Monday, 26 May 2008

Not Another Charity Appeal

After the recent natural disasters in China and Myanmar, Kanani reminds us to donate to the Red Cross.

If you're anything like me, you will groan inwardly at the thought of giving again. Not another charity appeal!

Last week, I stood out on the street with a plastic container and a sheaf of red stickers, collecting for Christian Aid. I started doing this a few years ago when a friend asked if I would join her, and although I feel spectacularly foolish as I stand out there holding my red and white container and adjusting my expression -- which is no mean feat -- I always enjoy doing this. This is not because I am a kind and charitable person. (I strive to be, but generally fall short of my own expectations.) No, I enjoy doing this because it gives me a chance to shamelessly people watch.

Saturday the 17th was damn cold here in our small Scottish town. It was rainy, too, and although I had an umbrella, I could not manage to hold it over my head and hold the container and sheaf of stickers, which were wet to begin with when I took over from the previous volunteer. I must have looked pretty pitiful standing there, trying rather unsuccessfully to keep the rain off me, working hard on my expression.

If you ever have to do anything like this yourself, I will tell you right now that getting the expression right is always harder than keeping your hands warm or keeping your feet from going numb -- both real considerations when you're standing still for two or three hours straight. You have to aim for humble, but confident, and it is essential to get the balance just right. Look too humble and people will despise you; look too confident and people will shun you. You are not allowed to shake or rattle your container, and verbal appeals for money are strictly forbidden; beseeching eye contact, too, is discouraged. As I stood there, I couldn't help but think of Empress Michiko of Japan, who has this look down to an art. Casting my eyes down, I kept a small, hopefully self-respecting smile on my face as though to say I am not a threat to you, but I do hope that you will give. From time to time, I fine-tuned this according to the passers-by, putting in just a suggestion of self-deprecation or plain, dumb stupidity. Both of these come naturally to me, so were not much of a strain.

And I shamelessly used my accent. Whenever anyone put money into my container I always thanked them and offered a sticker. In most cases, the donor would take a step back and look me up and down.

"What's an American doing in Scotland?" they would ask.

"Collecting for Christian Aid," I quipped. "And aren't you lucky I'm not a Canadian?" This made the nice ones smile and ask me where I was from.

"California. And no, I don't feel sorry for myself; I love this weather."

On three separate occasions, that comment got Christian Aid extra coins.

What I enjoy the most about collecting for charity is that I can never tell who will give and who will not. The people who look like generous, salt of the earth types often pass me by without so much as a glance. Proud, snooty-looking people often put money into my container without making a big deal of it; a few who can definitely afford to give generously (well known in this town for their ostentatious wealth) make a big deal of giving me the tiniest of donations.

One woman took real exception to me and my collecting can. "Your envelope was very big this year," she said angrily as she put ten pence into the can. (I tried not to look, but I couldn't help myself.)

I wanted to sympathize. I really do know how she feels; you get compassion fatigue when you've received your fifth charity appeal of the week. You think of your pitiful pension, the leaks in your roof, the two new tires you need and the scholarship your kid is not going to get for university. How will you ever find the money, and is it your fault that the world is so screwed up? That impoverished countries cannot or will not feed their own people; that selfish despots bleed their countries dry to purchase fancy cars and bathtubs made of gold?

"It's hard to give," I admitted. "You feel like there'll never be an end to it. But we've got roofs over our head and enough to eat and--"

The woman rolled her eyes at me and interrupted with a disgusted "Hmph!" Later, I saw her getting into a nice, new-looking Volvo across the street and I seethed inwardly: we bought our car secondhand off E-bay; the brakes don't work right; the windows don't always roll up; the throttle body is carbonized so the car tends to stall in lower gears. I wish we had a Volvo. Then I wondered if the angry woman in the Volvo wished she had a Jaguar.

Do any of us really realize how lucky we are?


ChrisEldin said...

I LOVE this line: Look too humble and people will despise you; look too confident and people will shun you.

