The following post is an article I wrote several years ago for “The Magazine of Sigma Chi.” The idea of trying to write an article about charity that wasn’t preachy or overly moralistic appealed to me, as did the chance to politely remind a group of society’s most fortunate members about their obligations.
I’ve always been proud of this article, and though I’ve gone through a company and career change since writing it, it still reflects my best thoughts on this subject.
Incidentally, about a year after writing it, I found out the article won a first-place editorial award from the College Fraternity Editor’s Association. I received a paper certificate with my last name spelled wrong. There you have it!
It’s 5:30 in the morning and I’m driving through the fog on Wilshire Boulevard. I’m dragging myself to the gym for some much-needed exercise. It’s a short drive, but ever since my son was born in September, these drives have been few and far between. In southern California, one never has to contend with cold mornings – but in Santa Monica, where I live, the ocean breeze blows off the bay during the night and carries in the clouds from the sea. Most days, the fog conspires with my alarm clock to deter me from the trip. At 5:30, it is a victory just to be moving in the right direction. I glide my car through the haze with a sleepy sense of purpose.
I park at the Third Street Promenade, an outdoor mall near the ocean. Even draped in fog, the Promenade is a testament to the abundance of Santa Monica. The clean brick walks are lit by storefront lights shining from the uniformly polished windows of Banana Republic, Pottery Barn, Restoration Hardware, Abercrombie & Fitch. A Barnes & Noble, containing the requisite Starbucks, is just opening; a line of coffee drinkers, shrouded in mist, shuffles inside.
I read the windows as I go past: You Saw the Movie, Now Read the Book. The Look that Started a Sensation. New for Spring – Today’s Pastels. Blue Capri Pants are Inside! The signs are crisp and clear, framed in new glass and tile.
Sleeping in almost every doorway is a person in a dirty blanket.
One man has a collection of soda cups, many half-full with brown liquid. Turned on its side behind them is an instrument of the person’s work, provider of what little bounty exists around him: A hand-lettered sign reading, “Looking for work, or whatever you can offer.” His sign is neither crisp nor clear. It is black magic marker on cardboard. He’s tied a bundle of clothes in a paper bag to his ankle, precious possessions kept closely guarded. He barely moves as I walk past.
He is sleeping in front of a jeans store. A huge banner in the store window says, “Get Lucky Here.”
It is 5:30, and I am feeling triumphant that I roused myself to go to the athletic club. I walk past the man and head into the gym.
I work for a fundraising company. We produce large-scale events that raise millions of dollars for charity. Sometimes we net $6 million in one weekend. It is a small irony of modern life that someone like me can get paid money to convince someone like you to donate your own. In a country where anyone can grow up to be anything, I get paid to raise money.
My boss, Dan, is a dynamic, visionary man who carries his idealism like a club. He is prone to dramatic statements and unabashed advocacy for the disadvantaged. He likes to challenge people.
About Santa Monica, he loves to say, “Los Angeles is the wealth capital of America. It is also the poverty capital of America.” Statistically, he’s not correct: According to the 2000 U.S. Census, there are a dozens of cities with higher poverty rates than Los Angeles.
But it only takes one look at three people sharing a torn blanket under a J. Crew awning to see that his sentiment, at least, is right on target. In ten square miles in Los Angeles you can travel from Watts in South Central to Beverly Hills. Boyz in the Hood to the Fresh Prince of Bel Air in 15 minutes. The continuum of wealth to poverty is striking.
Just what constitutes “poverty” is up for debate. According to the U.S. Government, in 2002 if you are a family of four and make over $18,100 a year, you are not poor. $18,100 for four people. That’s $4,525 a person. A year. At almost every Sig chapter, $4,525 doesn’t pay for a semester of tuition. According to the National Education Association, the average undergraduate tuition plus room and board in the United States is almost $12,000. For the 31 million people in the United States living in poverty, this amount represents at least two-thirds of the money they see in an entire year.
Dan has always had a particular affinity for helping the poor. This past year, he created an event designed to raise money for impoverished Angelenos. Called “the Weekend to End Poverty,” it was going to be a two-day, 26-mile walk through the best and worst parts of the city. We had planned to raise several million dollars for local community empowerment programs.
In a week of advertising the event, we received over 3,000 phone calls from interested participants. But we had to cancel the walk. It turns out that most of the callers didn’t want to raise money for the poor. It turns out that they were poor themselves – and were calling to see if we could help them.
