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Saturday, September 12, 2009

When you're asked for a donation

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.


Anonymous said...

There's also the idea that people are 'raising awareness' for their charitable cause by doing these athletic endurance events. The press seems to like these stories.

Or the idea that an organization (like an athletic team) does some sort of endurance athletic event, either to raise money for itself, or to raise money for another charitable organization. The idea behind the latter is that the team doing the fund raising will get positive press from their charitable work, which they hope will pay off for them one way or another.

I agree with your assessment of this general idea, and also find it annoying.

And what is the logical connection between athletic endurance and fund raising? Would it make less sense to say that I am going to read 10 books that I'm interested in, and ask others to donate to my charity on a per book basis? Or that I am going to play 50 games of chess, please contribute something per game? Maybe I can surf for 6 hours straight on a good swell, and people can donate per hour that I surf.....

- Ed

John Craig said...

Ed --
Thank you for your comment. I agree, the whole "raising awareness" concept has always struck me as being of limited value.

The whole thing reminds me of these charity balls; the charity is basically just an excuse to party in a very self-indulgent way.

Anonymous said...

John, Great line, and I am going to remember it. I thought I was the only one who was offended by this stuff. Most of the people who ask me for donations(and the 150 other people they know) are quite comfortable. I just want to scream: Write a $250/$1000 check yourself! You can afford it!
To me it's in the nature of all the stories that we read in the local newspapers about people chairing committees or donating their hair -- looking for some kind of credit.

And don't get me started on the fact that you can't exit a grocery store anymore without some group trying to sell you a cupcake! Sometimes they even hit you up at the register itself: Would you like to contribute a dollar to the Jimmy Fund?

In a community like this where people can afford to do so, they should support their own children's activities. There is no need to stand outside a store begging for donations.

We are clearly in the mimority. Just be glad we don't own a store in town. Every one of our customers would feel entitled to ask us for a donation to their school, church, or other charity -- maybe all three. How about when the "charity" is the post-graduation party???? I have no objection to such an affair, but I think it is way over the top and I think it takes nerve to ask a local merchant for a donation to something like that. JulieM

John Craig said...

JulieM --
Thank you for your comment. We're in agreement, but I actually think there are a lot more people who feel like us than we realize; no one likes being hit up for a donation, that's human nature, but most people just silently do the polite thing and bear it. (I'm not so polite, at least not on this blog.)

I'm embarrassed to say my 15 year old daughter sells brownies etc. outside the upscale grocery store in town in order to raise money for the local animal shelter, or for the World Wildlife Fund. It's basically begging, but she seems to get a good response, and I don't feel it's my place to tell her not to. At least the people are getting a cookie or something like that for their money.

I can't believe that people ask for donations for graduation parties. Has that actually happened around here?

BTW, the Jimmy Fund stuff at the grocery store is mildly annoying, but I never have any problem saying no to people I don't know. It's the people I know that bother me, because then there's social pressure. It also bothers me that they obviously feel so smug about it, so convinced of their own righteousness. So unless I owe the person, I always ask for a donation in kind, to the WWF or some organization like that -- so that they can silently seethe along with me.

Anonymous said...

I've had several friends ask me to sponsor their participation in fundraisers for charities - typically marathons or half-marathons. One in particular comes to mind. She decided to run a marathon in Hawaii to benefit a children's advocacy group. All I kept thinking is why doesn't she take the money she would spend on airfare from Phoenix to Honolulu, and all the money she would spend on hotel and food and donate that directly to the charity? It would make much more sense, raise much more money and be a lot less annoying than hitting up your friends for the cause.

John Craig said...


Anonymous said...

Another take on athletic charity events: