Saturday, March 10, 2018

Trolling for Charity

If you are young and poor and just starting out, should you be donating to charity?

I get lots of e-mails, and I cannot possibly answer them all.   Many ask for advice, which I am loathe to give.   Usually, the person asking for advice, by typing up the question in detail, ends up answering his own question, so I don't have to.

I also get trolls - or at the very least, odd questions.  A reader, for example, asks how he can make enough money to retire at age 26.  "After all, why wait until 40, when you're old and decrepit and can't do anything in life!"   Which oddly enough is a good point, and one reason I decided to quit early, while I can still do things in life, as opposed to this "I'll work until I'm 70" nonsense, that usually doesn't pan out anyway.   So even trolling questions are sometimes good ones.

The latest is, "How much should I donate to charity at age 22?" which is an interesting question I have addressed before.   He says he gives money to the occasional panhandler, but wonders if he should be giving more to a charity?  Well, if you want to help the homeless, it is probably a better idea to donate to an organization that helps the homeless rather than hand a drug addict $5 to spend on crack.   There is even a better idea, which I will go into at the end of this piece.

Charity is an interesting beast, and not as simple as it would appear at first.  It is tied up in shaming, damning and other irrational behaviors, as well as status, believe it or not.  And the organizations you are donating to may not be what you think they are all about.

The short answer, in my mind is this:   Leave money to charity in your will.  This is the money "left over" from your life that you cannot spend.   You may need this money during your lifetime, but if you don't spend it, donate it to charity.  There are many advantages to this strategy besides the primary one I just stated.  For starters, since you are giving a large lump sum, you will be lauded and heralded as a great person and likely something named after you - or at least your generous sponsorship noted on the wall of donors, or NPR's "sponsorship" advertising bits.  On the other hand, giving $10 a week barely qualifies you for a free tote bag.

At this stage in my life, I get a lot of pleas from organizations asking me to remember them in my will.  They aren't interested in some $25 check - they want the big enchilada.  My former schools regularly send me things - even telling me they can provide helpful advice on how to structure my estate to donate to them.  How very thoughtful of them!  But in terms of charitable donations, it makes sense, from a logical perspective - donate at the end of your life, not the beginning.

Because at the beginning, you are likely a charity case yourself - or at least in a far less position to be donating to a charity.  Yet, oddly enough, many young and poor people do - and I did, as well.  Not only did I give to charities like United Way, I also worked the annual fund drives at GM, Carrier, and the equivalent program at the Patent Office.

My interest in charities soured a bit after the head of United Way was convicted of spending charity money on limousines, hookers, and whatnot.   This was after many controversies regarding politics as well.  United Way divided up the money received (what was not spent on limos and hookers) and gave it to such disparate groups as Catholic Charities (who were anti-abortion) and Planned Parenthood (the opposite) or the Boy Scouts of America, who were anti-Gay, until they changed their mind, and pissed of a different group of donors.   You can't win in the charity game these days, as everything gets politicized.

Many religions say you should donate to charity and that it is a "duty" of the religion.   And this is convenient to them, as often the charity they specify is the religion itself.   Every religion has some sort of donation box or tray or whatever, which is a sure sign it is a religion.   That's why I find it hilarious when people criticize Scientology for "taking all your money" - that's what religions are supposed to do!

But it gets murky.   You donate to an Islamic charity, and you find the FBI is knocking on your door, because it turns out you funded a terrorist cell in Syria.   Or maybe just a Madrasa run by some pedophile Imam who teaches young orphan boys nothing other than memorizing the Koran, which trains them for little else in life than to wear a suicide vest.    Lest you think I am taking a piss on Islam, the Catholic church, at least until recently, wasn't much better.

Vetting a charity is time-consuming and difficult at best.   Even the best charities have highly paid organizers and employees, who often are worried more about their own perks and survival of the organization than its original mission.  And those are the legitimate charities out there, not the outright scams where they take 90% of the money and pay themselves with it.