Long before I worked in Los Angeles, I worked at a familiar address: 1714 Hinman Avenue. I worked at the Sigma Chi Headquarters, my first job, my first love, my first testing ground for everything I believed in and believed I wanted to be. The environment, the people, and the building had the same sense of unabashed idealism I see in my current company, but it was more raw in some way. Less polished. I mean that as a compliment.
During my first year I was an Assistant Executive Secretary. (Nowadays we call them Leadership Consultants.) I traveled around for three weeks a stint, visiting Sig chapters and preaching the good word.
On those trips I learned my first lesson of business: As soon as you finish any business trip, fill out your expense report. Get your money back. Get what you have coming to you.
The Sig expense report was a bit different, though. Some ingenious Manager of Operations – I think it was Ron Lewis – had added an extra line under the total. It was a line where you could declare your expenses as a donation to the Foundation. In other words, you could fill out the report, attach your receipts, and then declare that you didn’t want to be reimbursed. Financially, the effect was the same as a donating money. The line’s presence on the expense form was a small, if not subtle, suggestion of generosity.
Most trips I ignored it.
However, one week I was submitting a small expense – $10 for taxi fare, or something of the sort – and I decided that the Foundation needed the $10 more than I did. I wrote the $10 off as a gift and submitted the report, as much to see what would happen as anything else. After a moment I didn’t think anything of it.
About a week or two later I came to my desk and sitting there was a crisp, clean envelope bearing the eagle and shield of the Sigma Chi Crest. Inside was an equally crisp letter from Boz Prichard, the then-President of the Sigma Chi Foundation. Boz was a curmudgeon through and through, cranky and grumpy and salty. The word among A.E.S.s was that you didn’t try to talk with him until you had both had at least one cup of coffee. He was quite a character. Naturally, we all loved him for it. Getting a note from Boz was a big deal.
His letter was simple. It said, “Thank you for your generous donation to the Sigma Chi Foundation. Your efforts to support your fellow brothers are a tribute to the White Cross of Sigma Chi.”
I figured it was a joke. Good old Boz! I leaned into his office to tease him in return.
“Boz, it was only $10,” I said. “You can’t be serious. Damn, the letterhead alone probably cost you $2! You probably spent more thanking me than I gave you.”
I was surprised to see a thoughtful look on his face.
“What is important, especially for a young man your age, is to make giving, to make kindness towards others, to make these things a habit – to make them part of your normal way of acting and doing,” he said.
“The $10 is meaningful because it is your first step out of your youth. $10 is your first deposit towards being a more selfless person.”
I am not thinking about Boz’s words at all, however, as I look over a stack of mail after work. I thumb through a small mass of bills. Everyone wants money. At the end of the pile is a package from our church, St. Monica’s.
My wife had been feeling spiritually wanting and much to her credit sought out and was confirmed in a church. In one six-month period she did more spiritual searching than I have done in over thirty years. My part in the process was to support her by attending Mass and trying to be less cynical about religion.
Our church has a yearly envelope program. You commit in advance to a weekly donation – and they send you a pre-printed envelope that you are supposed to either mail to the church or drop in the basket at Mass. Our envelopes have just arrived, and as I look at them next to phone, gas, cable, and medical bills, I am regretting that I committed us to giving so much money to the church. I look for ways to justify a lower donation. Just for this week.
I turn to my wife. “I wasn’t expecting that we’d still be getting medical bills this far after the baby was born.” I leave that trailing in the air, hoping she’ll pick up on what I’m saying.
She immediately does, and I immediately wish she hadn’t. “I already mailed in our donation to St. Monica’s for the month. We’re covered.” I mumble something about “That’s not what I meant” and flop onto the couch.
The next Sunday we’re at church. During Catholic Mass, as during many religious services, there is a point in time where an offering is made, and church members are asked to participate with their own donation. A religious passing of the hat.
There is a strange and intimate peer pressure in the process. The basket is passed from person to person. Each one tries to avoid looking at the donation made by the person next to them; each tries to avoid judging the other’s donation, or feeling magnanimous about their own. Each tries to politely look away if someone passes the basket without putting any money in.
