Want to Make a Difference? Be a Little Selfish (and a lot Smart)

MAY 17, 2013
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Photo: Emily Long

On a summer evening a few years ago, I was approached by a sidewalk crusader for one of those charities that sponsors underprivileged kids in faraway countries. I stopped and listened politely (as a fledgling New Yorker, I didn’t know any better). When she finished her spiel and asked me to commit to a sponsorship, I told her I’d think about it and started to walk away. But she kept talking, rattling off what my monthly contribution could buy for a child in need, all for the same cost as just a few Starbucks lattes.  Surely I could afford to give up one or two caffeinated beverages a week to SAVE a CHILD!  She pushed the clipboard full of sign-up sheets into my hands.  And I gave in.

Each month, the sponsorship fee appeared on my credit card statement and I received a mailing from “my” child: a photo, or a letter he’d written on that flimsy gray paper with dotted line ruling and a space at the top to draw a picture. These tokens were accompanied by pamphlets from the charity about the conditions in the country where “my” child lived, the daily comforts we privileged Americans take for granted that he and his family lacked, and requests for additional donations to provide gifts on holidays. This collateral was worded to be uplifting, overflowing with gratitude and praise for sponsors’ generosity, encouraging us to take pride in the difference we were making in the life of a child who had so little.

But, I did not feel proud or uplifted by these monthly progress reports.  Instead, I felt uneasy and manipulated.  Rarely do I make decisions on the fly: I buy running shoes at the stores that let you try them on and jog around the block first and I read online reviews for everything from kitchen appliances to hotels. I’m sure the T-shirt clad do-gooder who stopped me on the street had the best of intentions, but she had cheerfully bullied me into the act of philanthropy. I hadn’t had time to research the organization, consider alternatives, and choose the one that I believed to be most worthy. As a result, I grew resentful. When I got a new credit card, I canceled my sponsorship.

You might be judging me right now: isn’t charity supposed to benefit others, as opposed to making the giver feel good? Maybe, but giving is not necessarily a zero-sum game. When you genuinely believe in the cause you’re supporting, you’re more invested in the organization, and that benefits both parties: you’re more apt to make giving a long-term habit, and potentially to increase your involvement over time.

On top of that, charity is inevitably personal. You’re giving up a resource that is of value to you (either your money or your time) of which there is a limited quantity. For some people, knowing that their contribution will help someone less fortunate is enough, and I admire their unconditional generosity. For me, it’s important to make a difference in a way that resonates with my own experiences and beliefs. I know that $1 a day can feed an orphan in a faraway country and I respect the organizations and individuals who take up that cause. But it didn’t feel right to me to send money away to another continent when there were people here in my city without food to eat or a roof over their heads, especially after Sandy’s devastating impact. So at least for now, volunteering and donating to causes here in New York is how I’ve chosen to give back – and it feels good.

Whether you prefer to contribute financially or volunteer your time, be mindful of the impact you’re having. Websites like GiveWell.org and Charity Navigator are free tools for evaluating non-profit organizations based on the information they disclose about how they distribute funds and use resources.

Do a little homework and follow your heart, and you will make a difference in your own life as well as the lives of those in need.

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