to use. Safe Passage 4 Ukraine did the hard work to find and vet the person from a war zone who most needed them. They found the exact flight on the exact day that could serve her needs. All I had to do was book it with my miles under her name and personal information. They did the rest. 

I don’t know any of the back story of the woman whose ticket I purchased with my airline miles, only that she was from Mykolaiv, a previously Russian-occupied but now Ukrainian-liberated city. That’s all I need to know. 

Without this organization as a matchmaker, I would have virtually no way to personally help an individual in the Ukrainian war zone. I found it very emotionally satisfying doing my small part to help remove one person, desperate to get out of a war, to a safer place in the United States.

Here’s the link again to pledge miles.

A version of this post ran in the San Antonio Express News and Houston Chronicle.

Please see related post

Ukraine Philanthropy I – A Scrappy Group

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All I wanted for Christmas: A Congressional Stock-Trading Ban

All I wanted for Christmas is a ban on members of Congress trading individual stocks. 

Back in 2012 Congress passed the STOCK Act, which requires disclosure of securities trading with a 45-day time lag, with some (extremely minor) penalties for noncompliance.

Based on those disclosures and other reporting, I put together a complete spreadsheet of the Texas delegation’s trading in 2022, year to date, through September.

I’ll get into that description in a moment. 

In the meantime, it’s important  to understand for context that the correct amount of individual stock trading by members of Congress is zero. The correct way for a member of Congress to invest in markets is to put their investment in either a blind trust or a diversified portfolio of stock mutual funds, preferably not focused on any industry sector.

This is because members of Congress have access to information that the rest of us do not have. They have both public platforms and the ability to cast votes affecting industries and companies that we do not have. We should know with certainty that their support or opposition to industries, companies, and government spending and government regulation come from a sincere belief rather than personal financial self-interest. 

So here’s what the Texas delegation has been up to in 2022 so far. Eight members of Congress bought or sold individual stocks so far in 2022. A New York Times report on trades in the period 2019 to 2021 also supplements my descriptions.

Among the Texas delegation, Michael McCaul (R, TX-10)  is by far the most active, buying and selling literally millions of dollars of shares every month, with often over hundreds of trades per month, January through September. His stock portfolio activity makes him, in industry parlance, “a whale.” McCaul is the son-in-law of the founder of Clear Channel Communications, now renamed iHeartMedia, with a net worth ten years ago of an estimated $300 million.

The New York Times reports that in 2020 to 2021 time period, McCaul family members bought and sold IBM, which has major contracts with the Department of Homeland Security, while McCaul served on the Homeland Security Committee. Family members also traded millions of dollars worth of both UPS and Meta shares, at a time when those companies were testifying before Congressional committees on which he served.

Unusual Whales
Unusual Whales has done great work on Congressional Trading

Pete Sessions (R, TX-17) was the next most active in 2022, trading 31 times year-to-date through September, in amounts ranging from $1 thousand to $50 thousand at a time, of 28 different companies. In previous years, the Times reports Sessions made trades in Bank of Nova Scotia and JPMorgan Chase after he was appointed to serve on the House Financial Services Committee.

Michael Burgess (R, TX-26) traded 22 times, on 7 securities, in increments between $1 thousand and $50 thousand. The majority of his focus was 12 trades involving Stryker Corporation, a medical device company. His preferred strategy appears to be a call-write strategy, in which he sells 1-month call options. This would mean he ended up selling shares in Stryker when the stock goes up over a short period of time. He also traded Microsoft, Disney, Amazon, Ford, Abbott Laboratories, and Berkshire Hathaway in 2022.

In previous years, the Times reported that 8 of 9 individual trades were in companies related to the House Energy and Commerce subcommittees, on which he serves.

Vicente Gonzalez (R, TX-15) purchased between $100 and $250 thousand of Tesla stock in May 2022.

