I gave at the office

Did you know about #GivingTuesday? Me neither. But it’s a Thing, the brainchild of someone who was nauseated by the consumerist mayhem of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, an attempt to reclaim the spirit of Thanksgiving from the clutches of corporate greed. It even has its own website.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg gave away 99% of his FaceBook shares yesterday. I myself got an e-mail from of the university. There wasn’t an explicit ask in the mail, nothing really on offer, just a big DONATE button at the bottom of the page. And as we head into the “holiday season,” the asks will keep rolling in right and left.

I’ve actually been thinking about generosity a lot lately, in fact, ever since I got back from Switzerland in early October. I’m going to attempt to articulate some of what has been stewing in the ten-pound ball of neurons sitting between my shoulders without sticking my foot in my mouth in the process.

In the interest of brevity, let’s stick with money. Why do people give away money? Well, why do people do anything? Self-interest? Fear of dying? Guilt? Boredom?

What motivates the countless small contributions that go into those big nebulous money-bucket charities? Why do people drop quarters into the Salvation Army’s jingling money pail? Donate their five cent bag refund at the grocery store? Dutifully make a check out to their office United Way drive every year? Sponsor marathoners in the name of cancer research?

I have a theory about charities that is not very charitable. The way I see it — which might be quite skewed and sardonic — is that a lot of charities feed off guilt and grief in the same way our criminal justice system feeds off fear. A good percentage of our well-meaning donations never end up helping anyone in need — they just go into things like fueling more requests for money or throwing gala banquets for donors. There’s a whole parasitic self-serving system built up around both charity operations and prisons that doesn’t make sense to me. The charity-industrial complex, if you will. Should I trademark that?

There are a zillion good causes out there, because our world is a roiling pit of despair: disaster relief, starving children, intractable diseases, poverty, domestic abuse, environmental degradation, the looming climate apocalypse. I listened to an interview with a Princeton philosophy professor the other day who gives away all but $37,000 of his salary every year. He’s founded all kinds of charitable foundations and studies altruism. Did you know there are websites you can consult that rate charities — not just the percentage of donor dollars that reach the needy, but also how effective the charity is at creating actual “good” in the world?

And maybe this is the key. That one little four-letter word, “good.” Philanthropy is inherently a moral activity. Charity X is a “good” cause, doing “good” in the world. If you donate, you feel good about yourself; you are a good person. My suspicion is that this taps into some deep primal desire we all have to please our mothers. Humans are born pathetically helpless and vulnerable, after all. If we can’t get people to like us, we perish. So we behave.

Mothers or no, most humans feel distressed when faced with the misery and suffering of fellow humans and even other mammals. There but for the grace of God go I, my child, my mother, my dog. We want to lessen their pain so we can feel better, less afraid, or at least less guilty about the fortunate accident that we were born in better circumstances than they were.

Many charities masterfully exploit these emotional triggers of guilt, grief and fear with strong visuals and poignant messages. And it works very well for them. The week after the picture of the little Syrian boy washed up on the beach went viral, I was visited by a couple of students collecting money for the United Nations Refugee Fund. When they left I felt terribly guilty. I had a knot in my chest. This is the kind of overwhelming problem that I don’t like to think about too much because it’s so intractable and its roots are so deep. Should I sign up for a monthly contribution of $40 in the hopes that it will 1) make a difference in the centuries-old problem of chaos in the Middle East or 2) make me sleep better at night? I really don’t know.

(In situations like this, I pull out the e-mail rule: if it involves an emotional response, I let it sit at least overnight before acting on it. People going door-to-door are usually eliciting emotional responses.)

The thing I’ve come to realize is that when we give, there is always an expectation attached to it. There’s something we want in return. Appreciation. A favorable outcome. To make a difference. To be admired. To feel less bad.

Generosity is transactional. As my brother Dave so aptly put it, when we make a donation to charity we’re outsourcing unpleasantness, essentially paying a charity to deal with it for us. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. They get our money, ostensibly use it to fund a good cause, and we feel better. Win-win.

