Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Idea #9: Give to People, Not Causes

I'm a bit conflicted as I write this:  the Occupy Vancouver movement is unravelling a bit.  Sadly, a young woman died in her tent a few days ago.  Protesters bit police officers trying to assist firefighters in extinguishing a fire. Several showed up at a recent mayoral debate and threatened a riot.  In a church.  It's a bit... off-putting.

I suppose I'd prefer to be on the same team as the Winners! the Awesome Ones! the Successful Overcomers! Nope, just me and the losers.  Again.

I considered giving up the blog. I have conceded that it is unlikely that the ramblings and tiny changes of one suburban housewife are going to amount to much.  I have realized that my own commitment to my own change is not all that it ought to be.  I have faced the sad truth that my motivations are not all lovely and light and that I am most likely to adopt adaptations that save me money and/or improve my own sense of awesomeness.  I can't help but think Real Change had a better start than this.

And yet I persevere.  Though the Occupiers flounder, though my will is flawed, though my energy flags... still I want to want more of myself and my world, so I will do one more week.  One More Idea. And maybe next week, another.

This week's idea is inspired in part by the advent of Advent which of course is the advent of The Giving Season.  The time of year when we spend what we do not have to give what other do not need to celebrate what we do not remember.

That may be a bit cynical.

And maybe sometimes a bit true. We may be a tiny bit thoughtless when we give and maybe being a tiny bit more thoughtful will be another tiny step to a better world.

Specifically this:  In earlier comments, Darren posited that giving to some of his preferred causes was a more effective vehicle for change than tenting in the rain.  I wondered in turn if perhaps working to eliminate the need for those worthy causes might not be a better investment of my own time.

If I think this is true, then I must wonder about whether or not how I give might be promoting or hindering change.  In discussing with some friends, this emerged:  if my "cause" is hunger and I can give to $25, do I do more to end hunger by giving (for example) to UGM to feed several a Thanksgiving dinner or by giving to one person in line there to buy their own food?

I could probably argue either.  But I know the part where when I give to a cause, a percentage goes to the people who serve (rightly, as well it ought) but when I give to a person, all of it goes to their need.  Am I willing to forego the tax receipt and the anonymous distance of giving to a cause in order to make what I think may be a more meaningful, lasting difference by giving to a person?  And isn't that kind of the crux: that I would have to know who needed what I have to give? And that by getting to know some people, I might better know what would truly make a difference? Instead of what I think should make a difference?

So this is not being very clear.  I think what I want to think about is if I am serious about redistributing wealth, and particularly my own, then do I want to send it to institutions or to people?  I'm not altogether sure.  But there is something appealing about arranging cleaning services for a mother enduring chemotherapy (a project friends took on last year) instead of giving money to The Big Cancer Agency; to collecting groceries for a local family experiencing loss instead of dropping a few old cans of expired beans in the food bank bin; to giving cash to that guy with the sign instead of charging a donation to The People Who Help, even if he uses it in some way I don't approve of - God knows I hardly approve of all the ways I spend the money I keep to myself.

I don't know exactly how this works, but there is something to knowing people in need that inspires a generosity that can change things.  Giving to an institution means that I never have to know about real need, never have to face the other side of my affluence, the cost of my comfort.  Giving to people means that I have to listen a little more closely, think a lot more thoughtfully, live a little more generously.

I wonder if we'll try this one.

Occupy Me.

IDEA #9 Response:
Do you see any benefit to giving to people instead of to causes? Have you given in a way that changed you? Do you have any ideas about how to give in a way that makes a tiny change?


  1. I don't have huge amounts of dollars to give. But I do have huge amounts of compassion. And when giving to a person vs a cause I can also make it a family experience. This is a win win. I think. So I have done the cookie thing. I bake like crazy. We invite friends over to decorate Christmas cookies and then my family gave them out on the dt eastside. We did this for three years (except the one where I had a tiny baby).
    It was compassion in a cookie. The gift of what I recall christmas, lovingly homemade cookies, with sparkles and colours and sugar and spice. Given to those who maybe have no hope of having holiday times like that again.
    But it reminds me of a "friends" episode. You cannot give without receiving some benefit. And for me: it felt good to give to a person. The last time we went hubby was apprehensive about taking kids down there's again. So we just dropped the cookies at Covenant house. We had no sense of giving something special to any one person. No idea who got the cookies or where they went.
    Let corporate give to causes, let's us people give to people.

