Monday, May 12, 2008

Can you spare a dime?

This afternoon, as I was walking from my office to our local office supply store, I ran into an organizer for a grassroots environmental non-profit agency who tried to get me to donate money to his organization. He was armed with a 3-ring binder with pictures, facts, and a place to sign my name and address. At first, he looked hesitant to say anything to me at all, but I made eye contact with him and he said, "Do you have sixty seconds for the environment?" or something like that. I started off by telling him that I, too, work for an environmental non-profit, and I asked him if he'd ever heard of us. He said no, and asked me to tell him about what we do. I am still pretty bad at this, as I've had my job for less than 6 months, and unfortunately I think I did a mediocre job at best. Then I asked him to tell me what his group did and he began to explain it to me. I could see at least one point (a legislative matter) on which the two groups disagree in philosophy. But, putting that aside, it was clear that we both agree that the environment needs attention and money. And yet, I have had enough financial problems in my life from impulse spending, that I am just not able to spend money impulsively anymore. I just can't do it. The thing is, he wasn't just looking for me to sign up for his mailing list. He wasn't looking for moral support. He was definitely looking for a donation. It was clear that his paycheck was dependent on my contribution. It was obvious that he was frustrated. And, I felt bad for him. Living in San Francisco, I am asked for money by homeless people who are clearly in serious need multiple times every day. And, not as often, I am stopped on the street by representatives of various non-profit organizations doing important work looking for a donation. Each one of these encounters leaves me feeling terribly guilty, but I haven't found a way to overcome my aversion to spending money impulsively. I often end up feeling angry at the organization for asking me for money in such a way and for subsequently making me feel like a schmuck for not donating anything. The other day as I was walking, some guy asked me, "Would you like to volunteer to help with the AIDS walk?" Why do I find this so unnerving? I might want to help with the AIDS walk. I might want to give money to an environmental non-profit or to save an endangered species, but I'm not prepared to commit my time or money at a moment's notice while walking down the street. I admit, I need to spend more time thinking about where I want to give my money and/or services. Maybe my sense of guilt is related to the fact that I don't feel like I give enough money to organizations that need it. There are so many to choose from. But, it would be easier to respond to someone asking me for money if I could say, "I give money to XYZ shelter on ABC St. Why don't you go there for a meal?" or "I give $XXX dollars a year to the ASPCA and that's about all I can afford to donate." Or, something. Something would be good.


Andre said...

That feeling is familiar to me. . it's no fun. . I remember when I canvassed for my state PIRG, I tried to stay upbeat. . . it more fun for everyone that way. . but it didn't help as much as I thought it would and I didn't last long in that job. . canvassing is hard. . and being solicited for *anything* on the street can be challenging, especially when it's something you care about.

Don't let them have you thinking the only way to give is by handing over cash. I think the best thing you can do for a canvasser is listen. . and then, after weighing your option say something like "here's my situation: I'm not able to donate financially to your organization right now, so I'm curious if there are other ways I can contribute."

I'm going to try some volunteering this summer. .

anyway, wishing you good!

Pam said...

Thanks for your feedback, Andre. I forgot that you worked for a pirg. That's tough work. I used to donate regularly to nypirg and masspirg, but haven't signed on to anything here in CA.

When I was in high school, I worked at the local mall doing market research surveys. My boss was pretty mean and she watched from her desk to make sure I stopped every single person who walked by me and asked them at least one of the survey questions. We had a couple of interesting surveys -- one in which the folks got to try out different recipes of apple "Newtons", but most of them were pretty annoying. Also, I repeatedly insulted people by misguessing their ages. Wow. That job sucked. Now I have sympathy for anyone whose job involves talking to random people.

Anonymous said...

Hi Pam, Andre, etc.

Your feelings are normal. I wrestle with this, too. Over the last couple years, I finally have disposable income enough to make small contributions to causes in my area, and when I set out to do so, the list I came up with was staggering. It took us a long time to narrow our choices down to one nature and one music organization.

