Alms

Posted on March 31, 2011

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In the richest country in the world, we are a society of beggars. I was shaken by this realization several months ago when I heard a leader of a wonderful international change organization (aka “charity”) say that they had chosen in a management “rethink” to withdraw from their traditional fundraising. Why? Because they were in the business of helping people become self-sufficient, and had discovered that they were trying to do so by begging.

Since then I have thought a great deal about begging. We do it all the time, and we’re in the business of training our children to think in terms of entitlement. They participate in a myriad of organizations which are chronically underfunded. So their answer is the answer of all the great charities: to beg. They recruit our children to sell things for much more than they are worth, lining the pockets of distributors who pretend to be doing this “for a great cause.” We go along, creating systems of shame and adulation based on who can beg best.

Harsh, aren’t I? How else will we fund? Hypocritical too, I might add, as my own children, who are restricted in their activities to keep our life simple and to refrain from all this begging, are raising animals which they will sell for more than they are worth on the market, or who will beg for a “boost” from supporters. We have talked about this. We chose to participate, and we have a responsibility to support what we enlisted in, so I will be their “booster.” And we are working at aligning our behavior with our values.

I recently came across a wonderful “cause.” Mothers Without Borders, an international organization working on many fronts to reduce poverty, is building a school in Zambia so that a committed group of children can study in a safe structure rather than a chicken coop (imagine the rainy season). It will cost $75,000 … a large sum, but small compared to the $15 million or so a school in the US costs. They are asking for 15,000 people to give $5, an amount that won’t challenge anyone. I was mesmerized, gave the $20 I would have spent on something frivolous, and then shared with my friends the opportunity.

Several days later, overcome with curiosity, especially as I am preparing to launch my own anti-poverty effort and will need to fund an initial phase, I posted an anonymous survey to augment my research. Few responded. I asked again. Another handful responded. What I found, even in small numbers, aligns with large-scale philanthropic research.

90% of those who responded to my survey said that they chose not to give, even $5, because they already give to their church (100% chose not to give). I am familiar with the leaders of the Welfare Department of my own church, a very well-funded organization compared to many, and they say that they are able to fund the needs of their own membership with the donations that are received, but an entire division is set up to creatively solicit and focus larger donations that fund international efforts. My own fellow members are largely unaware that it is primarily solicited, generous individual donors who fund the international efforts of which they’re so proud. Most of us are out of touch with the true costs of caring for the poor, and we are contributing much less than we think we are.

Repeatedly in scripture a people is condemned as grossly wicked because of their failure to care for the poor among them. No doubt, they had “organizations” set up to do so (perhaps they even paid taxes that provided work programs and cash subsidies), which were inefficient or overstretched and probably chronically underfunded. No doubt, the people thought they were doing well enough.

In my own faith, a guideline received within the last 200 years states unequivocally that “it is not meet that ye should be commanded in all things” and that we should “do many things of our own free will and choice, and bring to pass much righteousness.” The focus is clear: we are not always going to be told what to do, and what we are told to do will seldom be even close to sufficient to do all that should be done.

Scattered throughout modern scripture, for the sake of anyone with a Judeo-Christian heritage or belief system, are statements about how money would be a barrier for those who sought spiritual enlightenment and eventual salvation. In Christian tradition, an otherwise righteous young ruler went away sorrowing because the one thing that was hard for him was to get rid of his wealth in the care of the poor, and we are left with the impression that that sorrow would have eternal consequences.

I wondered, as I viewed the results of my survey, why it’s hard to give. The reason, I believe, is that we have too many fake causes that distract and wear away at us. Think about most of the things to which you contribute your money. Taxes support bloated and ineffective systems. Fundraisers usually support activities which, in a wealthy nation, we should really just pay for ourselves. The truly efficient, small, focused, and problem-solving charities tire away quietly trying to do the immense good that they truly do, and probably contribute the lion’s share toward keeping us all from being wiped off the face of the earth for our greed.

The surfeit of beggars, who aren’t really poor, keep us distracted from helping the poor.

Just as that wonderful change organization conducted a “rethink” – so can we. We are free to do many things of our own free will and choice; it’s the greatest gift of mortality. We can control the things to which we dedicate time, talent, and treasure. We can choose “the better part” – the best instead of good or better. If each of us searched and found a “cause” that was efficient, timely, and turning out genuinely long-lasting results, we could change the world with our five loaves and two fishes – because God will multiply that which is freely and intelligently given.

Please, consider a rethink. I beg of you.

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