Charity Begins at Home (And is Everywhere)

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Rideau Centre, Ottawa, 2011

All summer long, I bumped into canvassers wearing emblazoned binders and vests with the logo of the charity they were working for. “Do you have a minute for the environment?” some ask plaintively. “I don’t bite, come closer!” others plead.

I stopped for Greenpeace once. The perky canvasser briefly explained me what the organization was standing for and asked me to sign up for a monthly donation. “Now?” I said. “Yep. I’ll take your credit card number and I’ll set you up.”

I looked around me. I was in the middle of Rideau Street chatting with a perfect stranger. No, sorry, I’m not giving you all my personal information. I’m not committing to automatic monthly withdrawals for a year or two—or more. I don’t even have a cell phone plan precisely because I do not want a long-term commitment! Give me the charity’s website and I’ll check it out online. And I can even meet you another day just as long as I have time to make a decision.

The canvasser didn’t see it that way. As soon as I was done talking, he gave me a piece of his mind. “You’re wasting my time. There is nothing on the website that I can’t tell you.” He pointed at my camera. “How much money do you spend on yourself? Really, you can’t afford a $20 or even a $15 monthly donation? What is it to you? A few drinks at Starbucks?”

I try to be a decent human being. I’ve had shitty jobs too. So I usually smile and say something along the lines of “not today, sorry”. But that time, I was so annoyed by his lame guilt-tripping tricks that I just walked away and vowed to never give a dime to Greenpeace (which is, in retrospect, a stupid reaction).

Lately, I’ve realized that one of the lines I used the most these days is “not today, sorry”. Just about everywhere I go, I’m being asked for a donation.

And the charity market seems oversaturated.

There are charity events at work, either in the form of friendly competitions or sales. There are canvassers in front of the supermarket, and even inside. When I pay for my groceries, the cashier often asks if I want to add a few dollars to my bill for whatever charity. And when I come home, I have to sort through charitable lotteries admail, dodge telemarketer calls and door-to-door canvassers.

I know it’s a tough time for charities. The worse the economy is, the worse these guys have it and chances are, the higher the need for giving is. Yet I simply can’t spend my days making donations. Sorry.

On top of that, I come from a culture that apparently is at the bottom of charitable giving: France. Honestly, I can’t remember being solicited that much in France. But I came to realize that individual charitable giving is a cultural fact of life in North America. Maybe it is because the U.S. (the leading country in term of charitable giving) does not have the same level of government assistance and social services that most European countries do. People are used to help each other rather than count upon the omnipotent state. Family ties also tend to be looser in North America: people move around quite a lot and it’s common to have families spread over several states or provinces. Finally, a lot of people here also consider the practicalities of charitable giving—i.e. the potential tax deduction that comes with it.

Unfortunately there is another ugly counterpart to charitable giving: “slacktivism”. The term encompasses all the “feel-good” measures to support a cause that don’t actually do much but make the “slacktivist” satisfied. A perfect example would be those who spend hours changing their Facebook status to the cause du jour to “raise awareness”.

The other day, at the supermarket, the only mushrooms available were sold in a pink container, in support of breast cancer research. I hate to be cynical, but between pink tampons, pink Barbies, pink KFC buckets (!) etc. I can’t help thinking the pink ribbon campaign has become a way to advertise products and turn buyers into involuntary slacktivists. And a lot of these companies only give a mighty few cents for the cure, but yet ride the PR campaign.

There is no right or wrong way to pick a charity, but I usually give to the ones I feel the closest to. I tend to give priority to people over animal welfare, and empowerment over assistance (which is one of the reasons why I love Kiva). I like to know where the money is going and I collect information on the charity beforehand. And I subconsciently resent the most pushy ones.

How about you? Do you give to specific charities? How do you react when you’re asked to make a donation?

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About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.

25 Comments

  1. I understand what you say. i`m not simeone who will providing my bank details on the street. in Tenerife, we used to participate in a christmas market selling our stuff or baking cookies. all the revenue went to the animal care center that organized the event. It felt more familiar abd read. Some charities have become huge and its oney is godifficult ti know where your money is going…

    • I like these kinds of events, like you say they are more friendly. Some charities are so big now that it’s hard to tell what they actually do.

  2. I do the United Way at work and then locally help out the local Autism Center of Tulsa, or son’s school, and a not for profit riding therapy equestrian center. And of course we give to our church.

    We turn everybody else down.

  3. I get solicited a lot in Paris between charities and homeless people you get a little apathetic. On most days I see about 5 homeless people going to the metro, three inside, two when I get out and I will meet one or two people asking donations for charities and that’s only my morning ride!

    I think this year I will use the tax break we get when we donate to charities, I’ll probably split 50/50 for the animal cause and for le Refuge an association that helps gay youth.

  4. I often wonder if the charities are losing out by seeming to focus on getting the standing orders, rather than having a guy with a collection tin asking for spare change. I know which I prefer!

  5. After years of being bombarded by charitable requests, I finally chose a certain number of charities to donate to – and I do so once a year, despite the fact these charities request further donations during that same year. I also investigate how much of my money is given to the “cause” rather than to administrative costs.

