Tuesday, November 16, 2004

'Tis The Season For Mindless Giving 

United Way? Yeah, it's okay...
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We're a United Way school. Faculty meeting agendas prioritize pleas for United Way donation but bump curricular updates in the interest of time. At yesterday's all-school meeting, the United Way plea clashed with the tone of a serious and substantive discussion about closing one campus next year, and -- since the whole thing went long -- also cut into the vital subsequent discussion period with our advisees.

It's United Way fundraising time here at our beloved school, and I'm pissed off.

Don't get me wrong -- I think United Way is a pretty decent organization, as charities go. But I also think there are better organizations out there. And, most importantly, I believe charity is an issue of individual choice. My charitable giving is up to me, and should not be at the mercy of peer, professional, or other social pressures.

The fiercely entrenched hegemony of The Favored Charity exists in many institutions in American culture. The classic example, collecting pennies in those bright orange trick-or-treat UNICEF boxes, is so deeply entrenched that it's hard to imagine going door to door with, say, a Hadassah tzedakah box instead without getting strange looks and, more importantly, less pennies. Your own workplace probably has some favored institutions as well.

And, problematically, the origin of a given institutions favored-status is generally arbitrary. In many cases, one well-meaning individual -- usually one of those folks who believe that their causes should be your causes, too -- starts the process, guilt-tripping others into donating to her favorite charity. Or perhaps an administrator picks one, because it's a name brand charity -- one which will bring strong recognition to the institution, good press, and good credibility.

Once entrenched, institutionalized propaganda, especially in service of a broad ideal that we all agree upon, is especially insidious. Speaking out against the lack of choice involved in such charitable enterprises is so easily misunderstood as anti-charity or anti-giving, one runs the real risk of looking like Scrooge just bringing it up.

But it's time someone said something out loud. The rubric we're describing doesn't create a logical foundation for giving. It is, instead, entirely arbitrary. And that means it most often results in the institutional and cultural entrenchment of charities chosen for all the wrong reasons. And charities chosen for the wrong reasons are likely to send your money to places you're less likely to want them to.

There is real value in personalizing rather than abstracting the communal drive towards charitable acts as normative, especially in an educational institution such as ours. More importantly, though, a plea for help from one charitable organization isn't the same as a diverse set of offered choices, or, better, case for assistance in general.

Because all charities have biases. Each, from UNICEF and the United Way to NOW or Operation Rescue, has a limited amount of money to spend, and must therefore make choices about how to spend it. Such choices must involve favoritism, bias, and preference if they are not to be entirely arbitrary.

And here's the crux of the matter, then: a truly informed donation is one which is based on one's own biases. That's what makes people give - because they believe in the cause, and in the value of helping in that particular way that given charitable organization or direct in-need recipient.

And "good" charity is not given grudgingly, because of fear or professional reprisal, or unpopularity. This is even true if one thinks one is not giving grudgingly, but is nonetheless giving for someone else's reasons, to someone else's cause. With students, this is especially dangerous, as it can turn students from owning their own giving -- which, in turn, can cause them to see giving itself as an unpleasant activity. In the end, this can only result in a generation less likely to give.

So give -- because it's Christmas, because you have plenty, because you believe in it, because your religion or ethical code demands it of you. But don't give blindly. Don't give in to the relentlessness of the oft-ingrained and knee-jerk preferences of others. Drop that penny, dime, or dollar where you think it can do the best work.

So like many of my coworkers, I'm planning on crumpling up that ubiquitous envelope when it shows up in my mailbox. I'm picking my own damn charity this holiday season. And it's none of your business where I'm sending that cash, either. Find your own damn charity. That's the point, after all.

posted by boyhowdy | 1:28 PM |
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