You are so honest in your writing. It's a joy to stop over here.

I think your descriptions apply in most places. A man my husband used to work for (in another country for a short bit) was wealthy beyond measure. If he were in a bad mood, he'd refuse to pay his employees, making the poorest of them grovel for what was rightfully theirs.

Good on you for being out there! And I do hope you're getting good characters for your books---especially the villians!!

Carole said...

Excellent post. I don't have a problem giving to charities but standing out on the street collecting for them would kill me. I doff my hat to your superior heart.

Kim Ayres said...

And after your generous contribution to my son's money raising endeavours, it's not surprising you can't afford to fix the roof.

Time to get your daughters baking and selling. I was talking to Rogan last night about franchising the cakes business to kids in other towns...

Thanks again for coming to visit, it was wonderful to see you :)

Alice said...

I feel the same way after having taught in Kenya for two years. We really are lucky!

Travis Erwin said...

I'll bet a fair amount of that people watching works it's way into your writing. What a great way to study characters and their habits.

Gorilla Bananas said...

I favour making significant contributions to one or two charities you know something about rather than being embarrassed into putting coins into a collection box.

Mary Witzl said...

Chris -- That man you describe sounds awful. I can't help hoping he'll get his come-uppance some day.

You are sweet to say that I am honest, but I always squirm to collect for charity. There is something very do-gooder about the whole business of standing out there with a container and a badge -- as though I am offering myself as a charitable example when I find giving as much a trial as everyone else.

Carole -- The people I really respect are the ones who go from house to house. That is an awful, exhausting business, as people tend to get upset with you for leaving collecting envelopes. I have refused to do this in the past, preferring the more interesting task of standing with a container. Nothing superior about me, my dear.

Kim -- (Blush -- I know how little I contributed. And remember: I got the cake!)

As for my kids baking and selling, if they ever started this, I would never get out of the kitchen. So far I have been wholly unsuccessful in getting them to clean after themselves when they cook.

Alice -- My husband spent two years in Sudan and traveled a bit there. He got to see extreme poverty and most of the time he feels the same way you do.

Travis -- You're right: it's a great way to study character and get ideas for writing. Which is why it is all the more embarrassing when I get praised for doing it.

GB -- In fact, I prefer to do this myself, but this town gets a lot of tourists passing through and Christian Aid sees them as fair pickings during the season. A lot of my fellow collectors moan that they'd rather just put £20 in the tin and save themselves a cold, wet experience. There are times I feel like this myself, but the challenge of street collecting is hard to resist. And it is a great way to study people.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Having worked in social services (Welfare and Food Stamps) I have had the luxury of being able to reconcile publics perception of people in need against the reality.

Sadly, some of our fellow citizens believe our impoverished "deserve" to be poor, either through a lack of initiative or self-discipline on their part. We believe people should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. What we don't realize is that many don't have bootstraps!

Oddly, when people here are polled, they have a negative opinion of people on "welfare" but feel charitable toward the "poor"... as if they are two different populations! Very odd.

But like you, I have found that it is the people who have the least who tend to give the most. Perhaps because the concept of need is closer to home.

Kara said...

rarely. but well done on giving them a reality check.

i get offended by the ones that use guilt to gain your donation. i get a lot of "do you have 5 minutes to save the children today?". that just pisses me off and i usually reply "no. i hate children" to let them know that i won't play their little mind games. oh no.

Ello said...

Compassion fatigue. That's a good one! I think I have that. We have beggars on every major intersection here looking for a handout and weekly collections for various charities. I give at my church, I give to specific causes I support and every once in awhile I have to give to a homeless person who just breaks my heart. But you do get compassion fatigue and you start to look away from the collecting cans. I have spasms of guilt as I do so, but we can't give to everything and everyone. But good for you for trying. It is a thankless job standing out in the rain trying to collect from people.

Great post as always. I can see the imagery and hear the dialogue. You have such great way of telling a story.