Volunteering is another way to "donate" time to charity, but it has its own perils as well.   I noted before that a friend volunteered at "Mama's House" - a free lunch kitchen for the poor.   But as it turned out, it was just a free lunch for people who didn't want to pay for lunch.   Since they don't ask you how much money you make (that would not be Christian!) they feed anyone who shows up.   And people in the neighborhood, who are not poor, decided that hey, a free meal is a free meal, and the line went around the block.   Young workmen would drive there from the jobsite and scarf up a free sandwich and coffee.   As it turned out, there were few homeless "bums" in line, and an awful lot of well-dressed and overweight people.

A similar thing happened at the "food bank" which collected food in boxes for "the poor".  A Cadillac Escalade pulls up and the couple in the front hits the power tailgate release and says, "put it in the back!" as if they were talking to the bellhop at the Waldorf.   They drive around the block and come back and demand a second box of food.   When told "only one to a family!" they point out that the couple in the back seat is a different family.   And again, the Christian thing to do, is to just shrug and give them the food.  Christians are real patsies sometimes!

Anyway, my friend gave up on volunteering at that point.   But there are other perils.   Another friend volunteers at an organization and worked like a dog there.   Pretty soon, they were calling her night and day and asking her to "fill in" for people who were too busy to show up (they had a golf game, right?).   Worse yet, no matter what she did, some other member of the organization would critique her work, as if they were her boss and she was getting paid for this.

So she decides to step back and take some time off, do less work, and let others do their part.   And you can guess how that played out.  They called her a "quitter" and said nasty things about her behind her back and even threatened to blackball her from the organization!   Volunteer work can be very dangerous to your mental health.   All I can say is, if you volunteer, set boundaries and limits very early on - ask what tasks you are being asked to do, and make it clear that you will only do so much and no more.   And if they have a problem with that, well, they can find someone else, right?

As I noted before, charity is tied up in a lot of emotional issues, and one of them is status.   People donate to charity for status, believe it or not - which is why every charity has a "wall of donors" with their names on it.  Or the names of donors in the program at the opera or symphony.  Or the name of the donor on the side of the hospital wing or school building.  People want recognition for their charitable deeds, and indeed, that is one primary reason they donate.  When you donate to a charity, you elevate yourself to a certain level or class of persons - an upper class of persons.

For example, when Mark worked at the Lighthouse, one of the biggest headaches was the donors.  They had their "wall of honor" of course, with their names on it - so that they saw their name chiseled into marble every time they visited.  But every year, there were a number of functions that were designed either to raise money or to recognize donors.   And these often would be black-tie, catered events that cost a lot of money - money that basically the donors paid in.   And even though it was for a charitable cause, some donors would complain about the quality of food and drink at the events, if it was not up to snuff!

These cocktail parties and dinners, of course, served a social and status function.  The "who's who" on rich people's island had their own little club, and the price of admission was donating to the charity.  Myself, I found this aspect of charity fascinating.

Because if you think about it, if you really, really were being charitable, you'd get nothing out of it, not even status.   Your name would not appear on the program, the wall of donors, or on the cornerstone of a building.   You would not be lauded at a luncheon, or have your name in the paper.   And of course, few people donate this way, because getting good press out of a charitable donation is half the reason rich people do it (the other half is tax deductions).    Charity is one way for rich people to groom their image, particularly after they've done some pretty odious things in life to get rich (which is why Silicon Valley Billionaires set up charities).

In every James Bond movie lately, it seems that the evil villain has his own charity and charity ball, which Bond slips into, in order to spy on the villain.  Even the writers of these Bond films are in on the gag - they've likely been to one or more of such events, themselves.   And this brings up another aspect of charity - control.   You see, when you run a huge mega-charity, like the Clinton Foundation, not only do you do good deeds and get lauded for being charitable, you also get to direct a big part of the world's wealth into areas where you feel it should be spent - often on things that may profit you, directly or indirectly.   Mark Zuckerberg offers "free" internet service in third-world countries, so that people will sign up for Facebook.  How charitable!

