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Hurtful Charity | A New Year’s Appeal To The Kind-Hearted and Well-To-Do

You’ve likely heard the adage, Give till it hurts, yet it’s unlikely you’re aware just how hurtful those acts of giving can be.

I’m not referring to charity of international aid type, which at times hurts more than it helps people and countries. This, because money is frequently wasted on minimal impact, culturally insensitive, and non-humanitarian programs, or alternatively, pilfered by greedy and corrupt individuals.

Rather, I’m speaking to some portion of the billions of dollars given each year by individuals, especially North Americans, to charitable causes, whether in cash, clothing, household items, or vehicles, and whether given to needy individuals who knock on one’s front door, stand in line at soup kitchens, or donated to residential or virtual non-profits such as Goodwill or Invisible Children.

Too frequently, it seems, the needy occupy a dumping ground for the well-to-do’s excess or discarded items, with little thought given to what it must feel like as human becomings, persons, to be so struggling that you’re reliant on the sometimes whimsical and charitable gifts of individuals or government–especially in the U.S., where 24-7 exposure to affluence is so pervasive.

“Excess benevolence” is predictable, particularly in capitalistic societies such as the United States, where home garages are more often used as storage containers than for their intended vehicular use, where garage sales serve to free up household space so that new items can be purchased, and where multi-storied, climate-controlled Public Storage is booming business and architectural landscape features.

Given realities that, one, “the poor will always be with us,” and, two, excess benevolence will persist irrespective of what I say or anyone campaigns against, what I’m trying to speak for is a more compassionate thoughtfulness toward the economically struggling, plus speaking to a prevalent attitude people have toward those who of necessity live at or below the poverty line–an unconscious versus pejorative attitude, perhaps, yet definitely condescending.

By compassionate thoughtfulness I speak for the dignity of those who by society’s definition are “poor” or “needy.”

Donna Hicks defines dignity as “a feeling of inherent value and worth,” and argues that a desire for dignity is humanity’s highest common denominator, as well as the missing link in understanding conflict.

She, more than anyone else, articulates what I am appealing for in this thought piece—

developmental shift in understanding, from our typically egocentric worldview and cognitive understanding, to a primal empathy.

Primal empathy calls for each one of us to develop a heightened emotional sensitivity and identification with those who suffer indignities.

That is—each one of us is capable of, and should more intentionally versus merely accidentally develop the capacity to “feel what the other’s life is like,” even to the point of “feeling the indignities they experience.”

Duplicity of intention, whether in the form of benevolence, generosity or “love,” is acutely felt and experienced at the nub of self-worth and self-identity by charity recipients.

Examples . . .

Pointing the finger at myself.

I wager that most of us will not perceive ourselves to be well-to-do. Comfortable, perhaps, but not wealthy. After all, one has to earn upwards of $400,000 annually in order to attain status as the “one-percent” richest in America.

Prosperity is fickle / relative, however.

For instance, although my non-profit take-home salary in South Africa was in the $30k’s, low by U.S. standards, benefits such as tuition remission for my children, rental housing allowance, healthcare, company use of vehicle, et cetera, took the figure upwards to a U.S. respectable $70k’s figure. At the current exchange rate, my salary equated to almost 750k rand, high above the average South African minimum income of 24k.

Our 100-year old rental house with Jacaranda tree, Kensington

Our 100-year old rental house with Jacaranda tree, Kensington

My family frequently had clothing, accessories, luggage, linens, even aging electronics like laptops and cameras, which despite still being wearable or operational, were, nevertheless, well-used. How convenient that we had one, sometimes two “needy South Africans” who worked as domestics for us ! It was easy to think: “Surely they will want and be able to use these items.”

Our "family" minus our son, who was in Germany studying.

Our “family” minus our son, who was in Germany studying.

Shamefacedly I admit that I have offered our well-used, soon to be discarded or replaced items by expressing the following type statement–“I’m going to throw these items away. Do you want them?”

Such “gifting” communicates the following attitude: “We recently bought new, and these used items are no longer desired or good enough for me or my family. But I thought to myself, ‘Given you and your family’s evident economic need, I’m sure you could use them.'”