Once we made those donations, tho, our name and address found its way onto a widely distributed list, and now we are nailed 2-3 times a week with mailings from various non-profits asking for help. More times than not, their appeals make sense and I feel obligated to help.

What kills me is that these organizations thrive on small amounts- 50 bucks is a lot of money to a small non-profit! When you really think about the vast sums of money that are really out there- how much have we spent on the presidential race, for example - its staggering how much we waste that could be passed along to those that truly need it.

Working at a university reminds me of this, too- we have limited funds for scholarships, so every spring we sit and fight for hours about how to hand out merit awards, and really, all we are talking about is 500 here, 1000 there- the same amounts some people spend on one night out to dinner!

until that changes, we are all stick navigating this world as best we can. you are in good company, methinks.

thanks for letting me vent

Pam said...

Thanks for your feedback, CC. You can vent anytime. :-)

Suze said...

Hey Pam,
It's okay not to give money to everyone who asks. I remember being in south africa once with stuart and feeling sorry for all the people who wanted money from us just because we are white, then feeling annoyed at them, then feeling guilty for feeling annoyed. The truth is, people are best helped by better infrastructure and organizations there to help them, not daily handouts from strangers. Designate 10 or 20 or 50 bucks a year or whatever you feel comfortable with to an organization you trust and go with that.

That said, I'm a total sucker. I have bought magazine subscriptions I didn't really want because I didn't want to be rude to the person coming to the door. I've got to come up with a good answer myself.

HermanNewticks said...

I find that to keep from feeling emotionally bruised by these encounters, I need to be a bit pro-active (I hate that word). The reason I feel bad if I don't give is that I wonder if I'm doing all I should, and whether giving to this particular group soliciting help would be a better use of my money or time than, say, spending it at the local coffee place or looking at an old friend's blog. The solution is to recognize that there's an opportunity cost to giving that money or time to that solicitor. I know I'm not going to sacrifice all my coffee cash or blogging time (though I might benefit from sacrificing more of it than I do), but that some such sacrifice is both rewarding and beneficial (see your posts about Lent, for instance). Once I figure out how much is reasonable (and this changes from time to time - it'll be more when my student loans are paid off...) I put it aside and figure out just one or two things to do with it. Because I am simple and can't keep track of too many. So the question is, where will that money and time do the most good? This also changes from time to time depending on my interests and the state of the world. It used to be that my time went to literacy training and my money went to oxfam for hunger issues. A couple years back, both went to Katrina victims. Now, time to The Innocence Project and money to charities helping the D.C. schools. Since the amount I will give each year is finite (b/c after all, I have needs too) I know that anything I give to the random solicitor will be reducing my gift to the one or two things I have chosen for the year. Makes it easy. Unless the solicitor's cause is a clear winner, I don't have to disrupt the plan, and I can keep a clear conscience.

It would be so much easier to become a psychopath and simply not have a conscience. But barring that, I find it best to adopt a conscience management strategy. Otherwise my bleeding heart will be exsanguinated!

Jake said...

Exsanguinated. Great word.

I've never been sure that giving to these organizations is ever a good idea. I guess that sounds pretty bad on the face of it, but it's always felt like the wrong solution to problems that are so much bigger. As Suze pointed out, better infrastructure and just overall better social structure are what's needed. It's almost like the free market capitalists are having a heyday with us, convincing us that the free market will solve all the problems. Aren't non-profits and such a part of that free market? They're certainly a major part of the economy. But it just feels to me that all of it is as much a part of the problem as the multi-national banks; just a different side of the same coin. It's like you have a bridge with a fundamentally unstable design, and all the supports are rusting away, and the wind is blowing, and on some rusted girders some outfit or other shows up to scrape some rust away and maybe patch it a little, but that outfit is hanging on to the exact same overall structure, and everyone wonders why nothing changes. Where, then, do we go to re-design (and re-build) the entire bridge?

Sorry for the cynicism dump.

Thanks for your post, Pam. :)