A man in a suit next to me puts in a check. I can read the amount. It’s $100. He passes it to me with a smile, no hint of judgment on his face. I hand it off to the person next me without putting anything in. I can feel my face turning red, so I turn to the man in the suit and whisper, “We mailed in our offering.” He looks at me oddly.
As we leave, my wife is laughing. She says to me, “Why did you feel like you needed to explain our contribution to the couple next to us?”
I am annoyed with the question. I am annoyed because I don’t have an answer.
The word “charity” comes from the Latin word “caritas.” “Caritas” is translated literally as “love.” The King James Bible, translated from Greek versions, uses the word “charity” and “love” essentially interchangeably – for some reason, the original translators used two alternate translations of the same Greek word, “agape.”
In its original definition, charity is love made visible. Simply, the giving of oneself without expecting anything in return.
Over hundreds of years “charity” has picked up other connotations. It has a note of piousness to it: Doing something noble to help those less fortunate. And more subtly, the word has a tinge of superiority in it: Doing something noble to help those unable to help themselves. At its worst, the word is condescending and patronizing: “I don’t need your charity.”
In its superiority, in its piousness, charity for a long while became inaccessible to me. It became something that I relegated to the top shelf of Obligation. I should be help my wife with the dishes. I should call my dad when I say I will. I should give more money to charity. Charity was high on the list of things I thought I “should” do – and thus low on the list of things I thought I could do.
I remember feeling this intently in college. In my senior year I served as Pro Consul. I remember huddling with the other chapter officers at the beginning of the year. We had come back from Leadership Training Workshop and were full of ideas. We were committed to the idea of winning the Peterson Significant Chapter Award. We unstapled the six or seven page application and spread out the pages in front of us.
We began to tick of the things we needed to do to win. Submit Pledge Program. Evidence compliance with the Sigma Chi Alcohol Policy. Complete two service projects each semester.
Charity we added to the list of items we “had” to complete. We engaged in our service projects dutifully, if not enthusiastically; and though we always got something out of participation, the projects were a means to an end. We missed the chance to make each an end in itself.
After college, every graduate starts to make a living, and for me at least, ironically, with a steady paycheck charity became even more inaccessible. It became a series of responses to bulk mail solicitations. How much should I donate to the World Wildlife Fund? Is $30 enough? What if I renew my membership to the local NPR station? Is that charity?
If charity is love, rather than obligation; if charity is action, rather than response; if charity is a pursuit, than maybe there is more to it than a series of donations. Maybe one can be charitable without a self-addressed stamped envelope.
Maybe I had only half-understood what Boz meant. Perhaps he wasn’t telling me that every check, no matter how small, matters. Perhaps he was telling me that the check is the least important part.
One of the harshest realities of my job is that there is always demand. What I mean is: There are always people who need help.
You start by trying to learn the statistics. Usually, the numbers are daunting no matter what the issue. This year, 200,000 men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer, and over 40,000 will die from this disease. Twenty-one percent of the adult population of the United States (approximately 44 million people) read only at a first grade level. 4.2 million adults and children in South Africa live with HIV/AIDS; it is estimated that half of all young people in South Africa will die of AIDS in the absence of a vaccine. There are approximately 11.6 million children living in poverty in the U.S.
Statistics quickly become incomprehensible, and thus meaningless. What does “44 million people” mean? At a practical level, nothing. The numbers are so big that they have no effect.
So when you raise money you try to personalize things for people. Take children living in poverty. It is useless to talk about the 11.6 million children living in poverty. That number does not move people to action. In fact, some people will think about it and say, “11.6 million – in the scheme of things, that’s not that many, is it?”
Instead, a fundraiser will frame the issue like this: Think of six children you know in your life. Now decide which one of them you would sentence to living in poverty, because in America, on average, one out of six children grows up in poverty. If you had to choose, which of the six children you know would it be?
You have to get people to place their own friends and families in the situation. You have to make it real for them.
It is not always an easy. Consider this: There are 3 million women in America living with breast cancer (1 million of those don’t know it). Half will die within 20 years; about 40,000 people a year. Statistically, 40,000 people a year doesn’t seem to be that many. What’s 40,000 people a year in a country of 250 million people? It is a little over one one hundredth of one percent. It’s nothing.
Except the problem is, that one one hundredth of one percent still represents 40,000 people. Dead.
One of the major events my company produces is a three-day, sixty mile walk to benefit breast cancer treatment. We’ll produce thirteen of them around the country in 2002. We create a mobile city that moves with the walkers, and we support them with extensive pit and route support. Walking sixty miles in three days is not easy. It is a huge athletic feat, but for most of our walkers, the physical challenge is not the attraction.
I am reminded of this on a spring Saturday in Dallas, Texas. It is the second day of one of our three-day events. About 2,500 walkers walked 22 miles on Friday, and they have woken facing another 19 miles today. On the second day, the physical price of the first day makes walking much more challenging.
I am standing at the lunch pit stop, about halfway through the route. A woman is in the medical tent, sobbing. She missed the first day of the event, and in her vigor to compensate she has overextended herself. She has mild dehydration and has just been told by my medical crew that she is unfit to continue. She will be transported by ambulance to the camp, where she will be either monitored in our field hospital or, if her condition worsens, transported to a local emergency room. She is heartbroken.
I sit down on the cot next to her. She is wearing a visor that says, “Walking 4-a-breast.” Her face is flushed; her hair is sweaty. Around her neck hangs a picture of a young woman.
“I have to keep walking,” she says. I tell her in the kindest way possible that the decisions of our medical staff are binding and final.
“You don’t understand,” she says. She holds up the picture. “This is my sister. She has breast cancer. She’s the reason I’m here, and the reason I missed yesterday.”
I’m sure I look puzzled. She breaks down in full tears.
“I missed yesterday because yesterday I buried her.”
If every person in America had talked with the woman in that medical tent, we would have a cure for breast cancer in about a week.
I am not sure how it all works. I do know that people give to causes that move their souls. I am not sure how to move them.
I am not sure why I write checks to organizations that send me a pre-printed bulk letter, yet I never volunteer at the local YMCA four blocks away from my house.
What I do know is that I have many more opportunities to be charitable than I think. They present themselves at every turn. I can choose to let the person cut in front of me on the freeway; I don’t have to move ahead of them so I can be one car closer to home. I can choose to be polite to my wife, because she probably has had a harder day than I have. I can choose to talk with a homeless person on the street, and give them the money in my wallet. I can choose to believe the person will spend it wisely.
I don’t know why sometimes I choose to do those things, and sometimes I don’t.
It is near the end of September. I am holding my two-week old son as I watch television. He was born on September 13, two days after the terrorist attacks. We watched CNN on the 11th while we were in labor. Two weeks later, the world has begun an attempt to return to normal, and with it my son has decided that he finally wants to start sleeping. I’m not going to disturb him for the life of me.
A telethon comes on. It is raising money for the families of the victims killed in the World Trade Center. Maybe you watched it as well.
The phone is next to me. After the first song, I pick it up. My wife is nervous. “How much are you thinking?” I tell her $100. She nods.
The operator answers the phone, thanks me for my call, and asks me how much I would like to donate. I look at the television and think about planes crashing into buildings.
“$250,” I say. My wife looks at me, surprised. The operator sounds grateful, and begins taking my address and credit card information.
I look down at my son. We still have to get a crib, and a car seat. We’ve got a trip to Chicago coming up.
“I need to change my donation,” I say into the phone. “Make it $500.”
I hang up. I turn to my wife. She looks more than a bit concerned. She is trying to figure in her head how much we’ll need to borrow to avoid bouncing our rent check.
I look at my son. He is sleeping unawares. He is perfect. “We’ll make it work,” I say.
I am pretty sure that $500 is only numerically five times more than $100. It isn’t five times better morally. It isn’t five times more profound ethically. I am not more likely to have a peaceful afterlife because of $400. I have not earned four extra points on the cosmic scorecard.
Here’s the thing: As far as I can figure out, there isn’t a cosmic scorecard. There’s only a personal one. Ultimately, if this is a game, I am the only one who will know if I cheat.
What I do know that there is a line at which things become slightly difficult. On this side is comfort, on that side is challenge. I know that I feel safer on this side of the line – but better about myself on the far side. The passages across the line are marked with odd signs bearing uncomfortable words: Sacrifice. Selflessness. Kindness. Commitment. Perseverance. Devotion.
To get to the other side, the only prerequisite is movement. You have to start moving.
There is work to be done. There is need. There is injustice. There is inequity. There is a call to action. I decide if I answer the call.
We say, the world expects more of us than of other men. I am learning that that starts with what I expect of myself.
There is work to be done. I have to start moving.