An Open Letter to You People of Good Will (by Richard Green)

Happy Holidays! Even though it is not yet even Thanksgiving (or Thanksgivukkah as my son is quick to remind me), I am sure I am not the first to have wished you this. In fact, in my mail today were no less than four wishes of the holidays – each and every one asking me for help and each and every one a good cause.

Now, when I say asking for help, I should be a bit more clear. They didn’t technically ask me for help. They asked me for no action whatsoever. Not one of them asked me to leave my house or serve a meal or even send a few emails or make a few phone calls. Each of them asked basically the same thing. They asked me to feel bad, write down a credit card number then feel good. In other words, each asked me to pay an indulgence for the salvation from guilt of my emotional soul.

Now, before you label me “Scrooge,” know that not all of these requests go unanswered. I do have a list of chosen causes to whom I make my holiday contributions, and though I do feel good when I do so, I also find myself questioning if that was the best way to spread good will.

Here is my problem, the giving has ceased to be truly thoughtful. When I am honest, I don’t really think of the people who I want to help, but I picture the professionally staged photo of the sad homeless man or the sad kitten or the sad child. I’m not thoughtfully giving to someone in need, I’m paying my annual membership to the holiday spirit club. Something just doesn’t feel right about it.

So, is my problem just one of attitude or is there more to it? I think there is more and recent comments by Dan Pallotta, founder of AIDS Ride and Ted Talk speaker, seem to bare this out. In his talk, “The Way We Think about Charity is Dead Wrong” he tells us we need to stop thinking of charity in terms of a helpful cause and start thinking about charity in terms of big business. In his talk he is concerned that “from 1970 to 2009, only 144 charities reached $50 million in annual revenues; meanwhile, over 46,000 for-profit businesses did.” and laments that “We have a visceral reaction to the idea that anyone would make very much money helping other people. Interesting that we don’t have a visceral reaction to the idea that people would make a lot of money not helping other people.” Aside from the fact that non-profits make up a very small portion of the total corporate landscape making the 144 to 46,000 comparison meaningless without context, it concerns me that what he feels is wrong with charitable fund-raising is that not enough money is being spent on high salaries to lure high powered business leaders to head up the efforts.

Now understand, I am not saying that raising large amounts of money for good causes is wrong. There is certainly a lot of good being done by some of these big business charities. What I am saying is that we need to be very careful about the heart of the matter. The problem with focusing these charities solely on bottom line profitability is we are creating a giving culture that ignores the real human needs of those we wish to help. Ultimately, money is not the solution to most problems. It can certainly make valuable resources available that can be used to help, but the competitive product-like marketing of these charities is tending to minimize the people and their needs into simple emotion evoking cartoons that distance us from the real pain that needs to be addressed.

Am I suggesting that you stop giving? No, but I do ask this of you. When the next letter arrives or the next commercial airs that features the sad homeless man or sad kitten or sad child, before you write in your credit card number think hard and don’t just give to the cause. Think of a specific person. Imagine their pains and hopes and dreams and imagine what difference your help could make. Then give. It may not feel quite as good, but hopefully it will mean much more.


One comment

  1. The direct address of the audience here works to really engage the reader and to ask us all to really consider our intentions and values when we perform volunteer acts. Thinking about intention really is an important part of the process! I would have loved to see your entire culminating project (rather than just this piece of the puzzle) to get a deeper look at your research and question as well!
    Take care,

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