Those who have read this now-and-then series before might be interested in hearing about a friend who posted a story on Facebook.
He and his wife were pulling into the parking lot of a Florida supermarket and soon noticed a woman trying to flag them down. Their windows up and the AC on against the heat, they could not hear her, but assumed she was a panhandler. They drove on a bit.
They kept moving farther and farther away.
It’s a good thing the woman gave up, because (knowing him) he might have driven to all the way to Georgia to avoid her…but it turned out she was trying to alert them to the fact that they’d somehow left the gas cap dangling when they stopped for fuel on the way to the store.
Showing character, he sheepishly posted the story as a public mea culpa for trying to avoid someone who might have been in need, the obvious irony being that she was trying to help him.
But was he wrong in his reaction?
Understanding his plight, I shared with him the story of a young man who stopped me on Euclid Avenue in Cleveland with the tale of a broken-down car. Said vehicle was ten feet away and was occupied by a young woman and a baby. I gave him $20 and wished him luck.
However, six months later, same street, same spot, the same young man stopped me with the same story. Ten feet away sat the same car, the same young woman, and the same baby…………
Clearly I’d been had.
These stories raise a couple of related questions.
The first is when to help a person who appears to be in need, and the second is how to respond to those pleas from nonprofits we’ve never heard of, the ones we often encounter seeking donations in a supermarket parking lot, on a busy street corner, or in front of the train station. How can we know that either is legit?
Clearly, there are two sides to these equations. On the one side is human compassion.
Most of us want to help when we see someone in trouble. In a one-on-one situation, few are those who would willingly let someone else go hungry, stand in the snow without shoes, or sleep in a gutter. Our sympathy goes out to the homeless and the hungry. Our empathy moves us to want to help the disaster victim and those suffering in a variety of different ways.
Similarly, when we are asked to donate to an organization that claims to be providing gymnastics or other recreational opportunities for local kids, eyeglasses for veterans, or fostering services to the area’s homeless pets, a combination of human decency and civic duty often spurs a contribution.
These are our better angels, the reasons we give, whether to individuals or organizations.
But on the other side are arguments that range from what some might call hard-heartedness, to a skepticism born of experience, media reports, and a hefty dose of urban legend. Even public officials argue against the impulse to give to people who claim to be homeless, out-of-work, or needy.
Meanwhile, accounts of fraud, overpaid executives, charities that skirt the edges of illegality –and a healthy dollop of phony news on Facebook- combine to create resistance to the appeals of all but the best-known charities.
My Aunt Gina, Lord bless her, insists that “the grace is in the giving,” and that we should not be concerned over whether someone asking for help –or a charity seeking donation- is on the up and up. It is on their conscience, she says, if they abuse our generosity.
I am not sure I agree with her, but there are some interesting question to be asked about the things that make us give. For example, if we see someone asking for money on the street, does their race or gender matter? Does it matter if they’re young or old, healthy-looking or scraggly and weak? If they have a child or pet with them, does that change the equation? What if they’re asking for food outside a restaurant or fast food chain…does that make it easier to say yes? Why would many of us be more likely to give to someone in an impoverished country than in our own hometown?
Along the same lines, when we’re approached about donating to a local charitable effort, what matters? Is recognition of the organization’s name the most important deciding factor, and if the name and organization are unknown, what then? Does the neighborhood and population it serves make a difference? Is a donation more likely if the organization focuses on something we ourselves value?
How do we decide when to say yes and when to say no?
These are not easy questions to contemplate because many times when we impulsively give to an unexpected appeal, whether we hand $5 to the homeless person holding a sign in the rain or make a small donation to the organization going door-to-door claiming to be working to protect our community’s environment, there is always that tension between the feeling that we’ve done the right thing and the suspicion that we’ve been had. The reason we often turn away, rather than look directly at the person holding a sign asking for help and refuse, is precisely because it is hard to say no.
In the end, there’s no easy answer, but maybe my aunt is right…maybe the grace is in the giving. There is a place –particularly in our regular yearly giving- for being concerned with the big picture…with performance, outcomes, and bringing real change to a situation. But there are other times when simply being human is all we need do…..