Kim Ayres said...

What do you mean how little you contributed? He got double the profit he was expecting on that cake!

When it comes to cleaning the kitchen afterwards, just tell them your service to do it costs £10, which will need to be deducted from any profit they make. Alternatively they can clean up themselves and save the money :)

Mary Witzl said...

Robert -- There are definitely people who milk the system, but some use this as an argument against all kinds of charity. Most of us are only a couple of unlucky coincidences away from being homeless or destitute. I try to bear this in mind when there has been a natural disaster or other tragedy.

And you are right -- some people really don't have bootstraps. It is easy to look at more unfortunate people and wonder why they don't take steps to improve their lives. We might better understand their reasons if we were in their situation.

Kara -- I hate that guilt thing too; it definitely brings out the stubborn and selfish in me. Plus sometimes you just don't have five minutes, and the people who hit you up for it often have no skill at all in reading body language.

Ello -- Whenever I get fliers for charity donations, I feel like sighing. I would like to give all of them something, but I cannot. We give to a couple of well-researched charities and we too throw away many appeals. It is the people who give nothing, ever, and make excuses for this that irritate me. People with collecting cans and really good street musicians are hard to pass by, though. Notice I'm particular; I won't give to crappy street musicians. I figure I don't torture anyone but my family with my violin; damned if I'll hit anyone up for money AND torment them.

Kim -- Fortunately, there are a few restaurants and hotels nearby where my kids can work, and the eldest is in great demand, being somewhat personable (when she puts her mind to it). She is also a popular babysitter, and the youngest is now hoping to start chambermaid work. Both my kids are slippery as eels when it comes to getting out of kitchen work, and their father has been guilty of aiding and abetting them.

A Paperback Writer said...

It's hard collecting door to door. And it's hard giving to people who come to your door. Guilt is may be a good motivator, but it's not the best one.
I grumble a lot about some things Mormons do (the patriarchy, the tendency to vote Republican no matter what, the frequency of overlooking those who aren't married with kids), but one thing Mormons do right is humanitarian aid.
We have a huge system to collect, sort, clean, repair, etc. donations year-round. The management is volunteer, but the paid workers are usually refugees or the homeless who are being trained in job skills and given free English lessons (taught by volunteers). Plus, members (okay, mostly the women, but sometimes men and youths) in the numerous wards (congregations) regularly quilt or prepare hygiene or school supply kits (all new items) to give to the humanitarian center.
Those huge shipping containers stand packed at all times, filled with clothing and supplies for warm or cold climates, depending on what is needed.
Within 24 hours of approval granted (not everyone will take help from the US or from Mormons), containers can be on their way by truck or train. We often work with Catholic aid societies to get stuff into places that don't like Mormons.
(Note: no conversion stuff is going on here; it's just people helping people.)
So yeah, I might not answer the door if the Red Cross comes knocking because I hate being pressured to give. But, every single month 10 dollars of my paycheck goes to humanitarian aid, and I've stuffed dozens and dozens of school and health kits, and boxed up so many coats and shoes and jeans that I can't even remember all of them. I once had an entire basement full of donated clothing that got shipped to orphanages in the Reb. of Georgia. Once, our ward's Christmas dinner party was all about filling school bags. Every month there is a quilting party or a health/hygiene kit evening. Clothing donations are taken every work day.
So, your job to collect for charity is much harder than mine. I feel for you; it's tough to go out and collect money.
But good for you. You're doing what you're able to do.
Mine's easier. I have a lot. I've been blessed tons. I've never had to wonder where my next meal would come from (except once during a holiday weekend in Spain, but that's a different story).
And I'm even blessed with incredibly easy ways to help out others -- where the money isn't being misused because the management doesn't get any money.

laura said...

