Charity or Moral Judgement. You choose

CharityCharity, and socially pressured charitable giving is something I’ve found unique to the US. Back in the UK, charity is limited to fun runs, random treks across weird places and the bi annual ‘bring and bake sale’ for the local church roof.

See in the UK, there is a welfare state so most citizens don’t need a food bank. In fact, I’m not sure if they even exist over there. I never heard of them and we weren’t exactly shopping at Whole Foods/ Waitrose back in the day. While people are definitely in need in the UK, charity is more invisible, maybe less urgent(?) because the state takes care of so many basic needs. You know, the things Uncle Hairdo (aka Mitt Romney) thought weren’t ‘rights’ for the basic American; food, housing, water, healthcare. In the UK (and most if not all of the EU), the state takes care of the poor, the sick and those who can’t provide for themselves. So charity.. when it happens, tends to be oriented towards those causes which – lets be honest – while important, don’t mean the difference between kids going hungry and not.

Having grown up in a country where charity and charitable donations were optional, often linked to a medical cure, support or local community needs, charity wasn’t something I thought a lot about. I gave when someone rattled a tin at me, I contributed my $25 to anyone who ran a marathon (god bless their insanity) and willingly brought and bought cakes to fund local village needs. But I’d never, ever, been pressured into giving until I moved to the US.

Now charity is defined as ‘ benevolent goodwill toward or love of humanity’ and ‘generosity and helpfulness especially toward the needy or suffering‘.

Charity is not defined as ‘being made to give to a worthy cause or be judged as a terrible human being’. But apparently some people have forgotten this.

My first interaction with charity was via my (then) companies annual ‘United Way’ campaign. I noticed the posters around the office and thought ‘oh, how lovely, they raise awareness for those in need as a company’. How benevolent.

3 days later I received an email from my office lead noting that ‘you haven’t yet contributed to the United Way campaign’ and noting that ‘While charity is a choice, as a company we aim for 100% of our employees to participate in this event’.

Wow. It didn’t seem like much of a choice, and the tone of the note certainly wasn’t benevolent. More ‘The Krays’ than ‘Kris Kringle’. But, being me, tell me I have to do something and suddenly my heels develop crampons and I’ll obstinately dig roots in my refusal to participate.

The next note raised the level of threat to ‘orange’ by reminding me that ‘Here at <>, we pay our employees extremely generously’ and that the requested contribution of $25 a month was ‘a trivial amount’ that would make a ‘huge difference’ to the campaign (and, I’m assuming their participation %) while having a ‘negligible impact’ on my net pay.

Now this was back in the 90’s and $300 was a huge number to someone who’s monthly rent was $750, but I’m guessing the partners at the ‘generous’ company didn’t factor in that not everyone was taking home 6 or 7 figures every year.  I dug in my heels even further and decided to proactively boycott United Way (and the corporate ninnies who were driving it), by donating my money directly to people I could see were in need.

Aka. Bums.

Denver is filled with homeless people. Drug addicts, drunks, mentally unwell folks and kids who’ve escaped who knows what. Sleeping under bridges, in doorways and sadly, under bushes in my local park. All of them could use something and I decided that my $25 a month was going directly into the dirty, shaking hands of someone who wasn’t strong arming me into giving. Screw United Way. Screw corporate ‘giving’ campaigns. And if I chose to hand out ‘after tax’ profits without a thought for the tax implications (gosh.. I could have saved a whole…ooo. $30 on that $300) then I consider it giving just a little bit more.

Its not the giving that I object to. Its the strong arming. The moral judgement being made. All so that can say ‘we donated $X to United Way in 1996’ in their recruiting brochures and sales pitches. But how much of that came from the actual company itself? 1%, 2%… 3% if you’re lucky. So my ‘generosity’ is being used to pimp the company’s image? Grrrrrr.

Which brings me to this weekend when I was asked to donate at the checkout counter not once, but three times. At the same store. My the same Whole Foods checkout clerk.

‘Are you able to make a charitable contribution to the local food bank today Miss?’


The phrasing ‘are you able?’ prompts me to announce to my fellow shoppers that I am not only able to pay for my overpriced local, organic vegetables, but hey.. I’m loaded dont’cha know? Saying ‘no’ would be the equivalent of admitting ‘actually I’m not sure if my debit card is even going to pay for these suckers’ and who’s doing that in a line full of well dressed, Lexus driving neighbors.

Never mind that I spent my summer gardening, growing local organic vegetables specifically for a local food bank (we donated 2,500lbs of fresh produce over a 10 week period).. if I say no, my fellow shoppers look disdainfully at me and my cashier doesn’t even try to hide her embarrassment at my lack of warm heartedness.

So instead I say ‘sure’ and donate my $5. Hating her. Hating the line of people all sagely nodding ‘ah.. a good person’ even though I might be going home to whip my children with these local carrots and chastise my dog with a parsnip.

Whole Foods prides itself on ‘giving back’ to the communities that it serves, but when every shopping trip turns into a moral adjudication of my charitable spirit, I’d actually rather that they didn’t involve me in that. They’re not giving back. I AM.

And I’ve chosen my choice. I chose to donate directly through actual food. Which I did. All summer. So while I still hand out my $5s and $10s to people on the street and feed those rattling cans at Christmas, if anyone else asks me if I am able to donate while I’m buying some Dawn and toothpaste, I think the only legitimate response is ‘Bah humbug’.




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