Earlier this week a friend asked me (and a lot of other people) to "sponsor" him in a half-Ironman Triathlon, a fundraiser for melanoma research. This is a guy who -- even though we're not close friends -- has done me favors in the past. So I gladly parted with a little money.
But if you're like me, you find most such requests highly annoying. You have to either say no and look like a cheapskate, or part with money for a cause you probably have no interest in. It's an unpleasant choice.
It has become a tradition for these requests to be coupled with participation in an endurance event. I've never quite understood the logic there: you're running a marathon to prove something to yourself, to be able to say you completed one, to lose a few of your extra pounds, and because it is good for your health -- so therefore I should pay money to your favorite cause?
I always want to tell these people, if you feel so strongly about this cause, instead of training for the marathon, just get a second job and contribute all the money you earn from that.
There was a local 70 year old who several years ago became the oldest man ever to swam the English Channel. He had asked for contributions to a church in Haiti beforehand, and, just because swimming the Channel at his age would have been such an incredible feat, I gave. He made it. I was all set to make him one of my heroes, but when he came back, he just wouldn't stop talking about his swim. This made him something of a local joke. Every time anybody talked to him, he would always manage to segue onto the subject of his glorious conquest. When he went to parties, he would bring a tape of his swim, and insist that everyone watch. He would carry his photo album around and show it to everyone he met. He became utterly intolerable.
It finally dawned on me that this guy was so insanely egotistical that he needed to think he was doing it not for his own glory, but for a noble cause. In fact, he didn't seem to really care about the church all that much, because he never mentioned it after his swim; all he talked about was his swim. But he sure seemed to care about his self-image.
Maybe I should subscribe to this logic, and ask people for a contribution to a fund for abused children every time I do a particularly hard workout. After all, it does hurt. And how much more noble would it make me feel to think that I was suffering so that those poor children could have a better life. It would almost be as if I were Jesus Christ on the cross, suffering for others' sins.
I honestly think that a milder approximation of that line of thought goes through the minds of many who ask for a contribution in the name of their athletic endeavor.
(By the way, the fellow doing the half-Ironman is not like this at all. He doesn't pretend to be noble; if anything he exults in his occasional naughtiness. He is the opposite of the Channel swimmer.)
I used to work in an office where coworkers would come around soliciting donations for their favorite cause on a regular basis. I eventually developed an impregnable defense. Whenever someone would stick his hand out, I would reply, "Sure, I'll be happy to give a hundred dollars to [your cause], if you give a hundred dollars to [my favorite charity]." They would always look discomfited, but of course had no choice but to say yes. After all, they had started out by asking me for money, and they would have looked really hypocritical by turning me down. And I would still look good since I was, after all, willing to give. I would then give a hundred dollars less to my own charity at the end of the year, while that charity would still receive, either directly or indirectly, the same amount I had originally intended to give. And at the end of the year I would only be out that same amount of money.
The net effect was that the person asking for a donation would effectively end up donating the money going to his own cause himself -- which is the way it should be.
I alerted my coworkers on the trading desk to this tactic, and eventually people learned that if they came around to our desk asking for a donation, they would get their money -- but it would cost them.
As long as you don't feel you owe the person soliciting, I recommend this tactic to you.