November 20th, 2007

Charity Begins in the Head

As the season of goodwill towards mankind begins, there are of course more charitable appeals in the air, the mail, email, street. While in general I’m pretty sloppy about donations–I always *mean* to give more than I do–I can usually get it together in December, at least a little. My whole rationelle for being a Jew who loves Christmas is probably another blog post, but I think it should suffice to say that people *do* try to be extra nice around this time of year, and remember what they have in common with others, less fortunate or not.

I’ve been thinking about giving along a couple of lines, and the suggestions I’ve gotten have shown me that it’s not just cellphones and video games that are moving ahead by leaps and bounds unbeknowst to me. One possibility suggested as a gift to people who are anti-gift, and the Gifts of Hope. It’s a website where you can donate $$ for a specific purpose in a specific purpose–literacy in Ghana, farm animals in Ethiopa—they’ve got it priced right down to the goat, so you know that your money does not go into a pool where it is diluted by other people’s donations, you bucks go purely to one family that is the recipient of *your* goat. This is a new and, to me, somewhat humourous invention, but it’s cool and makes a cute card, and will certainly drum up investment in what is it bottom a deeply humane program to try to help people help themselves.

What’s funny about it though is that everyone wants to be *involved* it seems. Just a cheque, to assign decision-making and responsibility to the administrators of the charity is becoming passe. The Christmas drive that I’m involved in this year, as many years in the past, is not a cash one, or even just a big box of canned goods and unwrapped toys. We have been assigned families in the nearby community who are in dire straights (I’m sorry, I would normally post a link here for your interest, but it’s a corporate giving program and there isn’t one of the public) and our donations are to be specific items on their wish-list, specific to their unique needs, purchased by the donators ourselves.

The profiles we receive are incredibly detailed. We get names and ages, clothing and shoe sizes, personal preferences, and a hierarchy of needs from toys and games to sweatpants and sanitary napkins. To me, it seems dreadfully invasive and undignified. The kidstuff is fun to shop for, but I feel like it’s not fair to the parents to take away the joy in picking out the pretty toys for the kids. And the grownup stuff–knowing that mom Sandy takes three sizes different between top and bottom, knowing what basic household items are missing, is really too much for me.

I made these complaints to a colleague–it all seemed to be a bit of bourgeois mistrust, an update on “You can’t give a panhandler loose change because he’ll just spend it on booze. Better to give money to an agency, that’ll make sure it goes towards food, clothes and a sensible job-training program.” Only now, tales of misappropriation and scandal lurking in our heads (“I can’t remember when, or which one, but one of them there charities was spending like *ninety* percent of the revenue on ‘administration’, and we know what that is!”)–if you want to make sure your donation doesn’t evapourate directly into ethanol, better make sure it’s in concrete form of something practical (“Blue jeans, a teddy bear and four cans of baked beans!”) with a name and address gift card attached.

My colleague pointed out the system isn’t really all that cynical–many of these are single parent homes, and shopping with the kids, or finding time to do it at all for a working parent, might be an issue. Plus they’d signed up for the program, so they clearly either lacked my qualms or found their need to be greater them.

Fair enough. She made good points, and vehemently, clearly concerned that she not let my potential aid to these families disappear due to some semi-imagined PCness. It was good of her, and I shut up and returned to reading my list.

And quickly got sucked in. There are several toys on the list that I loved as a wee one, and I’d like to go see the updates. And there were a couple requests for “teen novels,” a category that I have very strong opinions on, and then of course there’s the vegetarian baked beans. So I made my own shopping list and that’s when I realized the genius of the thing. If I buy everything that twigged my interest, and I probably will, I’ll wind up spending sizeably more than what would strike me as a “decent donation” in cash. That’s what all these details are really about–it’s easier to give more to people you relate to as in some way just like you. And in reading the list, I found that connexion, as I suspect most people did. Everybody needs sweatpants, warm socks and novels. We’re all human, after all.

Went upstairs and had a smoke

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So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum

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