But even for people who don't get their name on the "wall of donors" there is a status aspect to charity.   I've run into many a pious and self-righteous person who tells me they are better than other people, because they donate to charity and they care about other people.  The folks who don't donate or volunteer?  They are bad people who should be damned or shamedYou know the type - the "how dare you?" set.

But getting back to young people and poor people donating to charity, perhaps the old saying "Charity begins at home" should be taken to heart.   Because quite frankly, the best thing an individual can do for society is to not become a burden to society itself.   Work for a living.  Save up money.   Find a spouse and be kind to them.  Raise a family of children who will not be scarred by their childhood.   Those are all charitable things to do, which incidentally, like the black-tie gala charity ball, will also incidentally benefit you.

Donating money to charity while you are heavily in debt makes no sense at all.  Tithing to a mega-church while you carry a balance on your credit card - particularly if the pastor just wants a new jet - is also idiotic.   Fulfill your part of the unwritten social contract before you run off trying to save the world.   Because the last thing we need in this world is another victim to support, which is what you will make yourself, if you give all your money away to charity, instead of fully funding your 401(k) plan (as well as living within your means).

Maybe, later in life, if you become wealthy, you can take advantage of those tax breaks you get from donating to charity - as well as the social and business advantages.   Because those breaks often don't apply to the middle-class and certainly not to the poor.  No, you don't get a "write-off" for donating your car to charity, at least not much of one.  And with the new tax law, maybe not even that.

At the beginning of this piece, I mentioned there is something you can do, that basically costs you nothing (directly, anyway) to help the homeless, poor, and disadvantaged.   And it is something far more powerful than even the largest charity in the world.   What is that something?  Vote.

Yes, vote.   You see, the largest "charity" in the USA isn't the Red Cross or United Way, but Uncle Sam, who runs a plethora of charitable causes, from Social Security, to Food Stamps, to subsidized housing, to welfare - just to name a few.  This "safety net" helps more people than all the other charities combined.   And some people are not happy about that.   The Republicans would prefer the government got out of the charity business, or at least that this money be given to churches to pass out to the needy (provided they attend a prayer service first!).

Maybe the government is inefficient, but often its efficiency is higher than many of these "Charities" which pay enormous salaries to individuals to operate them.   And if you think about it, employing some GS-3 government clerk to administer a charity program is, in effect, charity itself.  That's one less person unemployed.

I noted in an earlier posting about a quote from Oscar Wilde on Socialism.   He posited that the evils of capitalism cannot be cured by the evils of capitalism:
"There is also this to be said. It is immoral to use private property in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institution of private property. It is both immoral and unfair."
I'm not saying I agree with his critique completely, and my views on socialism and communism are not positive at all.   But he has a point that is worth considering - it is really "fair" that one person, like Bill Gates, makes billions of dollars saddling us with a shitty operating system - one that was thrust upon us by default, due to clever business dealings and sheer luck in signing a lucrative contract with IBM - and then we petition his charity for relief, so we can get some of these billions back?

That is the conundrum.  Back in Wilde's day it was far worse.  Industrialists controlled huge swaths of the wealth of Great Britain. They paid their workers poorly, and they had to work in unsafe conditions. Often these workers in the mills were mere children.  They then hand out pittances to work-houses and poor-houses to show their great philanthropy and what wonderful people they are, when in fact, the concentration of wealth in their hands is one reason why others are so poor.

One reason - not the only reason.  Which is why Wilde's argument is worth considering, but hardly tells the whole story.

Ultimately, whether or not to donate to charity and which charity to donate to is a very personal decision you have to make for yourself.  And by personal decision, I mean personal.  If your church or other organization tells you to donate a certain percentage of your income, that is not really charity, that is being strong-armed. And 10% of your pre-tax income is certainly a huge chunk of your overall wealth, particularly over time.   I would find a cheaper religion, myself.

It is OK to take care of yourself, though.   Please do so, in fact.   Each person who gets a job, pays off their debts, funds their own retirement and stops suckling at the government teat is one less person we have to support.   And if everybody did this, there would be little need for charities.