Tuesday, May 06, 2008

The gift that keeps on taking.

As 2007 gave way to 2008, the wife and I decided that we weren't doing enough to discharge our natural obligation to those less fortunate in life. Understand, we're not well-to-do by any means; I am a full-time writer, after all, and you probably never heard of me before you found this blog, so that tells you I'm not likely to steal any of the advance monies that originally were earmarked for Stephen King. Even so, we figured that just by virtue of living in a tranquil, Norman Rockwell-esque American community, where kids go to school without worrying about ducking mortar fire, we're better off than about 95 percent of the rest of the world right there. So we picked out a few choice causes, led by St. Jude's Children's Hospital (to which we'd always given anyway), did a little research about the percentage of contributions that gets eaten up by administrative overhead (i.e. the "net" pass-through), and mailed off our envelopes with checks enclosed.

Then it started.

Within a month or so, the new solicitations began arriving. Two of them, then three of them a day. Then more. At first they were relatively polite (albeit, I thought, needlessly maudlin). But then they became more insistent, trying to guilt us, shame us. They enclosed nickels, then dimes, then "free" tee-shirts, flags and stadium blankets. Then they began sending their entreaties in envelopes printed with plaintive questions like "won't you please help?", which in some cases gave way to accusatory questions like "why won't you help?" I recall that last one distinctly. It was from one of the seemingly endless proliferation of Catholic charities, and the sentiments within, despite being couched in religious terms, were decidedly un-Christian.

I'm sure some would say that we Americans, privileged as we are simply by accident of birth, deserve to be "guilted"; that we need to be prodded into doing our fair share (our real fair share being substantially more than we tend to think it is). Some would say that I myself made similar allegations recently about the rich rock stars and other celebs who stage "benefit concerts" instead of just reaching deeper into their own overstuffed pockets. The difference here, I think, is that unlike the rock stars, I'm not asking anyone else to be generous on my behalf; I'm not trying (at least consciously) to duck my responsibility, or to "hoodwink" someone else who's far less well-situated into paying my tab (as I believe many of the celebrities are). Remember, I was the one who took out the checkbook in January and started signing the documents that apparently invited this new onslaught of mailings. It's just that it strikes me that when people have decided on their own to do the right thing, it's unbecoming to accost them for not doing even more, or to imply that there are no limits: i.e., that having given to St. Jude's, you are now morally obliged to give to everyone, and to keep on doing it in perpetuity and in ever-larger increments. And that's another thing. If you get a mailing that asks you to "please give what you can afford," and you do, where do they get the nerve to come back to you again a month later? You already gave what you could afford! And then when you say no, they ask in stronger language, or pre-print the equivalent of a philanthropic scarlet letter on the envelope.

I don't know, maybe it's me. Perhaps there aren't any limits to what we're supposed to do on behalf of the downtrodden. It just irks me, is all. Especially when I get the envelopes with the dimes and the flags. Because then I say to myself, maybe if they stopped mailing me money and trinkets, they'd have more to spend on rice....

For what it's worth, tomorrow or Thursday we get back to Part 2 of Monday's post.


RevRon's Rants said...

Aw c'mon, Steve. INstead of being irked by the proliferation of solicitation, why not join in the fun? When you receive a request that has a postage-paid return envelope, share with them the merchandise coupons you won't be using. Stuff the envelope as full as possible and drop it in the mailbox.

Alternatively, you could just play a game of cross-pollenization by stuffing one charity's literature in the envelope of another charity and send it to them.

Many years ago, a "friend" grew tired of repeated entreaties to join a certain record club. He responded by wrapping a brick in brown paper (grocery sack... didn't want to spend any money), glued the return postcard to the outside, and gleefully dropped it in a mailbox. Since the return postcard promised that first-class postage would be paid by the recipient, my "friend" figured it would cost the record club several dollars. He was delighted at the prospect - or so he told me!

If enough people got sufficiently disgusted and began sending "donations" that were not to the beggars' liking, the solicitors would eventually realize their efforts were counterproductive. It's a pipe dream, I know, but any form of activism has to start somewhere. Might as well have some fun in the process! :-)

Steve Salerno said...

Wow. You guys are more diabolical than I ever imagined...but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Alison said...

Hey, at least your charities of choice earned some money selling your personal info to other charities!

One year at university I worked in the donor office -- spent all my time pouring through newspapers and wealth surveys to see if any of our alumni were mentioned -- and all the info was added to the donor database. Fundraising is an odd little world.

Steve Salerno said...

Thanks, Alison, for stopping by, and for the "insider's perspective."

Anonymous said...

Hey Steve - it's Goaty here. did I ever tell you about the time my brother sent $3 - in my name - to a radio preacher in Texas? He told the guy that I had committed a huge, unspeakable sin which was weighing on my mind. I received a special "prayer towel", along with junk mail from dozens of (ahem) "religious" organizations. I had to move 3 times just to lose them.
If you still teach at college, you can get back at your snotty students and these panhandling charities at the same time.

mikecane2008 said...

Yep, welcome to that mail list, Steve!

But hey, did you ever get around to helping that guy in Nigeria who sent you that email and who was looking for an heir who was due to inherit $100M? Did you send him the private info he requested? Thought not! See? At bottom, you're just all me-me-me.


Anonymous said...

My university keeps hitting on me, and I'm a broke middle aged hag.

One of the best decisions I made in relation to charity was right after Hurricane Katrina. I knew I wanted to give something. But I also knew that if the Red Cross got mega-millions, that money would be too much of a temptation.
Organizations are full of people who have personal problems with money and who are tempted to 'borrow' and then cant pay it back, for the same reason they were tempted to embezzle in the first place.

Instead, I contacted a seminary in our area and asked for the names of local organizations in NOLA that had a long record of social justice work. I was referred to a list of such organizations, selected one, and gave another sum to a friend in the neighborhood who was in danger of eviction and needed a temporary cash grant--which she paid back to each of the people who had lent to her.

The worst thing is after a disaster to give from reactivity and guilt. By all means, help. But dont do it on impulse. Fact check and then help.

Anonymous said...

In response to 'Goaty's story--how his brother put him on someone else's prayer list...


I must mention that when in a training program for hospital chaplains, one thing we learned to do was, if we were requested to visit a patient, we were to check and see if the patient had actually asked for a chaplain.

Because, all too often, religiously intrusive family members may want to impose their beliefs upon family members who do not share them.

A wise chaplain or cleric takes very good care to check and see if the patient actually requested the visit, not a pushy family member who is trying to force conversion or repentance on someone who is hospitalized and unable to exercise his or her customary autonomy in relation to choice of visitors.

Anonymous said...

I made the mistake of giving to a charity once, but never again! I get stickers, rubber bracelets, dimes, nickels, pennies, maps, and everything else. The charity sold me like a $5 whore.

I love Rev's idea.