I Give to Charity

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on July 14th, 2011 in Articles, Thoughts & Commentary

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How do you say this without coming off like a spoil sport?   I really am not in love with all of these “jump on the bandwagon” campaigns and new websites that let you buy whatever you want -from your routine shopping at Sam’s Club to your jewelry and shoes to your home redecorations at special online sites–while giving some percentage of the purchase price to charity.

On the surface, this sounds great.  How could I possibly be against that when I call myself a champion of the nonprofit sector?  I truly must be the biggest, baddest, meanest curmudgeon ever if I am suggesting that all dollars are not equal, that dollars are dollars and we shouldn’t question how we get those dollars—provided it is through a legal process.

And these processes, as far as I am aware, are 100% legal.  That’s not the issue.   Here is my issue:  the buyer doesn’t get to pick the charity; the sponsor–the store, the website, etc.–has, more often than not, picked it for you.  Clearly, I am not talking about the websites and Facebook pages where a person can designate a charity of his/her choice.  No, this is the lazy person’s way to give to charity, the person who isn’t first and foremost driven by giving back and helping, but who does it as an afterthought, a serendipitous benefit of shopping.  And these are the sponsors who want the mileage for being a “good civic partner” and “caring about our community.”  Better something than nothing, I should be saying, right?

Sorry, I can’t go there.  For one, I hate it when the choice of charities is taken out of my hands.  When I look at the charities selected by these “shop and give” programs, most are those with the loudest reputations, the biggest names.  But that doesn’t necessarily correspond with the best run nonprofits, the ones doing the most important work in the community, the ones having the greatest impact on the quality of people’s lives, the ones using their donated dollars most wisely – and perhaps the ones with the greatest needs.

All of that bothers me.  I hope that some of the company sponsors of these programs would be upset if they knew that some of the charities they are highlighting, endorsing and supporting aren’t abiding by best practices — both best nonprofit and best business practices.  But my bet is most of them haven’t taken the time to really investigate the “give worthiness” of the charities they are supporting.

They are just happy to be linked with the name, the brand, the aura, the perceived goodness to the community of these nonprofits.  How can you not like the American Red Cross?  I think it would be perceived as un-American.  But since going through eight or nine CEOS, both interims and permanent , in fewer years, added to its scandals post-9-11 and post-Katrina, and I’m not giving them a penny, whether I buy something to do so or not.

And I know that the average American goes apoplectic when it comes to how s/he thinks nonprofits manage its money.  Nevertheless, they buy away and donate those dollars without giving a thought to how or how well those charitable dollars will be used.  Yet, I watch time after time as young people stand in the middle of six lanes of traffic collecting money in cans for this charity and that, and cars stop, throw in coins and bills.  Yet there are even more cars that never stop, some of whose occupants, no doubt, are wondering where that money really goes, how much the charity will use for its mission work.   Yet attach giving to shopping, and it giving becomes a whole other game.

I also can’t help but wonder how seriously the sponsors’ commitment to doing good, giving back, the value of the nonprofit sector, etc., is?  Are they doing this because they, too, have read the research that shows, year after year, people prefer to buy products that are associated with a nonprofit  (hence the pink ribbons on everything from bras to canned goods), to work at companies that support good work in their communities?

I am increasingly fearful of our “take no responsibility” society.  Don’t be responsible for buying a house larger than you can afford; just live in it until it is taken away.  Don’t be responsible for spending beyond your means;  just live that life until you have to declare bankruptcy.  Don’t be responsible for taking care of your children if doing so interferes with your life style; do it until the child gets taken away from you, or worse, mysteriously dies.  Don’t do your own homework and identify what is important to you, what organization supports your values, protects your money/donation as you would your own, is really changing lives.

For many, it makes them feel good simply to be able to say, “I give to charity.”  It doesn’t matter to whom or for what, but simply that they gave and they did “good”.   I just keep thinking it would feel even better if the person knew that his/her donation—whether given directly or indirectly—was  going to the most important work and causes in his/her community.  But me, I like my charity pure:  i want to make and receive donations for all of the “right” reasons?   Do you?

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.