To give or not to give?

It is always a relief when someone else expresses curmudgeonly feelings you were harboring silently. In general, it is difficult to be the naysayer, the dark cloud at the party, the pin to balloon. Whenever I have negative feelings about something that is supposed to be “feel good” – I always second guess myself. OK — what am I talking about? In his DE GUSTIBUS in Friday Jan 8 WSJ Eric Felten discusses his dis-ease with a kind of charitable giving that I have also found dis-tasteful. The “stick em up” form of charitable solicitation exemplified by individuals thrusting boots and buckets at busy intersections, the cashier asking if you want to add a dollar to your grocery bill for a food pantry, or the subtle pressure to buy a sneaker or a heart you magic marker your name on and then display at the local drugstore.

I work professionally in philanthropy. I am a staunch believer in the power of philanthropy – private initiative and distributed decision making. I also believe that charitable giving should be thoughtful and intended to have impact. Each year my husband and I plan our charitable giving. What issues to we want to make priorities? What organizations do we want to support? At what level can we contribute and what will our contribution accomplish?

In general – I do not respond to ad hoc pleas, telephone solicitations, or the “bucket”. I prefer to chose the recipients of my charitable giving. I also dislike high pressure social norming that does not agree with my principles. I have little problem with the social norming tactics that have eliminated smoking in public places, or created the reusable grocery bag craze – both these activities make sense to me. But ceaseless everywhere dollar here dollar there charitable giving risks wearing everyone out — it diminishes the impulse to give seriously – to give thoughtfully, and meaningfully, because it matters. I realize there is, among good people, a tendency to adopt an “ends justifies the means” approach to solving problems. Charities need funds and social shaming works. But sometimes such short term thinking jeapordizes long term goals — and most of us should not feel pleased that we have fulfilled our charitable responsibilities by stuffing a few dollars into a few buckets. Charity should be heartfelt.