Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Generosity and Guilt

It’s the holiday season and there are a lot of requests out there for “donations to a good cause.” The one that stands out immediately in my mind are the bell ringers with their trusty red buckets. Is it just me, or do they make you feel guilty? Have you ever noticed how they speed up the ringing of their bell as you approach? They watch you avoid their glance as you hurriedly walk by, and it feels like they are silently judging you for not dropping your loose change into the bucket! Oh, the pressure!

This feeling is made worse when I am walking into a store to buy gifts for other people, or better yet, when I’m shopping for something that is completely ridiculous and frivolous. Then there are the pleas while checking out at the cash register. “Would you like to donate a dollar to (insert wonderful cause here)?” Once again, it doesn’t help the feeling at all if I am buying something completely non-essential, or if there happens to be among my pile of groceries, say, 5 candy bars that I intend to squirrel away for those sort of days when chocolate fixes everything (and maybe shove 1 in my face when I get to the car...for good measure!).

When being confronted with an opportunity to give and I respond by not giving…it makes me feel guilty. I’m not the only one, right? I know it’s somewhat irrational. But I do feel the guilt. Well, at least I did.

If I had to pick between calling myself a giver or a taker, I would describe myself as a giver without hesitation. I give throughout the year – tangible items, money, time… All of these things go to worthy causes that I feel good about making a contribution to.
My husband and I both feel strongly about being generous whenever possible. This was something we talked about back when we were first engaged and were planning out how we would handle our finances as a married couple. It is still a part of our conversation today.

Over the past 5 years I have changed my views on giving money away without a second thought. Since our family has endured cancer, and now autism, I’ve learned that you really should research the organizations you give money to. It makes sense to know the organizations before you start handing over your hard-earned dollars. And, that means knowing them beyond just their name. Even though an organization has a particular keyword in its name or is the most recognized for its particular little piece of the charitable world, it doesn’t mean that’s where your money could have the most impact. If you look into some of those organizations you might find there are some less than savory ways your money could be managed. Unfortunately, there are many nonprofits that pour their donations into things that are less than charitable. And, I have to say, bigger is not always better. Sometimes bigger is much worse.

These days I try to focus on giving money to places that my family has had direct contact with or benefit from. I love giving to local organizations and churches that keep their money in my community and help those that need it here at home. I think this is a much better idea than funding an overpaid executive’s retirement package 20 states away. I like knowing that my donation will make a tangible impact locally.
Giving of my time is now the largest contribution I make. I don’t have much money to give (being the mom to 2 boys with autism is bloody freaking expensive!!!), so I give what I can, and that includes my time, energy, effort, knowledge and passion. I started volunteering about 4 years ago for the things that impact my family the most. And, it’s so meaningful! My hope is that it’s meaningful to many others as well.  
In the past year or so, I finally came to grips with my crazy guilt over not always donating to the cause that’s right in front of me. I am now okay with not being generous in every single moment. I still do give away money, when I can spare it. I also recognize that I am doing my best to be generous over time, and for the things that matter the most to me.
Want to know what I say to the checker at the grocery store now? “No thanks! I have my own cause to support. I have 2 boys with autism and they get every penny I have to pay for their therapies and treatment. Besides, I also run a special needs support group and nonprofit organization, and I could really use some donations for those things, too!” You would be amazed at how many business cards I’ve handed out and how many people I have talked with about autism in the grocery store after dropping a line like that.
And I think that’s something to be proud of. Guilt, be gone!  
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