Thursday, December 18, 2008

Six Month Reflection

Saturday will be my VISTA six month mark, and I think that warrants some reflection. I don't know if this is the most important thing I've learned so far, but I've been thinking a lot lately about how to stop treating potential recipients of donations as hypothetical people.

I used to say that everyone at some point should be required to work some awful job in the service industry, maybe even with periodic temporary reminder sessions, so that nobody forgets that people behind counters are real people, too. I'd like to add that everyone should spend at least a day processing charitable donations, because a donation bin is not a dumpster with less guilt. I've treated it that way, and I'm going to stop and think before I donate. There are real live people who receive these things, and real, live people who handle every item.

1) I'm going to stop donating unwearable, unrepairable clothes to Goodwill. Somebody who sorts that stuff will throw it out if I don't. Their dumpster is no better than mine, and it's not like I don't know a million ways to recycle a pair of jeans.

2) Furthermore, I'm going to give thought to where my donations go. I know a VISTA whose position was designed partly because disorganized Katrina relief meant that in response to requests for clothes, several truckloads of winter coats made their way to the Gulf Coast. This was way more than a mere inconvenience for volunteers and recipients.

3) I'm going to follow the rules and write something worth reading when writing letters and greetings through some kind of service. I sorted a ton of Holiday Cards for Heroes yesterday, which involves reading every message on every card, blacking out contact information and sorting out questionable messages. Programs like this is not an appropriate venue for shameless promotion of your youTube channel or fanatic proselytizing. On the other hand, write more than just your name. What would you want to read from a stranger if you were in Iraq?

4) I will never again designate a cash donation. It is not easy to earn unrestricted funds of any kind, and the indirect operating costs (salaries, building utilities) are just as essential as direct expenses (program materials). If I trust and admire an organization enough to donate in the first place, it makes no sense to decide that I know more about what is needed than the people who actually work there.

That's it for now, I guess. Charitable donations can be neither when they're poorly planned, and it's too bad that telling donors that is such a sensitive issue. If you've never waited tables, you may not realize that it's easier to deal with an even $5.00 than a tip for $5.34 (at least in my opinion). If you've never had hundreds of completely useless magazines from the seventies crowding your office, of course you won't think about what happens after you drop off all the stuff you found in the attic of your relative with the hoarding problem. Philanthropy is no good without some logic behind it, and more people need to start thinking about what they don't know.


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