In the end I do believe that everyone wants to help, but when you see and hear how so many organizations squander, on themselves, the very money that was intended to help those in need, people become jaded. As for the totally rude people? They're the same one's who ask for a senior discount 'I'm on a fixed income!' (and just who isn't?) and then drive away in their brand new Cadillacs! I tend to give to almost anyone who has the guts to stand there with their can with the exception of those who just seem shady.

debra said...

There are so many needs in this world that it is hard to know where to give. We share our resources as best we can, and have donated our good "seconds" to the battered women's shelter for many years.
Don't know how it is for writers, but artists are asked to donate pieces for this organization or that one all the time. And generally, those who can least afford it, donate a piece of their (our) livelihood freely.

All Rileyed Up said...

Both funny and thoughtful. Whenever I am stressed and worried about my lot in life, I take a step back and think to myself--you know, I DO have it good.

Mary Witzl said...

APW -- I have heard about this before, and I admire it endlessly. A huge amount of organization goes into this, and the thing that impresses me most is that the giving is done with no expectation of return, which is the best kind of giving. During the Great Hanshin earthquake in Japan, some of the Mormons in our area commented on supplies they hoped to get to Kobe. (I don't know if they ever managed to donote the supplies, sadly, due to the reluctance of the Japanese government to accept charity or help from anyone, but they would have come in handy.) All Mormons tithe too, don't they? When I lived in Nevada, I had a few ex-Mormon friends who said that they missed this above all when they left the church -- the feeling that they belonged to a large group that would take care of them in the event of an emergency.

The church in our town does those health/hygiene kits too. They get kids in the Sunday School to help, but 95% of the people who assemble them are over the age of 65. Once that generation is gone, I wonder what will happen with those kits.

I've got a roof over my head, clean running water, good medical care, as many square meals a day as I like (and am prepared to make), and my children don't have to work. I don't know why I've got it so good, but I'm damned if I'll take it for granted.

Laura -- That worries me a lot -- the idea that charitable organizations can squander the money on themselves. Anyone who does that is building up one nasty karma, and shame on them. There are also perfectly respectable charities that mishandle the money, giving it out at the wrong times to the wrong people. A friend of mine was in India just after the tsunami in 2006, and was horrified to see a huge number of drunk men sleeping it off on the streets. They had just received charity money and, as many men I know would do, had gone for quick gratification. This is why I support intelligent charity and people like Muhammad Yunus who know that it is better to give the money to women.

I work at the book counter at fundraising coffee mornings here, and I've also heard a lot of people whine about their fixed incomes and tiny pensions, asking for discounts on items that are already going for peanuts. They must not realize that there are people who would be happy with one tenth of their pensions.

Debra -- Yes, it so often is the people who look like they can least afford it who give the most. In our neighborhood, we had a family that were clearly strapped for cash; the mother worked as a nurse and was on welfare. My mother hated going to her house when she was collecting for charity, but she hated leaving her out too. And this woman, unlike several of the neighbors who openly bragged about their wealth, was always the fastest to run and get her purse.

Riley -- This takes some doing at times, doesn't it? I want so much I can't have, and it just drives me wild that I can't have it. Until I too take that step back. Having that ability to distance yourself from your wants is probably one of the most valuable gifts of all.

Charles Gramlich said...

Lana and I talk all the time about how lucky we are, and most days I really do appreciate it. some days, when my legs are killing me, it's a bit harder.

The Anti-Wife said...

I'm extremely fortunate and more than willing to share. However, I limit my donations to about 3 organizations and always do it anonymously. I can't be all things to all people, so chosing those whose purpose most closely fits my own philosphy works for me.

Good for you for sharing your time to help for a good cause.

A Paperback Writer said...

I still admire you for going door to door. I hate doing that.
I will, however, collect money/canned foods/ clothing at school during charity drives because I can offer something in return: extra credit. Kids will do a LOT for 10 points of extra credit.

Mary Witzl said...

Charles -- I find it especially hard to feel grateful when I'm in real physical pain. But when I get respite from the pain, my sense of gratitude is practically overwhelming. I hope your legs don't bother you too much; I've got wonky ankles that give me no end of trouble.

