Monday, November 10, 2008

Chill out for charity

A few weeks ago I participated in a fundraiser for charity, the Walk for Hope in Potomac, Maryland (info here). The reason I participated is that I was invited by a friend who is, herself, a breast cancer survivor. And, of course, I think it is a good cause. To be clear, participation meant that in addition to driving 4 hours each way to go to Maryland, I paid a few hundred dollars to the organization.

About a week after the walk, I got a letter from the organization thanking me for my participation. But then they ruined it. They asked me for more money. And then they followed up a week or so later with another request for money.

Now I have no question that this is a good cause. And my participation was not purely selfless. After all, I never participated before I had a friend who went through this. Nor will this qualify me in any way for the Mother Theresa award.

But I did feel good about having participated. I enjoyed the feeling that I had done something good in my own small way and that I had brought my kids with me to teach them these values.

The letter from the organization robbed me, in a way, of my sense of pride for having done something good because it seemed to say that I'm back at square one in my relationship with them. I did something good for them by sending them money and participating. They thanked me. And now they can start the cycle again. I felt like a mark. Like someone who is there just to be sucked dry for whatever he's got.

I want to reiterate: I know my small donation doesn't make me a hero. But the fact is that I am a human with feelings like anyone else. [Note: cue the violins.] And I am motivated at least in part by these feelings. The organization will do much better for itself by treating me like a person.

Think about your personal social life for a minute. If you ask someone for a favor and they do it for you, you don't turn around and ask for another one right away. Normal people understand in their social lives that this behavior is unacceptable. The relationship needs to get back to equilibrium. There has to be a give and take. When someone has done you a favor, you are supposed to return the favor before asking for another. The thank you letter is a pretty good "give" for the organization. Not truly remarkable but still acceptable.

But the rules of give and take don't work this way. You cannot return someone's favor and then immediately ask for another favor because that makes the relationship seem purely transactional. Some relationships are truly special and don't rely on give and take. Nobody focuses on the take. But most have some element of reciprocity at their core. We all know this. But it is considered rude in most social relationships to bring this to the fore. We are supposed to pretend that we are motivated only by selflessness when we give. When someone returns a favor and immediately requests another, he makes it clear that his "give" was merely a means of securing his next "take." He brings the reciprocity requirement to the fore. Not OK.

This is what the City of Hope did in their letter.

I write this not because I don't support them any longer. I do. I will participate again next year. And I may even donate again before then. I write this because I believe that charity is important and I want City of Hope to succeed. I think charitable organizations need to get a bit smarter about their marketing. See here for another example of charities not thinking through the real world social implications of their actions.

So City of Hope: chill out a bit. Let me savor my admittedly overblown feelings of having selflessly saved the breasts. Send me a nice note or even email (to save money). Then wait a bit. Let the relationship return to equilibrium. Then you can ask for more money. I think you'll do better that way.

1 comment:

Jer979 said...

Well put. It's very much a "we had to burn the village in order to save it" mentality