June 20, 2011
Worth Reading: Walkathons and Excuses to Give
I like good editorials and sometimes pretend to be a good editorial writer myself. That's why I still read newspapers, actually. I can get all the news pretty easily from TV or online, but a good, thought provoking editorial can only be had in an old-fashioned newspaper. I just hope newspapers are still around when my kids get older. Anyway, an interesting op-ed in Sunday's NY Times opines that people give when, curiously enough, selflessness coincides with self-interest. Seems oxymoronic to me. But if true, maybe the charitable contribution deduction is unnecessary, except or even (I don't know which) for the very wealthy who can give large enough to purchase a quid pro quo from the gift -- a naming opportunity for example, or some advertising in the case of what we wink and call "corporate sponsorships." But for individuals, who give small gifts, what's the real incentive when most individuals can't take a tax deduction and don't get something named after them? The op-ed below excerpted below makes sense to me even if it seems ultimately to conclude that people give because they are truly altruistic.
Not long ago, I stood on a corner near my home and watched as some of the 42,000 men, women and children participating in Boston’s Walk for Hunger strode by. Their 20-mile round-trip trek was a success, raising $3.6 million for food banks. It was as if, by burning calories, they were feeding the hungry. Still, the logic that united the walkers, the donors and the hungry mystified me. After years of witnessing such events I still wonder why we must be a nation in motion to secure aid for the needy. Why are benefactors moved by the sight of urban hordes headed for the suburbs and back? Why do such exertions trigger the charitable impulse? What I saw that morning in Boston was a resource diverted from its true purpose. Imagine those 210,000 man-hours (42,000 times a five-hour walk) put into direct service to benefit the poor. Think of the houses that might be built, roofs repaired, gardens planted and harvested, public spaces improved, and meals delivered to shut-ins. (And add in the efforts of the 2,000 volunteers that day and the contributions of 50,000 donors.) Now multiply that by the millions of man-hours that are represented by such events in cities across the nation, from Los Angeles to Louisville, Ky., from Austin, Tex., to Grand Rapids, Mich. In the charitable ritual that has evolved, two sides expend energy, but only the sponsors’ efforts directly aid the poor. The others’ is pure sweat equity that goes nowhere but down the necks of the participants. Consider, too, the public resources expended: the rescue squads and medics along the way, the police sealing off urban arteries, the snarling of traffic. We tie our cities in knots. Enduring such inconvenience is what each of us gives to the cause. I do not question the sincerity of the participants, but in these mass mobilizations I see many lost opportunity costs. I recognize the value of exercise and companionship, but question why society values these schemes. The easy explanation, of course, is that there would be no giving — or not nearly so much — without the walks. Fund-raisers recognize that the nobility of giving is often stimulated by activities that conjoin the selfless with self-interest. For giving, we often offer value received. Raffles and auctions and naming rights are among the inducements used to win support. But that’s not what’s going on here.
June 20, 2011 | Permalink
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The reasons for walks, runs, golf tournaments, dinners and galas, etc. to assist non-profits are focus and facility. Focus in that there are multitudes of great non-profits and legitimate causes to support. Activities such as these bring specific causes to the attention of the participants and the observers and provide information about what can be done to ease the travails of others. With respect to the manhours spent in these activities that you argue could be more effectively contributed to direct aid, I respectfully disagree. We are no long an agrarian society and we have an incredible diversity of skills and experiences. No longer can the neighbors get together and build a barn in a few days. However, we can give our financial resources that can provide the goods and services critically needed in a more skillful manner and in a manner which helps the economy in general. Certainly, we often use non-profit causes as an excuse to engage in fun and frivolity, but this works in many situations.
Posted by: Lynn Moore | Jun 20, 2011 12:37:27 PM
Its not my argument. I am just the messenger. But I do think your argument actually supports the author's point while making the additional assertion that the phenomenon is not unique to the nonprofit sector.
Posted by: Darryll Jones | Jun 21, 2011 6:05:40 AM