I’m a longtime reader of the newsletters/blog of fellow Woodstock alum Jim Taylor – who has been a professional writer for far longer than I have, and is a very wise man. This week’s “Sharp Edges” column is about the disastrous floods in Pakistan, wondering Why the reluctance to help? He shares some likely correct ideas about why “international aid has been disastrously slow”, ending with a cogent thought about why this is a huge mistake. I agree with everything he says, and recommend that you read it now.
But I think there’s more to this story, and wrote Jim as follows:
One thing that has surprised me since I moved from Italy back to the US is the constant pleas to give-give-give. Everyone has their “pet” cause – often quite literally about pets – and is constantly asking for “support”. Fundraising is a business in which people are paid to stalk city streets with clipboards, waylaying passersby with earnest questions. Every corporation and celebrity hastens to associate their name with some cause, preferably a non-controversial one that won’t tarnish that name with any possible customer or fan.
The result, for me at least, is a constant low-level feeling of guilt that I’m never doing enough to save the world. No matter that I gave my childhood for my father to “develop” Vietnam, Thailand, and Bangladesh. Never mind that I have given considerable time, travel costs, and professional expertise to Woodstock and SAGE. I’m a bad person if I don’t also save dolphins, pit bulls, starving children, forests, etc.
The most bizarre request I’ve seen was in a sandwich shop in Colorado: taped to the counter at the cash registers was a flyer made up and printed by an employee, concerning the daughter of his neighbor. The child was killed by a car while playing outside her home “just minutes after this picture was taken!” and we were all now invited to help the family defray funeral costs.
It’s as if we are all expected to participate, emotionally and financially, in every tragedy in the world. I don’t think the human psyche is designed to deal with that much grief, even vicariously.
So when one more cause comes along, no matter how worthy, I just shut down. It feels like yet another imposition on my emotional energy. I don’t know whether that makes me a bad person, or simply a burnt-out charity case.
I don’t think you should feel like a bad person or a burnt-out charity case. This “GIVE!” business is overwhelming. Maybe it stems from our recent frontier neighbor helping neighbor past. (And it’s actually a great thing that Americans are so generous, aside from the obviously tacky requests like the one you described. ) You’ve learned to navigate other cultural waters and will probably figure this out, but honestly, it has taken me years to learn how to deal with it.
We are barraged by need. Times are tough. And nationally there was are was a concerted effort begun during the Bush, Sr. administration to cut back funding and rely on “community and faith based initiatives.” So I think that things have gotten worse in recent decades.
With regard to Pakistan, I remember a time when the Red Cross was about the only mainstream international charity aside from church efforts. Remember the first charity rock concert (for Bangladesh) was only in the early ’70s. (It was a good one. Thank you, George Harrison!) By and large Americans respond generouslyto big appeals, I think and when another disaster shows up they are at a loss to be able to contribute. Giving was down for Katrina victims initially because people had just donated to tsunami victims (or vice versa-I forgot the timeline here) So with people giving to Haiti recently, donations to Pakistan are probably down. (Although generally we Americans are woefully ignorant about some parts of the world as compared to the UK say. They have an awareness of all their former colonies. Most Americans probably don’t know about the ’08 Earthquake in Pakistan, for example.) Haiti is closer to home.
I think most people who have been in a community for a period of time or who are raising kids there, support local efforts first, then look at national and global efforts. They pick and choose and give if, when and what they can.
The trick is to remember that you can’t give to everything.
When asked or called, I had to learn to cheerfully decline, directly, though usually with a legitimate and sometimes convenient excuse. (“I support my LOCAL girlscouts, but good luck today.” ” I wish I could, but I can’t just now.” “I’ve blown my charity budget for the year. I hope you understand.” “I’ve just contributed to Public Radio and I’m afraid I can’t contribute to anything else for awhile.” “Send me the material and a pledge card and I’ll see what I can do.” “I can’t pledge that (ridiculous suggested donation) amount, but I can give you this much.” “Can’t do it this year.” “I have two kids in college right now and just can’t contribute to the alumni fund.” “I can’t contribute, but I’m able to volunteer for a few hours, bake etc.” “I have two bucks on me. Will you take it?” )
It is a hassle. (Especially when you pass a Toys for Tots Santa with a full cart of groceries. It’s hard to even walk by even though you know that you dropped something into the kettle the previous week.)
There are consumer websites that outline what percentage a charity spends on professional fundraising. They’re enlightening and helpful. Sometimes I decline to pledge to a professional fundraiser, but if it’s a cause I think is important, I send a check directly to the organization.
Some employers have a program that enables employees to contribute to “United Way” or “United Fund.” This group will make payroll deductions and the contributions are systematically alotted to various groups within the community such as food banks, scouting, Red Cross, Toys for Tots, Federation for the Blind, Police Benevolent Fund etc. Individuals can probably contribute on their own, if this will assuage your guilt.
And, yes, you’re onto something when you mention your involuntary childhood contribution. Time is money. I taught in parochial school for very little money for a few years when we really needed cash. So I refrained from giving to large fundraising efforts at church during that time. (Now I refuse to support that church because of the pedophile issue, but do support Catholic Charities in our area because they operate the only free mental health, substance abuse clinics. I know of many students whose families have taken advantage of them.) Pick and choose.
It’s good form to support something that is really important to a close colleague or neighbor should they ask you. I’ve purchased token event tickets from neighbors and colleagues and have asked them to pass them on to a senior citizen or someone else because I “can’t make it.” And the occasional raffle ticket never really hurt anyone and goes a long way in terms of goodwill.
So, now I guess I’d better see about Pakistan.
After all these years (I’ve been following your writing since 2005 when we lived in Panama planning our move to Italy) I feel as if we know each other. I completely agree with your comments regarding feeling de-sensitized to the never-ending “needs” “causes” of the globe. It’s the same experience as watching violence on television, at first you are horrified, revolted but everytime you watch something violent, your reaction to it diminishes. It’s the feeling of helplessness that cripples you, being convinced that not only do you need to do something but that that “something” will make a difference but then comes another “need”, natural disaster or man-made makes no difference. The “secret” is to try your best, knowing that your best will vary from hour to hour, day to day. And someone that doesn’t give to big charities or causes isn’t necessarily non-charitable. I give by not wasting. I give by passing on things that I don’t use instead of throwing them out. I give by not accumulating a mountain of “stuff” refusing to buy into the notion that I’m not enough if i don’t have the newest gadget. And then sometimes I give money or my time. But I still weep for those I cannot help directly and who suffers.