The truth is: My own unconscious, yet condescending attitude toward the poor, didn’t slap my conscience until which time that my family and I were experiencing economic struggle ourselves.

The past three years have been a grateful awakening–despite them being painfully emotional ones–to what many people experience on a daily basis, including the many jobless and economically struggling in Austin, Texas, as well as many of our South African friends, colleagues and acquaintances. They likely felt the pain of “having less,” and perhaps, even, (wrongfully) perceiving themselves as “being less than” when in the presence of our material trappings of success.

Several personal comparisons:

Whereas our African friends heard us excitedly talking about going on this or that family vacation to the beach, mountains, or some international destination, I now experience my own Texas friends talk excitedly about their impending trips to Vegas, Hawaii, Vail, or similarly, reminisce about recent past trips to New England, Lake Tahoe, Paris or Cuba, while my own kids pine for glimpses of the life and experiences they once knew, while finding substitute in a 12-hour road trip to visit Abuelita in El Paso.

Whereas African acquaintances, even friends, perhaps, saw excess money in my family–that is, a means to enabling a better life for themselves, such as assistance with education expenses–I now experience that same temptation to hint at financial need to help offset my wife’s graduate study debt or enable vocational re-education/training for myself.

Whereas South Africans saw my family drive new or new-like vehicles, I now experience Texans test driving $100k electric cars, while my family makes do with a ’98 Honda and ’02 Toyota, which despite their age and my longing to drive a more updated and spacious vehicle, are still far more “life enabling” than required reliance upon foot or taxi power.

Whereas African friends and guests walked into our relatively large rental home and were no-doubt dumbstruck by its size, spaciousness, furnishings, amenities, security apparatus, et cetera, my children now experience leaving Texas homes, conscious of how constricting their shared and small bedroom is. While I’m truly grateful to have a roof over my head, I’m in awe of the extra spaciousness of some homes, which so effortlessly accommodates an office/study space, which as an academic I pine for.

What, then, should the (relatively) well-to-do do in light of such pervasive social need?

It’s tempting to advocate what is recorded in the Bible about the early community of Jesus followers, that “they were together, having all things in common, selling their property and possessions and sharing them with all as each had need.”

I do believe that a greater sharing of wealth and its privileges is essential not only for a more just and equitable society and world but also for a more peaceful one. I’m grateful for the rich and celebrity trend setters, in such persons as Bill and Melinda Gates, Bono, Warren Buffet, and Salman Khan, all of whom we should be grateful to for helping co-create a more equitable world.

Within a Christian or faith context, sharing beyond tokenism or for tax deduction benefit, as well as sharing in and alongside life with those whose life narrative is one of struggled existence would definitely restore a measure of credibility to “American religion,” perceived by many as elitist, segregated, socially reactive and disconnected–at least my own Baptist context of meaning.

Being realistic, however, I’ll settle for more compassionate and conscientious thoughts and acts of charity toward the poor and economically struggling.

I seldom reference the Bible in thought pieces, but it speaks to “offending the consciences” of those who are weak. Seems to me that those gifted with the “benefits of capitalism,” as well as a non-volatile/violent life setting in which to live, raise a family and children, should strive to live and engage the world with greater sensitivity and understanding, always mindful and sensitive to our shared and collective humanity.

 

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4 Life Takeaways from “We Bought A Zoo”

If you can overlook that the actual zoo, Dartmoor Zoological Parkis in England instead of Southern California, as well as the fact that Matt Damon, aka Jason Bourne, is simply a widower with two young children versus a trained assassin or a futuristic car thief / Robin Hood, then you might (like me) agree with We Bought A Zoo‘s 3-star rating and enjoy watching or re-watching it.

DZP

I recently re-watched the last half with my two younger daughters, and took away 4 reminders:

1.  “Sometimes all it takes is twenty seconds of insane courage . . . And I promise you, something great will come of it.”

It seems that being human is to opt for the easy and convenient over the hard and difficult. What prompted you to read this blog? Its promised “4” takeaways?

