A rationale for giving

Autumn is a time for taking stock, for appraising the year's harvest, and planning for the months to come. It's the time for annual charitable appeals - invitations to the season of giving. According to a report this week, donations to the nation's largest charities dropped last year - for the first time in more than a decade. It makes me wonder whether, when it comes to giving, we're just fickle or are simply demanding that we get the most bang for our buck. How do we choose to apportion our bounty - and why?

I still have the yearly photographs of a Guatemalan child, Marta - her name was my name, too - who theoretically benefited from my monthly stipend. I hedge because I suspect my donation was distributed across the wider need, not siphoned to her alone, despite letters assuring me "estoy agradesido por su ayuda, patrino." (I am thankful for your support, sponsor.) It was not "You can help this child, or you can turn the page," but the idea was the same.

At first, she dictated her thank-you notes to an adult, who wrote them longhand, then translated them into English, while she added a colored drawing.

By the time she'd grown from a toddler to an adolescent, and was penning the letters herself, I'd begun to resent the extra requests from the organization for checks on holidays, for parasite treatments or water purifiers, for "no special reason," and for her birthday.

Nevertheless, my checks continued until Marta graduated. When the children's aid program sent another child's photo, I politely bowed out. I doubted the veracity of the one-to-one partnership that had attracted me initially, and the campaign for extra checks felt like a con game. I turned the page.

How and why we choose a cause, or drop it again, fascinates me, especially as the needs seem greater and time more fragmented. I often ask friends why they espouse the causes they do, but rarely are our answers clear. What tugs at our hearts - or purse strings - is complicated and sometimes unpredictable. It reminds me of dating, the way we fall in love with one good cause after another, and then get disgusted with them or trade them in for a newer, sexier model. The difference is that the good philanthropies never call. (I've been known to drop them, if they do. A warning about my low tolerance for phone solicitations is part of our early courtship.)

When it comes to giving, are we fastidious or merely fickle? I'm not alone in this struggle to define to whom we will give.

I've connected strongly with causes that benefit children. The volunteer hours feel worthwhile, the donations well spent. As our children expanded their horizons, so did we. I worked with libraries, youth arts groups, and environmental causes, and my husband was a coach and school-board member - predictable choices spanning the bridge between children and community.

We donate in memory of someone, for our future (clean air and clean water), or to protect an ideal - open land, women's issues, or freedom of speech. We might choose neglected causes, work-related causes, or efforts dear to someone we love. As a writer, I veer toward public broadcasting, civil liberties, and alternative news. Our choices define us.

Sometimes, we just wing it - but, why? Is it the "squeaky wheel" or a whimsy spurred by creativity?

We gave to a teen-parent program last winter because its "Night to Forget" campaign began, "You are cordially invited not to attend..." and then suggested we pay sums to rent no tux, buy no tickets, forget the sitter, and stay home. It was exactly what we wanted (not!) to do; and it was funny.

Some causes have charismatic leaders who tap our support. Seductive, also, was the YMCA, when it hired a big-name cruise-ship entertainer and our friend volunteered to be his onstage assistant. (It was worth every penny.)

Moving to an unfamiliar town, I worked with a local hunger organization. Sure, I believed in ending hunger, but I also wanted to meet my neighbors. Several years later, feeling less sociable, I dropped the group after a dinnertime phone solicitation. The group wrote me an apology, admitting that their invasion of my privacy was a regrettable error. But my fickle affections had soured.

As we mature, many of us experience a reversal, becoming stingier with time but more generous with money. I've learned not to volunteer on boards that really want my husband. I still favor small causes over big (no glossy brochures, please), local ones over national, and the underdogs over the giants. But some global issues (renewable energy, famine) now interest me. Gut reaction and passion still figure. When the giant Monsanto sued Maine's Oakhurst Dairy, trying to prohibit it from advertising its "Farmer's Pledge" not to add (Monsanto's) artificial growth hormones to their milk, I was incensed.

I love causes that have small actions - choosing Oakhurst products, resisting commercialism in schools, reducing holiday consumption. Likewise, as a board member, I favor tasks over mission statements. Take, for example, my newest passion - connecting adolescents with community service. Instead of "service learning and volunteering," we garden with kids for a soup kitchen. It strikes a stronger chord with me, because it seems do-able, just as helping one little girl seemed more possible than aiding all of Guatemala.

Will this be just another fling? Only time will tell.

Martha White is a freelance writer and editor from the coast of Maine.

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