“Poverty is an industry for a lot of these do-gooders.”
– Bob Lonsberry, on his show, May 18, 2010
Driving around running errands this weekend, I tuned in to Marketplace Money on NPR. The topic: helping youth become more engaged in philanthropy.
I’ve been thinking about philanthropy lately, the concept of giving money, raising money, and supporting charities. I’ve become more and more jaded by the way companies are using the idea of supporting a charity as a way to sell their product.
Take the whole yogurt sales pitch. “Buy our yogurt, send in the lid, and we’ll donate money to breast cancer research.” That’s great on the surface, but what’s their motivation, really? If it was to donate money to charity, the company would do just that. But by asking people to buy their product in order for the donation to be made, they’ve simply found a way to get people to buy their product and feel good about it – and in the end, the company sells more stuff. (And gets a tax write off for the donation they make, I’m sure.)
It’s all P.R. for the company. Because, in case you didn’t know, you can give money directly to breast cancer research without using a corporation as the middle man.
So when I listened to Marketplace Money, I already had that jaded perspective in mind. Just so we’re clear.
The story focused on a middle school group of teens in Arizona who were learning about philanthropy – generating grant money, giving out grant money, and raising money for charity. As part of an actual course in philanthropy (which, they believed, was better than reading literature and writing a report about it), the students decided to make and sell salsa to raise money for services for teens struggling with addiction. A great starter course in giving.
What struck me was one comment by the reporter:
“Organizers of the philanthropy courses in Arizona and California hope they can show young people that they don’t have to wait until they’re retired or wealthy to start giving.”
The question is: what’s the definition of giving?
If Person A give $10 to Person B to give to Charity C, who actually did the giving? Is it giving if you’re simply collecting and then handing over someone else’s money? Or should we teaching kids about giving themselves – reaching into their own pockets and handing over money or taking time out of their busy schedules to do work for other people.
We’ve become a nation that looks to companies and corporations and big organizations to distribute the money and do the work, as if giving is all about handing over money to someone else and moving on with our lives. We send a text message, donate $10 to Haiti relief efforts, and pat ourselves on the back – while a year later, Haiti is still in a crisis.
One of the girls interviewed in the story even said she was considering a career in the field of philanthropy. What on earth would a career in philanthropy look like? Asking people for money that you then hand over to other people – after taking a cut for expenses and salaries, I assume.
Did you know, for example, that according to Charity Navigator, CEOs of large charitable organizations in the Northeast have a median income of $351,539 a year? And that the programs that pay the most to their CEOs are organizations for Education (median income $272,645); Public Benefit (median income $168,490); Arts, Cultures and Humanities (median income $190,550).
Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for giving to charities and understand that we need organizations to coordinate finances and resources. I support several charities that I believe are responsible and do work I couldn’t physically do myself in parts of the world where I am not. But I also think it’s time we started looking in the mirror for the solutions to some of the world’s problems – and we should start in our own backyards, reaching out to build relationships, to give to and serve the people right in front of us.
Let’s teach the kids to make a meal, drive someone to the doctor, baby sit, send a card, rake leaves. Not just sell stuff and send a check.
Because can we really love our neighbors if our giving is filtered through a middle man?