Working with the Emerson Waldorf School's annual fund has led me to meditate long and hard about the virtues of charitable giving. I remember Augie Turak often said that everyone should being a salesman at some point in their life, because it would give them newfound appreciation for human nature and the process of persuasion. In the same vein, I think everyone should at some point try to raise money for a cause they believe in. It forces you to think about money, and your relationship to money, and how that relationship to money influences everything else in your life.
I was surprised to learn that philanthropy is a predominantly American phenomena. While most other developed nations have more extensive government involvement in taking care of their own people, America is unique in having a culture that gives away a lot of money. That makes sense -- in the same way that we like having a free market of goods and services, we like having a free market of social causes. Rather than have the government decide what's best for everyone, we vote with our dollars, supporting the causes we believe in, and persuading others to do the same.
And yet, giving money is not something that comes naturally. I would like to think of myself as a generous person, and yet looking back I realize that it took me a long time to learn to give. I have vague memories of my mother giving me money to put in the church offering plate, but I don't think I ever seriously considered putting my own money in the plate when I was young. Money was for saving, or money was for spending, but giving it away was completely foreign, something other people did. Even after I left home and was independent, that frame of mind continued for a long time; if someone hit me up for a donation, the same mental barriers that protect me from retail salesmen and Amway pitches would come slamming down: no thank you! Not interested! Go away!
Eventually, though, I was exposed to charity through necessity. Working with the Self Knowledge Symposium in college, I needed to pay for posters, and the only way to do it was to pass the hat. Well, no, actually I would rather have washed cars or sold donuts or do any other kind of fund-raiser, rather than walk around the room and ask my friends for money. But Augie insisted on having a collection from within the group, and for good reason. Giving money, even a dollar or two, has a tangible psychological effect. You might have thought that you really cared about it, before, but once your money is involved, suddenly you care about it more. We got money lots of other ways, of course, and lots more of it, too . . . but I understand now that people's hearts follow their wallets. They value what they pay for, and they value even moreÂ what they give to.
Once that donation-barrier had been broken -- once I had given money to a cause I believed in, and asked others to do the same -- now suddenly the whole world of charitable giving opened up to me. Something had flipped inside of me; instead of grudgingly surrending my cash, I wanted to be a person who gave. The similar parallel attitude emerged in me with volunteerism; the SKS immutably turned me into a lifetime volunteer. I think people who freely give their time to benefit the collective are superior human beings. I think people who don't are, like the Grinch, living with hearts two sizes too small.
I started giving to other causes. I think I started with WUNC, my local public radio station. Then came my schools, and Mepkin Abbey, and some small magazines. They were small gifts, but regular, and eventually, routine. I was in the habit now. It took a few more years until I became a tither -- charity was now a part of my budget. I really wish I could say that my expanding giving was the result of my expanding generosity, but really it was the other way around. The act of giving turned me into a generous person.