Home Commentary The Way I See It: Giving Circumstances

The Way I See It: Giving Circumstances

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In her later years, when she was still living alone, my mother was beset daily by calls from people trying to separate her from her money. I’d warned her about scammers who asked for bank account and credit card numbers, but it took me a while to realize that the greater threat was a range of obscure charities who called to chat her up and convince her to part with $10 or occasionally $20.

In particular, a plethora of so-called law enforcement, veterans’ charities, and Indian schools homed in on her once she’d started to give. They’d send her thick envelopes full of greeting cards and address labels, certificates of appreciation, dish towels, calendars, and dream catchers. Once she gave, they’d sell her information to others, who’d call and sweet-talk her out of another $10 or so. These small donations began to add up. Once her dementia advanced to the point where I took over her checkbook, she’d tell these predatory “charities” they had to call me, her “financial advisor,” to see about a donation from her. They never did.

My mother donated because she genuinely wanted to help people, because it was hard for her to say no to these nice folks who called her and told her how important her donation was, and because their calls alleviated her loneliness. She once gave to a charity because the caller was a polite lady with a British accent, which literally spoke to her own Scottish origins. “British people can be scammers too,” I said, but it didn’t stick.

I got to thinking about this at Christmas when I was making our household’s own charitable donations. Were my motivations any more rational and results-focused than my mother’s? Though our retirement income and giving capacity are limited, her death a year ago left me a modest inheritance that allowed us to give more for this one year than we had in past years. And it coincided with a series of disasters and crises that created huge hardships and suffering for so many.

If you’d asked me why and how we make decisions about charitable donations, I’d have said that we focused on meeting basic needs in our community. You can’t begin to function as a human being if you don’t have enough to eat or a roof over your head or access to medical care. Hence, we give to local homeless shelters, food banks, and free medical clinics.

But when I looked at the actual pattern of our household’s giving over the last few years, a different picture emerged. Most of our giving went to alleviate disasters, whether natural or human-made. In 2022, our largest single gift went to help the people of Ukraine, victimized by an utterly unjust war. The next largest category was social and economic justice with a focus on women’s rights and needs, particularly in light of that year’s Dobbs vs. Jackson Supreme Court ruling. Our conscious priorities of food and shelter came after those.

This past year, it was all about the Montpelier flood. We returned from my mother’s burial in Scotland to find our beloved downtown and its many businesses ravaged, the streets silent and heaped with debris like the aftermath of a battle. Half of our giving went to help downtown and its businesses, many owned by people we think of as friends, recover.

A sad new category crept in last year: tribute gifts to organizations fighting the diseases that killed close friends — pancreatic cancer, in two cases — or helping to fund health care for deserving individuals fighting a lethal condition with limited resources.

And once again, helping those victimized by war — Ukrainians, Gazans, refugees from all over — seemed more urgent than our “ordinary” list of donations. After that, though, our priorities largely held — shelter and food for those in need came next, but social justice and the environment edged out basic healthcare on our giving chart. Happily, we were able in absolute terms to give a bit more this year in all of these categories.

What I take away from this: If it’s something I witness personally, and people I care about are hurting (the flood), or if it generates a sense of righteous outrage over some wrong done to one group of people by another (Ukraine, Gaza, Dobbs), I’ll be more motivated to send money than if it’s a situation of chronic, ongoing need. Yet those ongoing needs reflect the structural injustice in our society and our economy. That makes it harder to think that our donations make a difference, but it doesn’t make them any less crucial.

“The poor ye shall always have with ye,” the Gospels famously say. But I don’t think that means you should give up doing what you can to change that. I’ll be keeping that in mind when the season for giving comes around next year.