Monday, December 6, 2010

If you're not giving away your own money, it's not charity

Smug politician posing for publicity photo

Let me begin by saying that when people donate their own hard earned dollars to charity,  I applaud their actions almost unreservedly (unless the cause is supporting terrorism or something, but that's pretty rare). The law of trusts in Commonwealth countries tends to allow for quite a large range of charitable causes without too much requirement about the size of the overall benefit being produced. Which is as it should be. To my mind, the real benefit of charity is fostering generosity by the giver. The benefit actually produced is (I imagine) usually quite small.

That said, I don't like fun runs. Never have, never will. They strike me as a bogus form of charity, smugness and self-satisfied posturing masquerading as genuine help for the needy.

In particular, what I dislike about the typical fun run is that a lot of the people don't seem to be giving much, if any, of their own money. They're hassling friends and relatives to be generous to whatever is the cause du jour (which often seems secondary to their feeling that they're doing some good - anything will do). In actuality, they're using personal connections to guilt people into paying for a cause that the donors probably don't give a fig about, and betting that most people will pay you to just go away rather than look cheap.

Meanwhile, a good chunk of the donations go towards subsidising the event that the participant is engaging in, a bunch more goes to administrative expenses, and cents in the dollar actually flow to the charity in question.

This is the bit that's infuriating to me - I bet a lot of the participants are not only paying little money themselves, they're taking a chunk of the money they got from other people and using it to subsidise their own recreation! And they have the gall to feel smug and self-satisfied! The Chicago marathon costs $125 to enter, and this comes out of the pockets of your donors before the charity sees a cent.

Take the AIDS marathon. Let's see how they advertise themselves:

At the risk of being a world-class curmudgeon, I find pictures like this somewhat nauseating. Just look at the self-righteousness plastered all over their faces. And see how they advertise it - 'Run Inspired'. It's all about you, and how good you should feel about yourself. AIDS seems like an afterthought, except as a socially acceptable 'good thing that needs help'.

As SMH once pointed out to me, compare this (for instance) with the Jewish attitude that charity has to be anonymous!:
The Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Bathra 9b) feels that one who gives charity in secret is "greater than Moses." Charity, ideally, should be given in secret so that the two parties, the giver and the receiver, do not know each other (Babylonian Talmud, Chagigah 5a; Maimonides, Hilchos Matnos Aniyim 10: 7 -14).
Got that? Not only do you have to give your own money, ideally you get zero credit for it because it's anonymous. This ensures that you're not generating any awkward feelings by the recipient, and not doing it for public recognition.

Compare this with the crass ostentation of the AIDS marathon model. Not only do you have to tell all your friends (so that everyone knows how generous you are), but you're not even giving away your own money, you're giving away theirs! (At least the bit you're not taking for yourself)

If you want to run a marathon, pay for it your damn self, don't get your friends to pay for it while feeling smug about how charitable you are.

And if you want you want to help a charity (which I wholeheartedly endorse), write them a cheque directly and cut out the middle-men and professional fundraisers.

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