If we resolve to lose weight, consistently exercise, run a marathon, climb a mountain, learn a language, become a millionaire, ace the SAT/GRE/or MCAT, or even something as mundane as cleaning house or “doing” the yard, we typically seek out the short-cuts.

If only we took seriously, were ever mindful of the residual power in seconds or small steps; especially those first few, which are critical in helping you overcome the inertia of inactivity and progress toward an established habit and discipline.

I don’t have a “Yard of the Month” yard, but I have succeeded in growing a healthy lawn and ten double knock-out rose bushes, which total strangers have been known on more than several occasions to stop their cars, get out, walk to our front door, ring the door bell, and ask what I did to produce such lush, green grass and beautiful red roses.

I have no quick-step answer other than a little bit of effort and a lot of sweat spread out over many days, weeks, months, and now almost four years. I don’t use weed killer. I simply am relentless in pulling up a few weeds each and every time I walk the perimeter of my yard. Truthfully? I think they (the weeds – especially the nut grass) are afraid of me! 🙂

Let’s view achievement / greatness as a series of small steps, or as the sum of many steps (small acts), and learn to silence the inner voice (demon) that insists we leapfrog ahead or use a cheat sheet.

2.  Like the animals but love the humans.

I grew up in East Africa and many of my happiest childhood memories revolve around animals, whether pets, such as our two Vervet monkeys, or family excursions to famous national reserves like the Masai Mara or the Serengeti to witness the annual 1.5 million wildebeest and zebra migration.

I still love animals, but like Fanning and Johansson, I’d choose people over animals if I had to.

If polled, I wonder if most Americans would agree?

It often seems that equally or more money, time, kindness, love and respect is shown to pets, than to children, the elderly, the immigrant, the unemployed, or the hobo.

Lately I’ve been struck by how many Austin drivers let their pets “drive with” them in the front driver’s seat. Meanwhile my kids fight over which of them get to ride in the front passenger seat, even if the distance to be traveled is less than one mile!

What about you? Do you give equal or more time and affection to your pet than to your child, spouse or friend or neighbor?

3.  “The secret to talking is listening.”

We’ve all read enough Dear Abby-type relationship advise columns and books to know that men are typically less verbal when it comes to expressing matters of the heart (emotions, vulnerability, et cetera), yet more verbose when it comes to fixing problems: your problem, their problem, anyone’s problem.

Wise men have learned that the way to a girl (Elle Fanning’s) or a woman’s heart (Scarlett Johansson) — or even in matters non-romantic, to achieving greater organizational synergy (defined by Stephen Covey as “valuing difference” or “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”) — is through more listening, less talking.

Many men simply don’t care whether their percentage of speech to listening is skewed, however, because they’ve either achieved some senior management position in an organization and can’t be bothered by any underling, let alone a woman’s suggestion or advice, or because hearing the sound of their own voices and perspective has become habituated over time, in large part because men traditionally have held the monopoly on positions of power.

Now, I risk voicing a truism; namely, that women are very capable of talking and thoroughly enjoy doing so! Research demonstrates they generally are more verbal, and not infrequently more verbose than men.

A difference between the sexes seems to me to be: Men typically talk to resolve; listening with more an ear to actively fixing whatever might be wrong or perceived to be wrong, rather than listening with all one’s senses so as to hear the many unspoken words / emotions that speak themselves through glistening eyes, quivering lips, faltering voices, rapid and defensive / angered responses, etc.

4.  Grief and mourning can be delayed, but not bypassed . . . If, that is, you want to re-engage life and living.

For 10 of the last 13 years I have worked in a senior management capacity with non-profit organizations in South Africa that focused on mitigating the cause and effects of violence and HIV/AIDS.

A recent article A Save-the-World Field Trip for Millionaire Tech Moguls describes one man, Scott Harrison’s “sexy” effort to provide clean and plentiful water to those in the world without. Through his non-profit, Charity: Water, he has managed to facilitate the drilling of thousands of water wells and the installation of an equal number of hand pumps.