    Like you, if approached on the street, I say, “Not today, sorry.” (Good line, isn’t it? Very Canadian – polite and contains the word “sorry.”)

    I must admit, though, I am a sucker for children coming to the door raising money for worthy causes.

    Excellent post!

    • I must admit I get really annoyed when I give to a specific charity and then spend the rest of the year dodging calls and requests for more money for it. I have a limited budget, I simply can’t say “yes” everytime they call. One of my friends gave to a charity when she first came to Canada and six years later, they are still calling her and sending mail… and they also share her name with their database with charities because she gets a lot of calls from related places. Ugh!

  6. Life’s for sharing. 😀 If the little money we donate can really makes a difference to people’s life in certain places of the world, why not sharing? However, we continue to see people in certain places of the world still live in poverty, no matter how much money people have been donating to charity groups. Sometimes, I just wonder if money alone can really help them. Lives are just complicated, as well as “balancing”.

    I don’t mean that I don’t trust nor support any charity organization, in fact, I have enrolled in a monthly donation program of UNICEF and World Vision, “hoping” that my little effort can really provide a better future to the children. I often ignore people who ask for donation on the street. They just look shifty to me! 😀

    • Sharing is good but I think it’s important to share efficiently. I want to make sure my money is going where it’s going to make a difference.

  7. Hi Zhu,

    I agree: charity starts at home.

    Earlier this week, I heard one Portuguese citizen saying that we have children, in Portugal, starving yet instead of helping them the Portuguese choose to help the children in Africa…charity starts at home, she said.

    As for Greenpeace: count me out. PETA: count me out. Politicised NGOs: count me out.
    My charity starts in my family and then in my community.

    Great article, girl!

    Cheers

    • It’s good to want to help people abroad though, so I don’t have a clear opinion on that… but I can’t help thinking that humans are more “important” (for lack of a better word) than animals and I’d rather give to social causes than to PETA (especially NOT PETA actually!).

  8. I live near a big train station so you can imagine how much I’m sollicited daily. But I’ve never been insulted like you’ve been! I try to smile, say “hello! have a good day”… I can’t afford giving to charities monthly, I wish I could but my shitty jobs are just too shitty. The weird thing is that I realize I’m always giving to the same charities when I’ve got spare money : WWF and la Croix Rouge! I know them, I know what they do and it’s comfortable. I really should check out another charities I could relate to… But daily, I’d rather have a “responsible” life : buy my fruits and vegetables to an association which helps young farmers who were in jail, for example… stuff like that!

    • In France, I used to live nearby a train station too, right downtown, and I’d see the same people three, four, five times a day. Some were nice and just smiled while others insisted on giving me the speech every single time!

  9. Wow. If he wanted your money, he was quite rude in asking for it.

    Seriously though, I have been accused of slacktivism too. There are issues I care about, most of these revolve around self-determination when it comes to politics, and also freedom of religion and irreligion. I am also a graduate student, which means, I am poor, comparatively. I don’t have a big income yet. So, what can I do? Do I donate? Rarely. The most I can do is participate in signature campaigns, such as those done by Avaaz. I also try spreading the word, by posting it on my Facebook wall. But I have been told that what I do is slacktivism par excellence.

    Honestly though, that’s just what I feel I am comfortable doing. I don’t care enough to donate more money. But if I have more money, then I would probably give some.

    • I can relate and I don’t think that slacktivism per se. There is nothing wrong with spreading the word, volunteering etc. I have a problem with companies’s blatant slacktivism though. That annoys me.

  10. If the money we donated is gonna make that person rely on us more and more, I won’t donate a dime. How is he/she going to learn to be independent that way? I won’t hesitate though if it were a disabled person or families that are truly in need of our help.

  11. Hi Zhu,

    One of the things I say to the volunteers on street is, “Oh I just spoke to your rep at Yonge and Bloor.” That usually works. Or, “You are doing a good job guys, I did this few months ago.” – even better as I am in the “in” group now.

    I have mixed feelings about individuals donating to charitable organisations and how this is made to look like a moral issue. After 30% taxes, I feel squeezed out and it’s challenging to find anything else. Nevertheless, every year I set a target donation amount and donate to those organisations in January itself, so that I feel happy for the rest of the year. Often times, I signup for charity events just to do things I like, for example I have done a half marathon, a bike rally, book collection, playing music, bake sale and even cleaning snow. lol.

    • Good trick!

      I feel the same. I’m very happy to pay taxes and I support the welfare state but I also dislike the way charitable giving is a moral thing to do. Sure it is, but not everyone can and not everyone wants to, for various reasons.

  12. What I hate the most is their use of guilt tripping for making people feel bad for not stopping. Honestly, at times their tactics border on harrassment, and I have no tolerance for that. If they think I’m rude, then so be it! I’m especially annoyed by their choice of words when talking to women, as if to stress that they are not maternal and caring enough.

    P.S. – if you do choose to donate to a charity, it’s always better to do research. Many places, such as grocery stores, get a high percentage of whatever’s given to them.

    • Thank you for sharing your opinion and for the tips!

      I can’t stand the way some charities guilt-trip people either, I think it’s a cheap trick. In the long run, it doesn’t accomplish much.

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