So, here’s the scene:
I’m leaving my job at [Downtown Seattle clothing store] and walking home. Normally I put my headphones on before I’m even out the door, but I was distracted reading an email on my phone (that’s right, I’m a baller like that) and I just didn’t think. If this were a zombie movie, the camera would have lingered for a moment on my pocket with my inactive iPod inside, foreshadowing my dire fate.
I’m about two blocks away from the store when I spot her. She isn’t wearing one of those red or blue vests like many of them are, but she’s got the binder in her hand. She’s attempting to stop people, but no one is making eye contact. There’s no denying it, she’s one of them. Charity Worker.
And she has me in her sights.
I’m looking at my phone, but she has positioned herself right in my path. From a distance, I can feel her eyes on me. I can’t help myself, I look up and make eye contact. I should pull a Peter Gibbons from Office Space and just stroll around her, but I’m not that Jedi. I stop.
For the next ten minutes (not an exaggeration. Well, I don’t think it is. Time sort of stopped, actually), she fed me her reasons why, A) I looked like the kind of person she wanted to talk to and B) Why I would obviously want to jump at the opportunity to give. Man, did this chick have a lot of energy and gusto. She certainly made some mighty convincing points and had an answer for every objection, even when I wasn’t stating any objections.
It took about five “I’m sorry, I can’t”s before I was able to break free with a handshake and a begrudging smile.
Lyttleton 1, Charity Worker 0. Suck it poor children.
Here’s the thing. I agree with her cause. I agree with all the causes. The Red Cross? Sure, would love to give. Susan G. Komen for the Cure? Absolutely, I love titties. And this chatty woman’s cause, Children’s International? I think someone should, please, think of the children. So yeah, all worthy causes. And many many more.
My personal charitable organization of choice is Oxfam International, as I’ve discussed before. I’ve given to lots of charities in my time, and I know I have because my email inbox is full of requests asking for more.
I’m not writing this as some way to assuage guilt for not having given to that woman’s cause.
I’m also not writing this to lay out my perfectly sound, guilt-free reasons for why I didn’t give.
My choice to not give in that instant doesn’t need justifications. I give when I can, I don’t when I can’t. I’m no great humanitarian, I know this. I yam what I yam.
The Street Sales Pitch
One of the great tools of these types of charity workers is manipulating cognitive dissonance. Once they spot you – the promising mark – on the street, they play up the fact that you are obviously a cool, decent person, and so you’ll want to give to this cause. And why wouldn’t you give, you might not be rich, but you could certainly afford $25 a month, right? By the end, you have either succumbed to the guilt and given, or you have walked away feeling shitty about yourself.
Win / Win.
It’s nearly impossible to walk through downtown Seattle and not be stopped by one of these charity workers. On any given day, there are at least three different organizations trying to raise money. That doesn’t even include the countless homeless people asking for change with their signs and cups or extended palms. Short of burying your head into your chest and blasting music on your headphones, there really isn’t a way to make it through downtown without somebody hitting you up for money.
When you live in a city long enough, you learn how to cope. You ignore the homeless or get good at unapologetically telling them ‘No.’ As for the charities, people have similar strategies of ignoring them, but there are also other ways to get around them. Most just sort of point to their watch (or really just their wrist, because who wears a watch anymore?), indicating they’re in a hurry. Some say, “I already give,” whether it’s true or not. Urban living is a bit like maneuvering in a minefield, there’s always someone trying to take your arm and your leg. That metaphor probably doesn’t work.
I believe in giving to charity, I absolutely do. But I’ve gotten to the point where I detest this form of collection. I get why organizations do it (guilt is a powerful motivator, especially when it’s in your face), but it’s a very disingenuous way of engaging with the public. I’ve already been held up twice by this sort of sales pitch (actually, three times if you the count running into the same guy twice), and each time they’ve tried to play it up like we’re friends, like we were all on the same page and (this part is implied) unlike the rest of the assholes on the street, I’m one of the good ones.
They always ask what I do before they go into the sales pitch, and invariably when they hear about the 10 Cities Project, they say something like, “I knew you were different, I could tell. You’ll definitely be interested in…” and then they go straight into their prepared speech. They weren’t really listening to me. I could have explained how I arrange illegal cockfights and they would have still gushed about how perfect I was for their cause.
I’m completely in support of these causes, and even I am turned off by these tactics. I can only imagine how someone who isn’t predisposed to help would react to this sort of blatant manipulation. I’m sure it works for these charities (or they wouldn’t pay to have all these people on the street), but I find the whole thing distasteful.
Reasons Not To Give
People really don’t need any additional reasons not to give, they’ve usually got their stockpile.
Some like to argue that charity is bad, that it makes people lazy and that no decent person would accept charity anyway. I find that to be a very nihilistic view and a weak argument, besides. I don’t think charity makes people lazy when the charity is dispensed in such a way to encourage self-reliance. There are plenty of charities that give assistance by providing work or educational opportunities, and in fact, I think most charities attempt to build or maintain infrastructures for long-term growth.
The other common argument that sounds convincing until you think about it is worded a bit like this: “If you give to one charity, why shouldn’t you give to every one? Would you have us all be broke so that no one was well off?” Essentially, the suggestion is that it is logically inconsistent to give to one deserving person and not another, and so if we follow that logic, eventually we’ll have to give away all of our money and we’ll be just as poor as those we’re helping.
These arguments against charity (and social welfare, for that matter) are profoundly stupid.
Here is a simple way to live a sustainable, happy American life with your morning chai latte while still helping out your fellow human being: Give to causes you believe in when you can. When you can’t, or just don’t feel particularly invested in a cause, don’t.
It’s a pretty guilt-free way of living. I think most people, if they have any decency in them, will have some cause in their life that they want to give to. I’ve known people who scoffed at charitable giving but then they’ve had a family member get cancer or a child be sick and, what do you know, suddenly they’re asking for a donation to whatever group helps with that illness.
For some people, charity will always be a bad thing, until they need it.
For the rest of us, it should just be a part of who we are. Not because God tells us, or because we feel guilty if we don’t, but because helping someone who needs it is one of the most enriching ways to live.
But the next time one of those charity workers tries to stop me, I think I’ll just walk right on by.