If you see me out and about, I won’t be wearing a ribbon, red, pink, white, or yellow.Â Online, I won’t be adding anything to nor changing the colours of my avatars.Â I don’t make a point of buying specific charity-branded coffee.Â My kitchen, wardrobe and satchel contain no charity-branded products.Â And I’ve had a hard time wrapping words around why I don’t do these things, why they’ve generally given rise to a sense of wrongness in my mind that I just can’t shake, no matter how worthy I believe the cause might be.
I have issues with the concept of charity; I wonder (especially with large, international charities) where the money goes, how much gets socked away into ‘administrative costs’, how much good is actually done, and whether or not charitable aid actually ends up creating dependents instead of assisting people and nations to stand on their own feet.Â And having worked for various charities and non-profits, both in paid and volunteer positions, I have questions about how ethically some of them are run – how they treat their employees, how they set goals and measure results, how responsible and smart and efficient they are.Â I see a lot of burnout, and a lot of brilliant people martyring themselves to no discernible positive effect in the community, a lot of waste.Â Or wearing themselves thin until they’re no longer able to work in that field, with a huge net loss of intelligence, connections and human power.
But more troubling for me is this trend towards passive charity; the buying of something to demonstrate your beliefs, in substitution for actually acting on them.
Recently, Merlin Mann linked to a book called ‘Conspicuous Compassion,’ about the phenomenon of publicly displaying our charity (you can get a .pdf of the first chapter here; I recommend that you read it).Â Though it goes to some places I disagree with, overall it was with relief that I saw this discomfort expressed by someone else.
I do agree that these public displays of charitable empathy exist in lieu of actual charitable acts.Â People whom I see with white ribbons and pink standing mixers and red phones are rarely people I see taking any concrete actions around spousal abuse, cancer, or AIDS.Â These are not the people you see volunteering at shelters or hospitals, though you may find them at parties and marathons.Â And while I understand that these events, objects or products can in some ways raise awareness, open discussion and make an issue mainstream, when the next issue, product, or ribbon comes along, the spotlight moves with it.Â I wonder how much of the real work gets done, when charities spend so much of their limited time and resources organizing gala events.
I see that some good may come of a few dollars, from a purchase you were going to make anyway, going towards research.Â Or at least I see the argument.Â But with many cause-branded products, the donation is not automatic; you have to register your purchase separately.Â And the door is wide open for fraudulent schemes if you, as consumer, aren’t doing your homework on the companies and charities you’re supporting.Â And hey, do you really need a new cellphone or standing mixer?Â Your $200+ would be better donated directly to the charities doing the most research, the most active good.
But Iâ€™m going to tell you, as someone who runs a non-profit and sits on the Boards of charitable organizations, lots of local (and international) groups need your time as much as your money.Â We need people to spend a couple of hours doing a fairly boring task.Â We need a weekly commitment to make an hourâ€™s worth of phone calls.Â We’re asking you to help technicians load gear in and out of a venue.Â We need you to drop in and stuff envelopes, or monitor a gallery, or sell tickets, or update our website.Â Weâ€™re not asking for the kind of time your mothers put in to volunteer work; nobody has that anymore.Â But a few hours out of your month or year make a big difference; a much bigger difference than your ribbon, your t-shirt, your standing mixer, your pink jewelry.Â And it could make a discernible difference right there in your community.
Do you think AIDS is terrible?Â Me too.Â Do you think it’s wrong that some people abuse their spouses?Â Me too.Â Do you think it would be great if your community had a thriving, inclusive, arts community with lots of great resources?Â Me too.
But honestly?Â I don’t care what you think.Â I care what you do.
So what are you doing?