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Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Charity Conundrum

Back when money came in more easily, and we didn't yet suspect it wouldn't do so forever, I'd make out $20.00 checks for almost any charity who asked. Hungry people, hungry animals, myriad diseases, social political groups and causes, arts...

By so doing, I caused the requests to multiply wildly, letters bred and spawned.  Free unwanted address labels, calendars, notepads, book bags, blankets, key chains, and plush toys gushed in through the mailbox.  Strangers called.

Then my father-in-law's mail was forwarded here after his death. Apparently he'd  contributed to a whole slew of different charities and causes who missed him desperately and wrote often. The accumulating waste was obscene, forcing us to wonder if any donated monies went to anything besides the proliferation of glossy pictures of misery and heartbreaking pleas for help. 

The need was clearly real, but was the cure a scam?

I asked around. One friend said she shoved all her requests in a drawer and sorted through once a year.  Some people said they picked one charity each year and made as big a contribution as possible in hope of making some actual difference. Others, like me, were spotty and unfocused, not knowing if we'd donated six times to AIDS and never to ASPCA, or Doctors Without Borders, or Habitat for Humanity, or.... A friend in the fundraising business, turned me on to a link that evaluated charities on effectiveness and skim-levels...

Then our income-flow slowed to a trickle and the subject of sharing more than a few bucks here and there with the neighborhood homeless, became moot.

So, since we no longer had money to give, I decided to give time instead. I signed on for the next couple years for random volunteer work, working with kids, working with books, working with kids and books, serving soup, going to various meetings.

Some of it depressed the hell out of me, and left me limp on the couch, too dispirited to write.

Some of it was so boring it left me limp on the couch, too numb and brain-dead to write.

Some involved such long hours in hideous traffic that by the time I got home, I could do nothing but sprawl... you guessed it, limp on the couch.

Now it is a new year. Time to reevaluate and hatch the next plan. But I am stumped. What are we to do with the crushing need around us? How can we do some good to justify our existence, but not pay so dearly that we resent it and seethe?  What do other people do??????  What do you do?

P.S. If you read this far thinking I'd have answers, I apologize for leading you astray.


imp said...

I have no answers, just appreciation. I think I want to pick one cause and zero in on the charities and groups that do the most in that arena, and try not to feel guilty when Sarah McLaughlin sings sad tunes over broken dogs. Beyond that, the biggest charitable act that I think everyone can do is to just be decent to each other, with no hope for reward. Good for goodness' sake would go so far. And do the little wave when someone lets you in to their lane of traffic, please!! We Midwesterneers miss that.

The Pen and Ink Blogspot said...

I can't stand wealthy celebrities who shill for this and that charity supporting this and that cause. The one issue they fail to question is the gross financial inequality of their own profession.
Sour Grapes

Cara King said...

I don't have a lot of experience volunteering, so I can't comment on that! (I expect I should volunteer more than I do, but I don't.)

But I, too, ran into the exponentially-expanded charity mailings. Sort of like the plant in Little Shop of Horrors -- every time you feed it, it grows, and demands more food.

Eventually, I started donating only anonymously online (through Network for Good) and writing to any charity that mailed me asking them to take me off their lists. With Network for Good, a certain percentage of your donation does go to administration, but from what I've read, the average charity spends far more than that in fundraising fees (even the ones who don't mail you foreign pennies and prayer flags and holiday cards drawn by undoubtedly cute children.)

CameoRoze said...

Amy, this is a post after my own heart. When my dad died, the same thing happened. When I went to collect his mail that had been piling up at the post office, there were TWO big postal bins (the size of laundry baskets) full of nothing but charity requests. I wrote and called the organizations to get his name off those lists ... and some substituted my name for his! Grrrrrr!

So one year my husband and I picked out just 5 charities that we believed in and gave substantially to them. That helped a LOT when we started getting the phone calls. I could just say, "I'm sorry, but we're supporting only xxx charity this year. Can you please take my ADDRESS off your mailing list?" That got me off a few lists, and less things addressed to my deceased dad arrived at my home address.

I've tried volunteering, too, but had the same response as you. Or you ask to help because the organization claims they need help, but then they don't follow through or waste your time while you're there and don't use the talents you have to offer. Crazy. And frustrating.

I finally decided to do one main thing. It's not charity, so I don't get a tax deduction, but that part doesn't matter to me. I give to Kiva. Or more precisely, I LOAN through Kiva. Over a few years I've invested $650. That's about enough to make one $25 loan every week. As the loans are repaid, the money is recycled and I get to loan it out again.

There is the opportunity to give $$ to support the administration of these loans, but I choose not to do that. I'll let corporate sponsors take care of the administration costs.

This way, all of my limited resources go directly to the small business owners who need the help - mostly in the developing world. I choose to give primarily to women who do embroidery, sewing or tailoring. I've only had two loans default in the years I've been funding (one was to a man). There's a rating system in place so you can pick the amount of risk any one particular loan has of repayment. As the money loaned is repaid to me, I can either withdraw it or re-lend it.

I love this organization. I highly recommend checking it out:

Loans that change lives.
I let it change mine.