Monday, November 14, 2005

Charity Ends At Home

What Is Charity? - New York Times

[T]he nonprofit sector has drifted from core notions of charity...Only a sliver of giving to churches is spent on social services. Last year, of the 14 gifts that exceeded $100 million, only one - a $1.5 billion bequest to the Salvation Army from Joan B. Kroc, the widow of the founder of McDonald's - went to a human services organization, Forbes magazine says.

"In general, philanthropy seems to have stopped talking about poverty and race," said Jan Masaoka, executive director of CompassPoint Nonprofit Services, which tries to strengthen charities. Small groups still get funding, but the sector "in some ways has retreated from taking on poverty in a larger-scale, more direct way."

If there's one thing that's true, it's that people give to people because they have a personal connection to the place they're giving to, and people who have personal connections to human service organizations are not usually people with money...People who grew up in comfortable, clean, prosperous suburbs have just never had as much familiarity with how many others live.

I grew up in a clean, prosperous neighborhood and, in any case, am no great philanthropist. But I have a vivid, if perversely selective, imagination. I can't imagine being sick so I don't give a cent to "charities" concerned with health care or medical research. But I can easily imagine being poor or being a member of a visible minority. So I give the lousy little amount of money I give to: the NAACP and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Fund for an Open Society and and UNICEF and these days I've had a blast giving people virtual farm animals from the Heifer Project as gifts. The the cow I gave my son and his bride as a wedding present, the pigs, goats and chickens I've given to friends, and the swarm of bees I sent to my mother-in-law go to people in developing countries who know how to deal with them.

So I just thought I'd advertise a little. I don't know how many people visit my blog, but I thought I'd put up these convenient links in case you have some disposable income. BTW the Canadian Harambee Education Society is also a terrific deal: for $340 American money you can send a girl in Kenya or Uganda through high school.

It's not virtue that drives me but the vividness of modality that comes from reading too much David Lewis, and the lively sense that these possible worlds where I'm poor and have no options are just a hair's breadth away. I go into Walmart and see the women working there at pink-collar shit jobs for minimum wage, going mad doing miserable drudge work all day and living in poverty, and it always strikes me in the most vivid way how I escaped that by the skin of my teeth and pure dumb luck--how easily I could have been one or them, or someone who couldn't even get a job at Walmart. I see beggars at freeway exits and always think of how easily that could have been me, standing there all day with a cardboard sign, bored out of my head while the cars go past blasting me with exhaust fumes, with nowhere to go, nothing to do and no way out.

I'm writing now on preference and well-being. My intuitions may be screwy but I have the vivid sense that I'm actually less well off myself because possible worlds like this are so close by. So I give money and do what I can to fix the safety nets that cushion me from those possible worlds. It's hard to explain this gut-level fear: as a tenured professor I know there's no chance I'll end up working at Walmart or begging at a freeway exit, and there is sure no way that I'm going to wake up black one day. But this is all vivid and close to me.

No comments: