Claudia understood immediately and began to scoop up the bumps she felt on the bottom of the fountain. The bumps were pennies and nickels people had pitched into the fountain to make a wish. At least four people had thrown in dimes and one had tossed in a quarter.
“Someone very rich must have tossed in this quarter,” Jamie whispered.
“Someone very poor,” Claudia corrected. “Rich people have only penny wishes.”
Elaine Konigsberg, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
It’s been a while since I wrote in this space. Half a year, in fact. Life became a bit busy—transitions at work, a fair amount of inter-city commuting, a move being planned to cut down on that, illnesses and celebrations and the stuff of life. Life also became a bit weary during the campaign season. This project started feeling too much like complaining, and I had I lost the heart to blog about the isolation of wealth while a very, very rich man was unravelling with his privilege at one end the points I was trying to make at the other.
That’s over. He is now just another incumbent politician to disappoint us. I predict we’ll soon stop primarily judging him on his character and begin judging by what he does and does not do for the progress of the nation. While his personal shortcomings are sure to encumber his presidency and be frequently discussed, I feel pretty certain that the familiar metric of “what have you done for me lately?” is going reclaim its usual place at the top. I’m ready to talk about class, money, and religion again.
December means the dial on charitable fundraising is about to be turned up to 11. And it will puzzle people again why I do say “no,” to some things when I could certainly afford to give the money and I’d never miss it because it’s not like I’m doing anything with it besides hoarding it for my ego anyway, right?
I actually have heard that line of argument before. It hurts because it undermines what charity is and questions my capacity for it at all.
Sacrificial acts for someone else’s good are the probably the clearest way we can both develop and demonstrate a loving personal nature.
The modern understanding of charity is derived from the Christian theological virtue of Caritas, a form of love that is selfless, self-giving, and therefore the highest expression of love. The definition is supplied without the term many times in the Gospels by Jesus (or at least by someone putting words in his mouth circa 100 CE), perhaps most concisely when he says “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13) It’s a bit self-serving since Jesus says it at the Last Supper knowing that he’s about to do just that. But it’s still sufficient: sacrificial acts for someone else’s good are the probably the clearest way we can both develop and demonstrate a loving personal nature.
I think all non-sociopaths do this in some way from time to time. To raise kids and provide for a family is a self-sacrifice of your own interest in resources, time, potential. To go out of the way to do a friend an errand is a loving thing because it puts the needs of someone else above your own. You can think of many big and small sacrifices which let you know you were loved.
Do it, it’s good for you. I’ll wait.
Contradictions and Motives
I emptied some pocket change into a Salvation Army kettle this morning and the bell-ringer mouthed “thank you,” to me. I didn’t do it to hear the reward of her “thank you,” I did it because I like most of the things that are funded with such contributions and because I admire the personal conviction of someone who will stand outside the pharmacy in the cold shaking a bell until their arms are tired because they believe that is the best use of their time that day. I’m sure you don’t question that motivation of mine this morning. But maybe you’d wonder like I might, having given that gift what would you feel if you didn’t get at least a reciprocal nod?
I have much more than pocket change I can give away. When I do, I will probably both add to my rewards and to my problems; to unearned encomiums and to undeserved moral judgments. Giving a big gift has rewards that small ones don’t:
Recognition Has Two Sides
Make a big gift, and you’ll probably be offered, or even enticed with, plaudits others can’t access. I’ll assume you come from a good family. You love your mom, right? Do you love her so much that you’d write her name followed by “Memorial Dining Hall” on a college campus building so that it would be there for a hundred years or so? Of course, you do (and my grandfather once did something a lot like that) whether you can afford it or not. Even so, you might not do it because accepting the monument makes a gift a different beast altogether.
Now, maybe your alma mater really needed the dining hall and that was why they asked you to provide it. Maybe you do really want to shout to the world what a great person your recently-deceased mother was. But what about the public relations value in news media, whether that’s television or the campus newspaper? The increased esteem of your classmates and acquaintances for you because of your demonstrated success, and the access to their success you might get if say, one of them is now a movie star or a U.S. Senator? Is your gift buying influence over the school’s admissions process on behalf people close to you? Did you need your ego stroked because you’re insecure? What if all that, or even some of it, is also true? Is the gift just an exchange of value even if you think that you are able to quantify the degrees to which you’ve given it and still think it’s personal sacrifice and spiritual growth?
Look, it’s probably Caritas toward my best friend but probably not philanthropy when she asks if I’ll buy four of us tickets to a charity ball and silent auction for a childhood disease research association and because it’s she who asked, I do. We go and have a lukewarm fifteen dollar chicken-and-two-veg dinner each for $500. We get to wear pretty things and dance and make our guys use their collar stud sets, and then no commitment after that. It’s a social event, and nominally for a nice cause but that’s not really why we did it. Her case, professional development; my case, a gift to a friend.
