Wednesday, September 9, 2015

What makes you give?

"When Sean V. sends me an email, I can ignore it.  When he comes to my desk, I pay attention."

Heads nodded around the room. They knew the guy, and had all done the same.

Thursday I met with some co-workers and colleagues about the CFC. The Combined Federal Campaign is the Fed's version of United Way.  It is a clearinghouse for money donated by federal employees to national and local charities.  Hundreds of charities to choose from, each with their own mission, overhead, and goals.

And every year, we go through the same thing.  Skits.  Poking fun at the bosses, who are asked to humiliate themselves - pie throwing, dunking booth, silly skits, whatever.  But the result has been a decline over time in participation rate. 

It used to be the case that employees donated to the church and to whatever the office charity was.  And the donations continued throughout the career, adjusting for increases in pay and promotions.  If you were in charge of getting donations, you could pretty much count on the combination of peer pressure (everyone is doing their part) and a little bit of amusement to get full compliance.

And then came Dateline.

Now, with 24-hour news channels, we have exposés about everything under the sun.  And there is little that we love more than seeing the CEO of a non-profit go down.  So hidden cameras and gotcha moments and microphones stuffed into the face of people who are gaming the system... all part and parcel of our modern lives.

Corporate Stinkeye
And so begins a distrust of charity.  The mistrust does not only extend to the one charity who was exposed, but to all.  The underlying assumption now is, everybody cheats.  Only one got caught.

So the youngest workers tend to have no faith in the system we are in charge of pushing.  They are demanding; they want to see real results for what they do. They are ready to volunteer than donate, and they give the stink-eye to large, corporate-style fundraising.  Like what we are doing.

Unfortunately, the resulting harm is often greater than the benefit.

I am no homebuilder.  My volunteer hours are better spent apprenticing for a job where I show some aptitude - say, cleaning latrines or shoveling horse manure.  (Maybe removing bees from columns - but that one comes up very rarely in charity work.)  Any work I manage to accomplish will need to be re-done at the end of the day by a competent professional. (For a really good overview of the issue, check out the book Toxic Charity by Robert Lupton).

The best solution, then, is for me to give my time to those charities where I can make a difference.  Teaching, writing, and doing pro-bono archaeology (boy, that one just eats up all my time). And for those things that I care about where I do not have specialty, I give.

But how do I communicate that? How do I communicate the importance of giving to people who are unaccustomed to doing so?  And how do we give them the warm fuzzies that they want as reward for a job well done? 

My friend Suzanne Raether (it is decided - suzerainty will be my next word of the week) works with philanthropists, convincing them to provide money to benefit the city of New Orleans.  And she is amazing, doubling down, pushing for more, writing, asking, demanding, telling the story of why THIS donation is important. She meets them where they live - going to their desks - and in doing so makes it impossible to ignore her requests.

And she is wildly successful.  But it takes its toll on her, as well.  Some days, she looks to join me in shoveling after the horses.

Suzanne's majick, however, is in this: by 'coming to their desks', she not only makes them willing to give, she makes them WANT to give.  That is a rare talent.

And one that I am going to need to develop.

So I will be going to their desks.  Making it so they can't ignore me.  Cajoling, pleading, pushing, pressuring (but, I am told, NOT coercing) and trying to make it personal. 


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