Patrick Fallon (R, TX-4) purchased between $65 and $150 thousand of Twitter shares in January, and sold between $250 and $500 thousand of Verizon shares that same month. A report by Business Insider found that Fallon had 118 late disclosures in violation of the STOCK Act, making him unusually noncompliant with the 2012 law. The Times reports in previous years that Fallon bought and sold Amazon and Microsoft and Boeing, while serving as a member of the House Armed Services Committee. All three companies had important business with the Department of Defense. 

Lloyd Doggett (D, TX-35) has the most programmatic style, making purchases between $1 and $15 thousand worth of a repeating list of 6 companies every month, from February through October 2022: Proctor and Gamble, IBM, Home Depot, Coca Cola, Johnson & Johnson, and PPG Industries.

August Pfluger (R, T-11) sold Microsoft and purchased Warner Brothers and Liberty Media, in April 2022, in amounts totalling $50 thousand or less. He incurred 12 STOCK Act violations for late disclosures in past years, according to Business Insider.

And finally, Dan Crenshaw (R, TX-2) traded in January 2022 with the most apparently “cowboy” trading style. Based on sales reported in 2022, Crenshaw punted on the bankrupt meme-stock of Hertz. He bought and then sold Rivian Motors within a week, just as the shares were crashing, while also selling Tesla, Boeing, Southwest Airlines, and most interestingly a 3-times leveraged ETF on bank shares. Amounts ranged from $1 to $15 thousand. Dan, please step away from your Robinhood trading app before you do yourself any more harm. 

Crenshaw had 8 STOCK Act violations according to Business Insider. The Times reported that in previous years he sold shares in Kinder Morgan, while a member of the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change. He had also bought shares in Boeing, as a member of the committee that oversees the Homeland Security Department.

Although she did not have 2022 stock trades and has since decided to cease individual stock trading, the Times reports in previous years that Lizzie Fletcher (D, TX-7) bought and sold stocks including in Carnival Corporation and Fedex, while a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. 

Meanwhile in the Senate, Senator John Cornyn, according to his 2022 financial disclosure statement for calendar year 2021, does not appear to own individual stocks, but rather owns diversified mutual funds – a better choice!

Senator Ted Cruz, according to his 2022 financial disclosure statement for calendar year 2021, owns individual positions in energy companies Exxon, One Gas, and EPD totalling between $165 and $400 thousand. He reported purchasing up to $50 thousand worth of a “Bitcoin Exchange Platform” in January 2022. He also owns diversified mutual funds, as well as up to $5 million in Goldman Sachs stock, where his wife has long worked.

Ok, back to the main point here, of why members of Congress should never trade individual stocks. 

It is not enough to think that 95 percent of Congressional votes are honest, or 95 percent of Congress members are honest. The existence of the bad 5 percent (I am making up this number, hopefully it is less than 1 percent) puts the entire rest of Congress into question. It should be deeply in the interest of all members of Congress to reduce financial suspicion about their and their colleagues’ motivations. They should want to ban stock trading by other Congress members to protect their own reputations.

In January 2022, bipartisan momentum seemed to be building within Congress to enact a ban on members trading individual stocks. 

The good news is that incoming House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has said that he supports a ban on individual stock trading by members of Congress. 

The issue had languished for a long time without outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s support, which some cynically thought was because her husband Paul Pelosi (recently in the news as the victim of a home-invasion and attack by a QAnon-spouting person) was a large and active investor in individual stocks. She came around to support the issue by early 2022, but never brought a bill to a vote on a stock trading ban before the November 2022 election.

The bad news is that incoming reformers like McCarthy tend to forget about nitpicky ethics rules like stock-trading bans once they are in power. Financial ethics are not a red meat and potatoes type of issue likely to stir the Republican base.

Still, it’s my kind of issue. Texans should demand their own members of Congress not only stop trading in ways that raise red flags, but also vote to eliminate conflicts – and appearances of conflicts of interest – whenever possible.

A version of this post ran in the San Antonio Express News and Houston Chronicle in December 2022.

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