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Hey, Travelers, Got Any Spare Change?

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What to do with leftover foreign currency? Give it to UNICEF's Change for Good. Image courtesy of Susan Spano.

I have a big glass jar full of foreign currency; bills and coins left over from trips gone by. When I get ready to leave a place and have a substantial amount of local money, I get it changed to U.S. dollars at the airport, of course. But you always lose a couple of bucks that way, and sometimes it just takes too long to queue up at a currency exchange booth. Then, too, I generally intend to use leftover cash on a later trip, though I tend to forget I have it the next time I head to the same place.

A better way to clean out your wallet on departure is to give spare foreign currency to Unicef’s Change for Good program, which uses it to help children around the world. One big way the organization does that is with its immunization drive. Each booster costs only a few cents. “It’s an incredibly cost-effective way to save lives,” says UNICEF Senior Vice President of Private Section Partnerships and Ventures at the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, Rajesh Anandan.

Change for Good is supported by American Airlines and foreign carriers like Aer Lingus, Qantas, Cathay Pacific, Finnair and JAL, whose employees take on the job of collecting currency in-flight and at airline clubs. Many are deeply-committed to the project, helping to decide how Unicef will spend the donations and then visiting Change for Good projects. In March, for instance, four American Airlines employees traveled to the Dominican Republic to see how the $1.34 million collected by AA Change for Good “champions” last year went to work on birth registration and HIV/AIDS prevention efforts. Program revenue from 2011 also helped earthquake and tsunami victims in Japan and drought sufferers in the Horn of Africa.

Twenty-five years ago it seemed like an idea whose time had come to journalist and educator Howard Simons, who died in 1989. He proposed the plan in a Wall Street Journal editorial that was noticed by Unicef, which teamed up with Virgin Atlantic to try a pilot version of the project in 1987, raising $10,000 in just three months. Change for Good was officially launched in 1991 and is now one of the organization’s signature private sector partnerships, along with Gucci’s annual Unicef product line (kicking in up to 25 percent of an item’s price) and pro bono logistic support donated by UPS to streamline aid distribution.

So now I know what to do with my jar of foreign currency, provided I can get it through security. Actually, Change for Good accepts donations by mail, but posting the heavy jar full of Turkish liras, Cambodia riels and Irish 50-pence pieces (still accepted even though Ireland has adopted the euro) wouldn’t be cost-effective.

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