Incidentally, and perhaps reflective of the demographics of his donor base, each pump has an attached metal plaque with each donor’s name etched on it. Desire for legacy, recognition, seems to me a decidedly American fixation, as is our so-called exemplary charitable generosity, which in reality would not be near so generous if it did not hitch a ride on the coat tail of income tax reduction.

In contrast to “sexy” development work, coming alongside and participating in life with hurting people, particularly those who have suffered or soon will suffer loss, as well as trauma of any variety of types and degrees is far from “sexy.” Yes, your name is surely invisibly inscribed on the hearts and in the lives of those you shared vulnerable life moments with, yet seldom is there any acknowledgement of your sacrifice, no public recognition for being a “Well Member” – a donor, who pledges $24,000/year to Charity: Water, for three or more years.

My point is this:

It’s much easier and less demanding to give money to the needy of the world, than time, toil and tears (lest you misunderstand me, yes, social development organizations need both, including the Charity: Water’s of the world).

Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) lost his wife and struggled daily through a labyrinth of inconsolable grief (e.g., avoiding looking at photographs of his wife, certain grocery aisles, as well as previously favorite coffee shops). It took years and the collective, consistent and caring support of family and zoo staff friends for him to travel through grief to a place of acceptance and re-engagement with life and living.

I welcome “life truth” wherever it reveals itself. I’m grateful to movie and cinema for important life reminders.

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20 Do’s and Don’ts of Assisting the Jobless

Do you care enough to help the jobless?  If so, at what level are you willing to help – Maze Help or Mentoring Help?

Let me explain how I view the difference.

Finding work, or helping someone find work, is often likened to simple navigation of a maze, consuming as little as 15-minutes of your time, but certainly less than a few hours at best.  This short expenditure of time and effort I call “maze help,” aka –  charity help.

jobmaze

If you intend to contribute meaningful help to someone seeking re-employment, then the analogy of mentoring a visitor or immigrant in acclimatizing to his or her new environment is more apropos, I believe.  The reason being that joblessness is frequently a seismic crisis, precipitating significant life adjustments.  Helping someone through and beyond job loss could possibly consume tens of hours of your time spread across days, weeks, and in a recessionary climate, even extending to months.

I have experienced both analogies.

As job seeker, I have been the recipient of well-intentioned friends or acquaintances, who offer “maze help.”  Regrettably maze help is most common, and I define it as snippets of time and energy, requiring minimal personal inconvenience, and often assumes the form of verbal or written statements such as – “I really don’t know of anything at present, but I will certainly let you know if I do hear of a position that might be suitable for you.”

“Maze helpers” seem to view the act of helping as simply an act of charity, as Jon Picoult notes in his article “The Jobless Won’t Forget Your Help.”  Promises of help are made by well-intentioned individuals, who either don’t want to be troubled beyond the time and energy it takes to write a reply email or make a phone call, or who feel insecure and ill-suited to help you for whatever unknown reason.

helpinghand

An example of “Mentoring Help” occurred in 2008, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.  A local non-profit I worked with gladly accepted the offer of an unpaid, six-month German intern.  As national director of a newly funded USAID training project, I was not charged with orienting this intern, nor did I feel I had the time to do so due to project compliance requirements.  Nevertheless, shortly after this intern’s arrival it was apparent that we had not done enough in helping him acclimate to our city and country.  I could have simply offered him “maze help” in the form of an email or phone call or a quick cup of coffee, sharing condolences about his struggles but little else, yet I knew this wouldn’t suffice, nor was it the right and decent thing to do.

He needed mentoring/orienting help.  So for the next few weeks, plus periodically, then, over the next four months, I invested time and effort in helping him make a positive transition through the attending acclimating-to-South-Africa crisis.  I picked him up and took him to the bank, helping him transact money.  I drove him to town where he bought an A/C adaptor for his laptop, as well as groceries.  I invited him for several meals, and facilitated a doctor’s appointment when he became ill.  I informed him of “safety tips” (turn your cell phone off during taxi rides, so you don’t advertise it to would-be-muggers), and acted as his sounding board when he was lonely, frustrated, and processing more information and newfound experiences than his single brain could manage.

howcanihelp

After reading this blog I hope you still want to help!  Jobless people need your help, yet not if they feel your help is merely acts of charity. “Charity help” merely accentuates your fortuitousness of economics, life, education, inheritance, et cetera, and makes people in need feel correspondingly more shameful (=failure).

