On Giving Critically and Wisely

Though you may not be privy to this fact if you don’t know me personally, my husband Mike is actually a very talented aspiring stand-up comedian. Though he generally tries to stay away from topical humor (after all, why devote yourself to perfecting a joke that you know will grow stale when no longer relevant), he had a holiday-oriented joke last year that got me thinking about the American way. The idea actually came from his friend Mark who commented on the Christmas carol “Do You Hear What I Hear?” – in particular the lines “A child, a child/Shivers in the cold/Let us bring him silver and gold.” The joke is essentially about how an American must have written this song because what the kid really needs is a blanket, not to have money thrown at him.

But that’s how most Americans tend to deal with issues of need. Rather than drawing up sustainable and lasting solutions to problems, we often simply increase funding in the hopes of curbing them. But if we take a critical look at this approach, we’ll recognize that such efforts will ultimately fail. After all, how many benefit concerts have raised how many millions of dollars for a variety of causes, from fighting world hunger to the treatment of certain diseases to stemming poverty, that are all still dominant social problems? Despite our best efforts at fund- and awareness-raising, many of these issues won’t be contained simply by giving away thousands of millions of dollars away.

It all stems down to the age-old saying. “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day; Teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” By simply buying food for the hungry or giving money to the poor, we may provide them with some semblance of comfort, safety, health, and support. But these conditions of relative security will always be temporary. If we really want to help, we need to find ways to help these people understand how to consistently feed themselves, how to generate a steady source of income to stay off the streets, how to lead healthy lifestyles and guard against disease. Charitable monies can only go so far in solving a problem, for they are temporary solutions to permanent problems. At some point, the money will run out, the problem will grow, the people in need will find themselves debilitated by the charitable crutch upon which they have come to depend.

So what can be done? Even in this time of relative economic insecurity, plenty of Americans have enough disposable income to donate to charity and they chose to do so to varying degrees. And sometimes, that money does help to establish long-term stability for people in need. Charitable giving is a great thing, especially in a society largely fueled by a “time is money” frame of mind. Few Americans have time to spare to travel to a foreign nation and teach natives the basics of sustainable agriculture, to provide comprehensive job-training and support to the unemployed, or to develop strategies for successfully controlling addiction and mental illness, two of the major forces that keep America’s homeless on the streets. So for reasons as simple as a lack of time, knowledge, or skills, many people send off checks to charitable organizations, often without really researching the group in question’s financial breakdown, overarching methodology, or day-to-day strategies to realize change. The benefactors behind many charitable donations simply don’t know where their money is ultimately going.

I’m just as guilty as most. I find myself hard-pressed for time and unable to do the important research before giving. I give money to the homeless and food to the hungry without offering equally fundamental support in the form of imparted knowledge or referrals to available services. I’m not saying that you or I should feel compelled to pull over the next time we see a homeless person and give him or her a lecture on the basics of finding a job or a home. In fact, I imagine that to do so would be insulting and ultimately ineffective – who are we to consider ourselves experts, to presume that we know their struggle and the path necessary to overcoming it. A more obtainable goal is to simply spread knowledge as much as possible. When I was in high school, I volunteered with a student-run community service organization that focused primarily on the homeless population in Baltimore. Mostly this constituted volunteering in inner-city shelters, but one particularly significant idea I gained from this group was the idea of a resources card – a small piece of paper with a list of shelters, soup kitchens and other services, along with their phone numbers and addresses, to give to homeless individuals.

Many people make the argument that so many of the homeless whom they encounter on the streets have drug problems so it wouldn’t be fruitful to give them money that would likely be spent on a drug-binge. Though I like to believe in the best of people, that some just come by inexplicably unfair hard times or have extenuating circumstances outside of their control that bring them to their homeless state, I admit that their is a good chance the drugs play a role in many of the homeless’ homelessness. So I guess the resources card is an effective means of fighting such excuses while proposing more sustainable and productive solutions to problems. Rather than giving someone whatever change you’ve got in your pocket, give them a card full of information they can use to find a shelter for the night, a warm meal for breakfast, and maybe the assistance necessary to getting back on their feet. It won’t yield an immediate solution and it will still be met with some resistance – after all, what can you provide by way of service referrals for the illiterate? Nonetheless, it’s one small step toward solving a problem rather than throwing money at it. Because those seemingly small things – a bed, a meal – are actually of the utmost necessity; if your most basic needs aren’t being met, how can you expect to work a job, support a family, help yourself?

But the resources card is just one method of addressing a larger problem that can’t be solved with one simple step or even in our generation’s lifetime. In Baltimore, as in countless other cities, there are innumerable organizations doing what they can to help those who aren’t in a position to help themselves by providing shelter, food, job training, addiction counseling, mental health analysis, and a multitude of other services. But their efforts are often restricted by short staffing, insubstantial funding, limited resources, and countless people in need. The supply simply can’t meet the demand.

And this is where charitable people with disposable income, and time, can come into play. Sure, large efforts like Susan G. Komen for the Cure, Amnesty International, and the Sierra Club are in need of funding like any charitable non-profit and they do good work. But they reach mass audiences and have the standing to support larger fundraising efforts. While plenty of people send their money off to the Wilderness Society in return for a “Free Gift” in the form of a stuffed endangered species animal, I’m willing to bet that a larger portion of that donation would go to the cause truly driving an organization if it’s smaller, a grassroots group working on the front lines in our own cities, towns, and neighborhoods. Donations should still be given with caution – thorough research is the best way to intimately know where you’re money is going. But sometimes it’s the smallest organizations with the greatest need that have the capacity to make a larger impact. A charitable donation of $100 is relatively nothing to large national and international agencies, such as the American Red Cross, but it could make all the difference for your local shelter that’s reaching out to individuals on the streets.

There are many large charities doing wonderful work out there, and your donations are definitely worthwhile when rightfully given. And there are now websites out there to help ensure your donations will be effectively used, including Charity Navigator, a site dedicated to providing information about the financial health of charities so you can be a more informed giver and the American Institute of Philanthropy’s Top-Rated Charities List which grades organizations based on statistics such as how much of their budget goes to projects rather than reserves and whether or not they disclose their financial information. Rather than urging you to shun the large guys, I’m just hoping to shed some light on the more rank-and-file work being done in your community that is often overlooked. By simply generating a Google search of “homeless shelter Baltimore,” I was instantly connected with an endless number of organizations working in my own city to counter homelessness, and these were just the shelters.

Sometimes donating money in an effort to support solutions to social problems is our best option. But sometimes that money isn’t as effectively used as we would hope; volunteering our time, even if just for a few hours once a year, can prove infinitely more valuable. Other times, vast financial need exists in worthy places that too often slip under the radar. With the new year coming up, plenty of organizations are begging for end of the year contributions and the generosity of the holiday spirit is in the air. So if you find yourself hoping to help out, whether as a volunteer, a charitable donor, or otherwise, I encourage you to spend a few minutes’ time on research to ensure that the goodness of your intentions can be maximized. We need lasting solutions to problems, programs that encourage sustainability, knowledge, and self-sufficiency, not monetary expenditures that are about as useful as a bandaid over a cavernous flesh wound.

If you want to give, do so critically and wisely. If you want to help, think outside the box to create lasting solutions, not temporary palliatives. If you want to offer your support, ensure that it’s going to a place defined by honesty and transparency.

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