Posted in Commentary, Lessons Learned

The end of a would-be philanthropist

Once upon a time, we were a young couple fresh out of college, both teaching, mostly broke, and regularly paying usurious interest to VISA in various guises. We didn’t have much money, and the best we could do on the charity front was to occasionally give to canned food drives at school, and maybe spring for an inexpensive toy for Toys for Tots at Christmas.

Eventually, we left our respective classrooms to work in the private sector, got out (and stayed out) of debt, and found ourselves in a position where going out to get milk did not involve the removal of all the couch cushions and a pocket-check of all our jackets prior to departure to see if we could actually fund such an extravagant outing. This was a delightful change of pace for us, and we were grateful to have gotten our souls out of hock to the purveyors of revolving credit.

I realize that it is not purely through our personal talents that we have managed to make a nice life for ourselves. There’s a lot of luck involved in being financially solvent, or insolvent, starting with the family you’re born into and the opportunities you have available to you thereafter. Given that, I have always felt that those who have more should give more; you have a duty to share the wealth, because you didn’t get there all on your own. So being in a position to do so now, I send a little money to various charities when I sit down to pay bills. I’m no Rockefeller, but I do what I can. There have been many different ones, mostly dedicated to keeping people and animals alive and well and able to create decent lives for themselves. And I’ve felt good about it. It’s felt like the honorable, human thing to do, and it gave me warm fuzzies to think I’m helping out in my world.

The first time.

However, the shine quickly wears off when you discover that, in responding to charities’ pleas for help, you have inadvertently enrolled in a program of constant harassment by junk mail. I have been thanked for my generosity by incessant requests for more, from just about every single charity I’ve given to. I hear from Habitat for Humanity, a truly excellent charity that helps get poor folks into their own homes, probably every 2 weeks. Between the multi-page mailings and the many “free” gifts of cards and address labels and whatnot, I cannot imagine how much they are spending on solicitation. I would probably have to send a minimum of $100 a year just for them to break even.

I don’t give to charities for free gifts. I do it because I think it’s the right thing to do. I would much prefer they keep their free gifts, and all the postage they spend to send me more crap I don’t read or need, and call that my contribution for the year. I cannot help but believe it would be considerable, especially since postage rates keep going up. Plus, I know where they are; if I’m interested in giving more, I will have no trouble doing so.

But the impression one gets after digging oneself out from under the avalanche of charity petitions is that they’ve realized they’ve got a live one on the line, and they’re not letting go. It seems ungrateful, frankly. In my house, we were taught that the correct response to a gift was “Thank you.” Not “Thank you, gimme more.” I have to admit, it turns me off the whole enterprise, and I go looking for someone else who hasn’t irritated me yet.

Which is how I came to send money to a no-kill shelter in Washington that is taking care of 3 two-legged Chihuahua puppies. When I read the story about them, it broke my heart, as it was meant to. Poor sweet babies. Of course I’ll help! And I even ordered a welcome mat for my house from their store to support their mission. Great. No problem.

Until I started getting junk mail from a bunch of OTHER animal charities I’ve never heard of, like “Society for the Rescue of Mustachioed Chinchillas” or some equally particular focus. It seems to me that the way to thank your donors is NOT by selling their names and addresses to strangers who will then importune them for money.

I don’t need a tote bag or a coffee mug or address labels or constant pestering-by-post by you and your sketchy friends. I don’t want 80% of the money I send going to the monkeys in your office who are in charge of the direct mail campaign. I want it to go to build houses and feed people and teach cute little 2-legged Chihuahuas to walk on their hind legs. I want 90% of every dollar, minimum, to go to the very thing you told me it was going to when you asked me for the money in the first place! Is that so much to ask?

Maybe I just need to start giving my money directly to homeless folks on the street. They just say “thank you” and they’re on their way. They don’t have any overhead that’s going to skim a percentage off the top. And they never send you any mail.



I've been doing some form of creative writing since 9th grade, and have been a blogger since 2003. Like most bloggers, I've quit blogging multiple times. But the words always come back, asking to be written down, and they pester me if I don't. So here we are. Thanks for reading.