Wednesday, January 19, 2011

But what about charity? Part 1

Or, "Why charitable giving is not a substitute for robust government support!"

I'd like to spend several posts addressing health care reform and some thoughts I have about Jared Loughner and the shootings in Tucson. My thoughts came together after reading a comment about the Arizona tragedy on another BlogHer blog. The commenter noted that she was conservative, and said that rather than focusing on whose rhetoric is to blame, we should be looking at how to provide better mental health care in this country, provided by private funds. (My emphasis added).

While I agree that we should consider how we can better help people with mental health problems, I want to address the "provided by private funds" part of her comment. I have worked throughout my career for charitable nonprofit organizations, and for the last 10 years, I've worked in charitable fundraising. I think it's fair to say that I know quite a bit about the possibilities and limitations of charitable giving.

People often don't follow through on their good intentions

I'd like to share a story I read once in a Christian inspirational book. The author described a study in which researchers called several hundred people randomly from a phone book and asked whether or not they'd be willing to donate blood if a blood mobile were to come around their neighborhood. A very high percentage--perhaps 80%--said yes.

The researchers then waited a month or two and called these same people back, telling them that a blood mobile was coming to their neighborhood, and asking them if they'd like to schedule an appointment to donate. Only a fraction of the people, perhaps 10%, agreed to actually donate.

The author of the book used this example to make the point that people often overestimate their own goodness, while underestimating their need for a Savior.

While I agree with the author's conclusion to some extent, I believe the reasons that many of those who expressed willingness to donate didn't follow through are more complicated. A commenter on another (non-BlogHer) blog criticized liberals' "pessimism about human nature--they think people won't give or help their neighbor, so the government has to do it."

What he called pessimism, I call realism. Many people's good intentions are derailed by the human weaknesses that plague us all, such as laziness or apathy, or their good intentions are limited by very real barriers.

Blood donation: a personal example

I'll use a personal example of blood donation. I have O negative blood, so I'm a universal donor. This means that I get called all the time (sometimes as often as every week) with requests for me to donate blood. An individual can give as often as every 8 weeks, or about 6 times per year.

Although I give blood regularly, the most I've ever given was four times per year, back when I was childless. Now as a mom, I donate blood once or twice a year.

Why don't I give more often, when I know that there are many people whose lives could be saved by my donation? Sometimes it's because I get lazy or apathetic. But often, it's because I encounter barriers to donating. For example, I may be sick or I've just had an immunization right around the time I'm eligible to give again, both of which mean I'm not allowed to give at that time. (I have frequently had bouts of bronchitis that lasted weeks or months*; and I believe you have to wait a month after an immunization before you can donate). Also, blood mobiles and donation centers are often only open during hours when I'm at work or taking my daughter to her classes, or they're located too far away for me to get to.

I've shared pretty openly on this blog about some of the barriers I've encountered to going green. Those same limitations (cost, time, access) that prevent many of us from living as green as we want to often affect our ability to give to charity.

Next post: how the limitations of charitable giving affect mental health care for people such as the Arizona shooter.

* I have previously posted about my recurring problems with bronchitis. Well, I've now gone 12 full months without any serious cases of bronchitis. Yay, Emergen-C!

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