Charity begins at home, with real concern and play money

Along with the avalanche of Christmas catalogs come the Christmas charity appeals. There are envelopes, brochures, booklets, and letters, each making its case for a worthy cause.

I'm always torn about what to do. There are charities and organizations I've supported for years, and yet new ones appear with other ideas about how to respond to the many needs of the world.

Years ago, I heard about a woman raised in a wealthy family. Although they had a foundation for giving out grants, the real process consisted of family members sitting around the kitchen table, deciding to whom to give our money.

Our family is far from wealthy, but I thought we might be able to do something similar, if more limited.

I baked Christmas cookies with my daughters, who are 9 and 11, for a good part of the afternoon. After supper, I got about $300 worth of Monopoly money and laid it on the floor.

"Pretend this is real money," I said. "Your job is to figure out who to give it to." I put out a small stack of fundraising letters and brochures. "What should we do? We can give it all to one group, or spread it around. You decide."

I summarized the mission of each group, and they began to read through the stack. We had Oxfam; our local community center/food pantry; the public library; Heifer Inc., which gives farm animals to needy families to help lift them out of poverty; UNICEF; and SEVA, which helps relieve suffering among indigenous groups around the world.

The discussion was fascinating. They liked the specific gifts of Heifer, in that they could give chickens or part of a goat. But they didn't like the idea of giving rabbits, which would be eaten for meat. (We keep rabbits for pets.) They wanted to give a lot to the library. Cerisa said, "One book is more than $20." But her view changed when we talked about how the library is also supported by tax money.

Oxfam's brochure mentioned building houses in Afghanistan. Calli said, "Houses cost a lot." Her argument was successful, and Oxfam got the largest share. But they decided to give each group something. They shuffled the money around, giving more here and taking some from there as they talked, until they both were satisfied.

Throughout the process we talked about the needs, and our own relative position. Both girls help collect food pantry donations on our street every month, and we talked about how hungry people are close by, as well as far off in exotic locations. The discussion was lively, and they took it very seriously.

Once all the money had been allocated, I wrote the checks and they helped fill out the forms and stuff the envelopes.

I wish we had enough money to give hundreds of thousands of dollars. The problems of the world seem larger every year, and there are so many organizations worthy of support. But even if we had that kind of money, the struggle would be the same. Why this group, why not that one? Next time, now that my daughters understand what we're doing, I'll ask them to bring their own ideas about where to give, and I'll ask them to put in some of their own money as well.

I put the Monopoly money away, and we settled together on the couch, to eat cookies and to watch "The Muppets Christmas Carol," which seemed all the more poignant in light of how we had just spent our evening.

Stuart Stotts lives in Madison, Wis., with his wife and two daughters.

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