Below are 20 suggested Do’s and Don’ts on providing practical assistance to jobless individuals. Please feel free to contribute additional ideas, or to add commentary to those listed.

DON’TS:

1.  Don’t assume anything.

  • Don’t assume a person doesn’t want help simply because they haven’t asked for it.  If you have an interest in helping, don’t wait for the jobless to ask you. Take the initiative.  Risk investing 30-minutes to an hour of your time and the price of two cups of coffee (Yes, be sensitive to their curtailing of expenditures and buy them a cup of coffee!).  Your initiative will be appreciated and remembered.
  • Don’t assume the jobless will tell you exactly what they need.  After all, they, like you, have self-respect.  They feel awful being in need already; don’t make them beg for your assistance if you’re already willing or in a position to help.  Rather, ask if and how you might be of help.  Cite specifics within the parameter of your kindness and willingness to help:  e.g., tuition assistance for continuing studies or merely meeting once monthly for coffee. 
  • Don’t assume a person’s joblessness is due to laziness, ineptness, or any other self-made mistake.  Think the best of a person until fact proves otherwise.

2.  Don’t assume every job seeker’s reason for unemployment is the same.  I list this separately because it is purported that, despite the illegality of discrimination against job applicants for a status of “unemployed,” it is still widely practiced.

3.  Don’t “false promise.”  Offer help only if you will keep your promise.  Otherwise, candor is preferred – e.g., “I’m sorry.  I would like to help, but I don’t feel I’m in a position to do so at this time.”

4.  Once committed to helping, don’t disengage without informing the person, preferably with an explanation and in person.  Disengagement without explanation, leaves open the question of “why,” and risks further adding to a job seeker’s unwarranted, yet shameful sense of not measuring up, or of somehow being deserving of one’s predicament.

DO’S:

5.  Assess your motive for helping prior to offering help.  If you don’t, it’s possible you will communicate a patronizing (=treat with an apparent kindness that betrays a feeling of superiority) versus compassionate attitude.

6.  Think sensitively before asking questions, because the questions might merely transfer additional anxieties on to the job seeker.  Examples: “Did you manage to secure any job interviews last month?  No? Really!”

7.  Allow individuals to vocalize frustrations and struggles without correcting or criticizing them.  Strive to provide a “safe place” (a figurative place of trust that is free from ridicule) where the jobless can air any and all feelings of insecurity and struggle. Listen. Affirm their feelings. Occasionally offer their words of struggle back in the form of a question – e.g., “So, what I hear you saying is that you’re struggling with the reality that your wife will ‘better you’ in terms of pay and position?”  Talking is cathartic.  Often time answers to problems and a willingness to re-engage life arise from those emotional outbursts.

8.  Offer the jobless unused air miles for airfare purchase toward job-related trips.

9.  Offer to help offset expenses related to continuing education or skills training.

10.  Offer gift vouchers to coffee shops or restaurants, which they can use toward job search purposes, such as informational interviews.

11.  Offer or help them find a temporary work opportunity, even if it’s a more volunteer than paid type situation, which will help mitigate discrimination as an “unemployed” candidate when submitting job applications.

12.  Offer to review resumes, cover letters, and provide input on job search strategy.

13.  Invite and accompany them as your guest to Rotary and such meetings.

14.  Offer to be their elevator pitch recipient.

15.  Offer to role-play the interviewer.

16.  Write them a LinkedIn recommendation and/or endorse their skills.

17.  Offer to assist with expenses of enlisting a top-recruitment firm.

18.  Assist and affirm them in identifying their transferable skills.

19.  Offer to teach them basic skill sets of yours (e.g., Excel, web page development).

20.  Offer to child-sit for job interviews, or merely to provide a self-care outing.

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