Giving to the needy is supposed to be a virtue. Indeed, it’s once of the sacraments of most religions. In our venal world, being charitable — sharing with those who don’t have what you have — is akin to secular holiness. How much someone gives to charity is a powerful if imprecise barometer of how good a citizen he is, particularly when he is on trial for corporate malfeasance. Giving to charity is a curiously efficient way to absolve oneself of a multitude of sins.
Professional sports organizations like the PGA Tour, an immensely profitable business based in Florida, generate tens of millions of dollars for charity. The NFL’s chief charity beneficiary, the United Way, banks even more. (Which is useful, since the officers of the United Way must keep fuel in the private jet and fresh wax on the chauffeured Town Car.) A key part of these sports presenters’ business model is how much they “give back” to the communities that enrich them.
We believe this impulse is a good one, and we try to make it part of our everyday life. But we don’t give a penny to charity.
The business of charity offends our sense of decency. Knowing that people are earning salaries — some of them enormous — for “servicing” those less fortunate than they gives us pause. Knowing that portions of every dollar, sometimes half or more, are going not to the intended recipient but to pay the mortgage and buy the Bordeaux for the administrators makes us realize that most charities are just as much in business to make the giver feel better as they are to make the world better. Harper’s reported that precisely 11% of every dollar earned from the NFL’s pink merchandise benefits breast cancer research.
Recently, the Times reported that a fellow named Yonken, famed for organizing gala charity events around America featuring the imprimatur of celebrity, had actually been pocketing much of the proceeds intended (or so the donors thought) for needy children and the like. Even more scandalous was the revelation that big name stars like Bill Cosby, Ray Charles and Natalie Cole were being paid $75,000 and more to show up at the events. In the case of Cosby, he has supposed to have been paid $85,000 to collect a Humanitarian of the Year award. And yesterday we learned that the venerable Salvation Army, the one with the bell ringers outside your supermarket, had spent nearly half-a-million dollars to renovate the Santa Monica home of one of its Captains. One is tempted to do some quick division of these sums to ascertain how many Christmas turkey suppers could be served to homeless folks were the money used appropriately.
As appalling as these examples seem, they’re not unusual. Every charity is a business – which, like magazines, serves both sides of the market, the advertisers and the subscribers. We know of one charity that’s in the business of putting on charity events. They are the creator, sponsor, and 40% beneficiary of the money that flows in. A Harvard MBA started this charity, and he’s probably onto something.
So what’s to be done by those of us who recognize the essential goodness in helping others but refuse to participate in the nauseating charade that is American charity? Instead of writing a check, we can do something. We volunteer one day a week at our local library teaching illiterate adults how to read. And on one other day we visit hospitals and nursing homes with our therapy dog Ella, who asks for no compensation other than a friendly scratch behind the ears.
We say it’s time we stop congratulating ourselves for throwing money at the ravenous gullets of charity businesses. It’s time we got off our butts and really helped someone in need.