The painted desk and our charity

I have a visceral negative reaction when I hear about “charity” these days. I’m not sure my reaction is either healthy or wise, but then again it keeps coming up. I can’t seem to escape it as I travel the country. Maybe someone can set me straight. Think about the following: • When I brought my daughter to visit colleges this past week, all the schools talked about “service.” Indeed, at one university, the tour guide proudly proclaimed that a few “needy students” are brought to the campus green every year to paint their desks with the help of college students. She beamed when telling us how great her fellow co-eds feel about the experience. • I am running into more and more people who have taken or plan to send their kids to Costa Rica (or some other destination) to build housing for the poor.

• During my recent visit to New Orleans, I was taken aback by the sheer size of that community’s challenge and yet how long it takes for a single group of individuals to rebuild a single home.

• A recent Google Foundation study noted that a significant portion of charitable giving does not go to people in need, but supports things like religious organizations (non-soup kitchen-type activities, like a concert I just attended) and people’s favorite local non-profits – all worthy causes, but many support of our own immediate interests and not the most needy among us.

These and other efforts lead me to a series of questions that I hope you’ll have something to say about:

• What happens when the efforts of volunteers get more emphasis than the people in need? This question is no red herring. Increasingly, for baby boomers and their kids (I’m just barely included in this group!), we’re told over and over that “It’s all about you!” and “We’re working hard to give you a great volunteer experience!” While it may be essential to find new ways to ‘hook” people into volunteering, we must not make volunteering the next new consumer-driven experience. It’s the person in need who should be the focus of our concerns.

• When people go to another country to volunteer, do they understand that needs exist right here in their local communities? I’m not saying that having an “international experience” is not useful or important. After all, the Peace Corps is wonderful and has been for years. But as I hear people talk about volunteering, especially for a week or so, it sometimes seems as if they’re going on a travel excursion or vacation rather than going off to help their fellow human beings. At times, we can sound on the verge of creating a culture of “designer volunteer trips.” What’s more, some of the same people who boast about their international volunteering seem to have little knowledge of the needs right next door.

When is volunteering important but not enough – and when should we push for change? Indeed, it seems that we can sometimes use volunteering as a way to put-off larger societal decisions that we need to make. Take the magnitude of the Gulf Coast situation: while individual volunteers are needed (and do incredible work), a larger collective response is required, too, if that area is to combat inadequate public schools, poor housing, and other ailments. I believe that citizen action in areas like the Gulf Coast, and in our own communities, is pivotal to bringing about real and sustainable change; but such action must be more than the kind of volunteering I’ve mentioned above.

• How should we think about the impact of our volunteering? Surely, we can talk about the personal and spiritual growth that occurs within each volunteer. I’m all for that; indeed, I have personally benefited from such engagement. But what about the impact on the students with the desks I mentioned earlier – while one or two, or even five, newly painted desks are all for the good, let us not mistakenly think that we’ve licked the educational problem in that or other communities. Nor should building a few homes in Costa Rica allow us to believe that fundamental issues in that area have been resolved. Instead, in our desire to help, in our genuine giving, we must maintain a clear sense of understanding in what we have achieved – and what remains to be done. My concern is that we sometimes allow the very idea and act of volunteering to lull us into a safe comfort zone in which we don’t have to face up to the larger change that is required in society. I’m sure some of us feel that we can’t effect larger change, so we’ll start by painting a desk or two. Then, at least someone is helped. True enough, someone is helped by such acts of kindness. And these acts help to make a better society, in many, many different ways. But when it comes to volunteering, I want us to be more forthright about our efforts and more focused on those people truly in need.