This applies to both pull-at-your-heartstrings charities and old-fashioned philanthropy. Donations to organizations like universities, hospitals, symphonies, operas, libraries and public radio are also transactional — you like opera, you fund it so you can keep getting it in this Lady Gaga world. University X were the best days of your life, so you contribute in hopes that some other knucklehead can have fun, graduate and then get a good job like you did. They’re more “social status” or “this is my tribe” kinds of donations. Not to mention tax writeoffs. A big enough donation can even bring you a sort of respite from death: your name emblazoned on a building, attached to a fellowship or professorship, screwed into a bench, celebrated in alumni magazines and program guides long after you’re food for worms.

So regardless of the donation’s ultimate destination, it’still a transaction.

Is it even possible for us to give something away and expect absolutely nothing in return? No plaque on the wall, no mention in the alumni magazine, no annual report showing how many mouths were fed, lives were saved, trees were spared? No warm fuzzies, no feeling like you’re a good person who’s “just doing the right thing?” Not even the belief that the karma you’ve sowed will shine back upon you in this or some future lifetime? Not even so much as a thank you? Is a generosity that’s blind to metrics, unattached to doing the most good in the world or donation-dollar efficiency, even possible? It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it? It’s basically the same thing as going out into the middle of the ocean and tossing your money overboard.

I think this is what the lovingkindness of Buddhist philosophy is supposed to be. But since the vast majority of us are unenlightened, it follows that our giving involves some kind of attachment to outcome. And it behooves us to think about that as we’re writing our checks and pulling our our credit cards.  I am fully in favor of giving money away, particularly as an alternative to spending it on things nobody needs.

But I no longer pour multiple piddling donations into of belly of the emotionally exploitive charity-industrial complex in the hopes that it will belch out some good in the world. Now that I’ve taken the time to overthink the issue, that route doesn’t work for me. I want to have a better grip on why I am giving Marc’s hard-earned money away, and what it’s doing in the world once I’ve given it. I have to get all personally involved. Until I reach enlightenment, anyway, and chuck it all overboard and go set up shop in a cave. Then I’ll be needing your help.

I hope this hasn’t come across all Grinchy. I don’t want to spoil anyone’s Christmas Giving Pudding. And money is only one form of generosity, arguably not the most important by a long shot. Perhaps I’ll write more about generosity of self and spirit in a later post.

Do you have thoughts on this? I’d love to hear them.

2 thoughts on “I gave at the office

  1. Interesting thoughts. I believe individuals give for a number of reasons based on their past personal experiences, guilt, self promotion, etc. Those who have experienced real hardship and hunger know what that feels like and when they are in a more fortunate position want to ease that burden for others. We feel compassion for children in third world countries so we sponsor them in the hope that through education and adequate nutrition they will grow into adults that can help themselves and those around them. I believe these individuals are are giving for the right reasons.

    Some are guilted into it especially when it is a charity that is supported through their workplace such as United Way, or when someone passes away and donations to a specific charity in their memory is requested. Others need the recognition that they are doing “good” and they want everyone else to know it as well! I’ve often wondered why this is so important to certain individuals. Why do you need a building with your name on it? Why do you need your name listed in a booklet or engraved on a brick so that every can see what a good person you are? Is it not enough to know you’re a good person? I worked with a very nice person, polite, kind, always willing to help, but with an insatiable need to be recognized. She always wanted her good deeds to be known to the point that she had the alumni association of our university change the categories of donors that appeared in the annual giving newsletters to include a category of long term donors so her name would appear every year along with the gold, silver and bronze donors. At the end of the day does it really matter. Who is going to care?

    No matter what an individual’s reason for giving is I believe that some benefit, whether large or small, will be felt by someone down line so I guess it’s a “good” thing.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Marg. Something Mother Theresa said came across my radar today: “Never worry about numbers. Help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you.” I don’t know why, but that really resonates with me. There are people who are so busy saving the world, somewhere halfway across the world, that their own personal relationships flounder and crash. And they’re blind to the little things that can be said and done right around them. The people who desperately need the attention, to be seen and admired, probably issues of insecurity and fear. Money can buy you belonging for a while, but eventually we will all be forgotten.

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