When NPR offers us a tote bag in exchange for a pledge, and we habitually use it at the Whole Foods where everyone from church shops (I’m guilty!), what’s happening? These aren’t easy things to tangle with. They’re amplified and complicated further each time the magnitude ratchets up a notch.
I Do Have a Life Beyond This, You Know
The bigger your donation in proportion to other gifts the recipient takes in, the bigger your involvement becomes. You may find yourself being offered a board position or an advisory council role, or invited to events where you develop relationships and therefore influence with others who lead the organization. Or the executive director or president or chairman—or minister—calls you informally, but frequently enough, for advice or perspective or to share news and invitations.
I want to say: my husband and I personally learned this lesson the hard way at age 25 in the Unitarian Universalist congregation we had just begun attending. There was a special growth campaign that year beyond the annual pledge, with all the usual and reasonable pleas from the pulpit for special generosity. I was earning $61,500 in salary that year, but as I explained before my real income was sort of submerged behind that number.
I asked my family office, which is indirect to say, my parents, for $15,000 of my “other” money to give to the church that had welcomed us and that I really thought I’d belong to for a long time. That figure was nearly quarter of what I was living on at the time, in case you didn’t do the calculation. I asked, I explained, I negotiated, I made all sorts of post-adolescent promises about what I’d do to prove I deserved to do this, I got it or at least wheedled it, I gave it. It wasn’t the biggest pledge the congregation got, but it was the biggest from anyone under (I was told) retirement age.
I was instantly asked for more. And worse, which will have to be the topic of another post when I figure out how not to convict the guilty. We ended up leaving the congregation shortly afterward because the donation had poisoned our relationship with the church.
I Think They Call This Moral Hazard
A proportionally large enough donation can change the character of the recipient organization. Bigger isn’t always better and the charity’s effectiveness can decline. Scaling up can cause them unanticipated issues; being relied upon every year for the same amount or more may not be what you had in mind. If you head down that route, you also may restrict your opportunity to do good for others in the future. Having once or twice succeeded very well in fundraising the recipient might then make future grandiose plans.
No, I Don’t Want a Gift Basket, I Want to Feed My Cat and Go to Bed
When you give at a high level, whether you intend to be conspicuous or not you may become so. Other charities figuratively storm the gates with their requests because either a required tax filing or a tiny news story or a staff member who changed jobs made a development officer aware of what are assumed are your capacities. You start to feel the way Moby Dick must have felt when he was about to cut his birthday crab cake in the employee break grotto and the intercom blooped “Captain Ahab for you, Moby, line four.”
Pass the Gravy and Take Your Elbows Off the Table
Families are messy. We all just had the America’s most tense Thanksgiving dinner in history so you’ll get what I’m saying with an example. That campus building (it’s not actually a dining hall) I alluded to is—because I was raised Catholic and so were my parents–at a Catholic college which no one in my family since my grandfather has attended. When it had to be renovated, our family was sought out and gave a big donation again. Out of love and respect for who Grandpa was, and what he did with the time and in the times he was given for the things that mattered to him, there was never any doubt that my Dad and his siblings and my generation would contribute. I would have been embarrassed had we not.
But I’m UU and so is my husband, we both identify bisexual, I have a lesbian sister, I have had an abortion, I am a woman who studied for ministry and ordination before opting against, I have never voted for a Republican in my life and I once voted very drunk, I am involved with an immigrant rights group and I give my passion to a women’s economic justice group which my local Catholic archbishop has very vocally opposed. My still-Catholic parents proudly support me in all those things despite the teachings of their church, which they acknowledge is sometimes wrong.
Money, at least informally, is political speech and since Citizens United vs. FEC it apparently is legal speech, too. What you say can limit who will hear you. It’s a tightrope act when a philanthropic foundation is shared by donor-beneficiaries with different viewpoints. I don’t support what the Catholic church teaches on sexuality, gender, the autonomy of the self, or for that matter school voucher programs. But I would do my part if that religious university came calling again just for Grandpa and Nana’s sake. I’d rather the development department at Planned Parenthood didn’t find that out, though.
I Like to Think That I Have a Heart
“Mo’ money, mo’ problems,” as Biggie said. But I think I’m capable of being selfless and sacrificial. If I’m not, then I suppose I should go drown myself in a wallow of self-pity because what’s the point of my life if it isn’t getting better at love? It’s all so damn complicated, I know.
Welcome to my world, sincerely. I’m hoping to tell you more about it.
Photo: Detail from Fountain of the Muses, Carl Milles, formerly the centerpiece of a restaurant at the Museum of Metropolitan Art, New York City. It is the fountain referenced in the quote above, naturally. I will probably be quoting from that children’s novel often. It was a childhood favorite and has a lot of thoughts germane to this blog.