  2. "And isn't that kind of the crux: that I would have to know who needed what I have to give?"

    Indeed. This post gives words to a feeling I have had (and mostly ignored) for quite some time. Thank you for writing this (though I have to admit that I am also silently cursing you for making it impossible for me to continue on in the way I have been going).

  3. @Karen, you response made me a bit weepy: "Let corporate give to causes, let's us people give to people." I want a t-shirt made. Thank you for understanding what I meant and saying it so much more clearly than I did. And yes! Your cookies to people vs. to CH is a perfect example. Easier to do the latter, richer to do the former.

    @julie anna - I hope I hear more about what your new way looks like. Lord knows I need some help figuring out my own.

  4. I wouldn't be overly discouraged by Occupy Vancouver. The Occupy movement in theory is inspiring. In practice, it's messy and easily exploited.

    Once again, we have divergent views on this. There is the practical argument that Union Gospel Mission can more efficiently stretch my $25 donation than I could.

    However, I want to talk about the role of the giver in these transactions. Your thinking about this revolves, quite naturally, around the question of "where do I fit in this transaction".

    I view the act of giving more as a kind of abrogation of self. I'm not particularly interested in how I feel about the transaction, but rather how my dollars can best be directed.

    I should acknowledge, here, that I devote more of my giving to environmental and conservation organizations. Why is that? Briefly, it's because humans can (and do) organize, rise up and rebel against those who would repress and impoverish them. Plants and animals cannot.

    Much of this thinking is informed by research I did for a talk I gave in 2007, called "1100 Stacies":

    Among other things, I learned that, as a middle-class professional, it's way more efficient to just earn and then donate money as opposed to volunteering my time.

  5. @Darren: Agree Strongly that it's "way more efficient to just earn and then donate money as opposed to volunteering". No doubt.

    Disagree Strongly just about everything else. Smirk.

    Or more accurately maybe, acknowledging that yet again you're the pragmatist and I am the, what did you call it, "soulful idealist"? If efficiency and practical are the goals of giving then you're right.

    For me the purpose is to keep putting people ahead of (my) profit. I'm not so interested in how I feel after I give (although that's often instructive) as I am in how I'm thinking before I give. Am I giving out of a feeling of pity and superiority, or out of a feeling of kinship and I've Got Enough? I believe the latter builds a better community, a better life, a better now and so I am endeavouring to get my heart and mind to that place more often.

    I hear that you're more interested in the practical outcomes and there is a requirement that someone pay attention to those. In the meantime, I'll keep appealing to your (not so hidden) soulful self to pay attention to your heart in the midst of the transaction. Because as you may recall, where your treasure is, so there your heart will be also.

  6. Well the pragmatic arguments are all well and good if we are trying to fix a problem or feed the multitudes, but is that what we are trying to do when we give? Are we really giving because of our own guilt or a sense of duty or even because we "feel sorry" for someone?
    I think when we get to know those in our local community and truly understand their needs and (ACJ as we were discussing tonight) be available for them in their time of need, then we will do the most good. I agree in this sense of giving out of a feeling of kinship. And if a person asks for something(i.e. they believe they need it) and we don't agree that they need it should that stop us from giving? Are our gifts conditional? I think when we give, or hold compassion for someone, or even pray for another, with a truly unconditional intention(at least the best we can) then we touch on the divine and perhaps even grace.(whatever that means). Buddhists speak of accumulating merit(through right living etc.) and then seek to give it away to those in need of merit.

    I guess what I am saying is economics is a recent human social construct that requires scarcity to function, so any economic, cost/ benefit, efficiency argument associated with giving is instantly limited by that construct and is, in my opinion, separate from God. separate from the true nature of things.

    When we give of ourselves to others unconditionally we transcend scarcity and move to abundance.

    KH gave out cookies not because there was a cookie shortage on the DTES. I suspect though there is a shortage of compassion and good feelings at times. The economic argument might say what a waste of time and effort. These people need housing, education, addiction treatment, etc. give your money or time to a charity that tackles real issues.
    I have met a few drug addicts and when coming off heroin or other opiates cookies and other sweet things help to relieve some of their suffering.
    Is that not what giving is all about?

  7. @Ryan, I just read this comment again and was moved by it all over again. Thank you. I thought I had more to say about this, but I don't. Just thank you. I'm glad you're reading.