Complexities of giving

As a child growing up in the poorest county in Ohio, Julie Salamon received early lessons in giving. She watched her father, the only doctor in their Appalachian town, treat patients who could not afford to pay.

His example served as "silent encouragement" to her. As a teenager, she began volunteering as a candy striper at the hospital, helping patients.

"It was part of the ethos of the place," Ms. Salamon says.

It was also the beginning of a lifelong commitment to giving, and to considering what it means to reach out to others.

For one source of guidance, Salamon turned to a 12th-century philosopher and physician, Maimonides. Known to his followers as Rambam, he devised an eight-step blueprint for giving. She outlines his program in "Rambam's Ladder: A Meditation on Generosity and Why It Is Necessary to Give" (Workman, 2003).

Ranking at the bottom of Rambam's charitable ladder is the donor who gives grudgingly, with the hand but not with the heart. On the top rung is the giver who helps others to become self-sufficient. Those who give before being asked rank higher than those who wait to be asked. Giving anonymously trumps giving with a name attached.

Americans think of themselves as generous. They reach into their wallets at a rate more than twice that of Britons, Salamon notes, even though roughly the same percentage of people in both

countries - between two-thirds and three quarters - make charitable contributions. After Sept. 11, giving became an immediate, reflexive act, prompting an unprecedented outpouring of generosity in the United States. But a year later, Americans' levels of giving had largely returned to normal.

Whatever rung of Rambam's ladder a person occupies, the desire to give can be fraught with complexities. Even Salamon acknowledges the confusion she has experienced over the years during encounters with a New York panhandler named David.

Initially she refused to give him money, encouraging him to seek help from the Bowery Residents' Committee, an organization helping homeless people in New York City. He ignored her suggestions. Eventually, when he desperately needed food, she began buying him an occasional meal or slipping him five dollars.

"David is a reminder that I need to think about these things," Salamon says. "He doesn't let me avoid it."

As the mother of a 14-year-old daughter and a 9-year-old son, she knows the importance of starting early to instill an ethos of giving. When parents volunteer at their children's schools, or at synagogues or churches, she explains, children see that as something pleasurable, not as a chore.

Her own example includes years of volunteering at the Bowery Residents' Committee, including serving as executive director.

"You can tell somebody to do something until you're blue in the face, and that doesn't mean they'll do it," she says. "It's like teaching your children how to play chess or classical music. You actually have to do it yourself. You have to engage with them. It doesn't guarantee that they'll do it, but they'll see that it's a positive part of your life."

As would-be donors consider how to give with compassion and common sense, questions abound: How much should I give, and to whom? Do I give locally or globally? With conditions attached, or without? Anonymously or publicly?

Three of Maimonides' eight steps involve anonymity, shielding the identity of the giver or the recipient.

Salamon calls the question of anonymity "very crucial," describing it as "a metaphor for thinking through the giving relationship." One woman told Salamon that not being identified freed her to give.

Salamon sees suspicion - the concern that charities will take advantage of donors - as "a huge barrier" to giving. Fear also serves as a deterrent.

"We live in an atmosphere that the economy may be good today but not tomorrow," she says. "People are afraid. 'If I give something away today, will I be taken care of tomorrow?' Yet they don't go through that same process if they're standing in a store and deciding whether to buy an extra toy or sweater."

Confusion raises another barrier as solicitations clog mailboxes every day. "You may be asked to give to poor people, to medical research, to the arts, to your kids' schools, to foreign aid," says Salamon. "What can happen is, you end up giving to nobody, because you feel so overwhelmed."

Overcoming those feelings involves sorting through requests and making thoughtful decisions, she says. Narrowing the choices helps donors to become engaged.

Giving in a conscientious, conscious way brings rewards and forces people to participate in the world,

Salamon says. "To give is an act of confidence," she adds. "When you give, you do get something back."

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