Anti-wife -- Giving anonymously is the best kind of giving. Every time I have done my street collecting stint there will be someone who unceremoniously shoves a £5 note into my can and waves off the offer of an "I donated" sticker -- and someone else who ostentatiously makes his 2-pence donation, looking around to make sure everyone sees him giving me money. Quite honestly, I don't see my street collection activity as a virtuous deed. I see it as a great way to observe people without being too obvious.

APW -- Good for you! I don't think it's just credit, either -- I think it's your personality. My kids have both done charity stuff for teachers they like at school, whereas they wouldn't do anything for teachers they didn't like -- not even, I suspect, for credit. Getting kids to volunteer their time for credit is a win-win deal, isn't it?

Middle Ditch said...

I couldn't help but smile reading this. We really don't realize how lucky we are, do we?

Yesterday my daughter was offered a sandwich by her 80 year old nan and, being hungry, she gratefully went to nan's kitchen where in horror she saw nan scrape of some mould from the cheese before putting it on her sandwich. It sure brought back memories. Then nothing was thrown out compared to today when food is chucked away if it's only one day out of date.

Eryl Shields said...

Because I do know - most of the time - how lucky I am, and I feel guilty for not having organised myself into giving regularly to chosen charities, I always give whatever is in my purse to street collectors. At times this will be bugger all and at others quite a decent amount.

One day I will do some research, make a decision, and set up some direct debits. But there are so many worthy causes the decision making is always where I stall. Does giving all my old junk to Oxfam count?

kathie said...

Hey Mary, terrific post. I'm laughing at the facial expression quandry (sp?). It's so true--prob. friendly is the best option, though looking pleasant for hours is a tough order for most. If I have money with me, I give to whomever is asking. The problem these days is that I use my debit card more than anything. But, there's always a well of loose change at the very least at the bottom of my purse. Great work and good for you for making your actions match your beliefs.

Katie Alender said...

My problem is that you never know who is actually collecting for a charity and who just put on a pair of white pants and pasted a flyer to a bucket.

We do give tons and tons of "stuff" to charity, but we could probably pony up more cash. I have favorite causes, so it's hard to know how to divide everything.

A Paperback Writer, I think the Mormons have it down!

Mary Witzl said...

Middle Ditch -- My parents lived through the Depression (they were older than all my peers' parents) and they did things like this too. I trim off the requisite inch of cheese first and throw out any soft things that have gone moldy, but I too HATE to throw away food. I know how your daughter feels, but the sight of good food being thrown out simply because it has a speck of mold on it or is nearing its shelf life sickens me.

Eryl -- We donate to Oxfam too, but this is more of a convenience than a charitable donation. We've got far too much stuff, even if most of it is cheap junk, and we are just thrilled that someone will take it. In Tokyo, getting rid of old clothes was a huge headache. I had to haul them off to the Salvation Army, a two-hour train ride away. And you have to PAY to discard larger items! I think a donation probably should hurt a little. You're right, though -- research is vital. ActionAid are a great charity, if you are interested -- I've even got a link in my blog!

Kathie -- Good, you are recovered from your cold! (I was getting worried about you again.) I tend to have job lots of loose change on me and getting rid of it is often pure relief; coins in the U.K. are really heavy. But honestly, this wasn't a charitable action on my part. Or rather, it was for charity, but I did it for the entertainment of people-watching. (I need to get a life, don't I?)

Katie -- This is a good point. I always ask to see the collector's permit if I have any doubts. Once I was at the airport with a friend and a woman approached us with one of those sign language cards with a printed request for a donation. My friend happened to be fluent in North American sign language and started signing to her. Whereupon the woman ran off, her cover blown. Or maybe she was just shy about talking to a stranger?

Angela said...

I get the pleasure of working with the down and out in my profession and it's always the ones who used to be down and out who pay there good but meager fortune forward to their fellow man. Never fails. I love that!