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Charity Begins at Home (And is Everywhere)

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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