Friday, January 21, 2011

But what about charity? Part 2

I began writing a few days ago about why I believe that charitable giving is not a substitute for robust government support, particularly when it comes to health care and mental health care.

In Part 1 of "But what about charity?", I noted that I've worked as a fundraiser for nonprofits for a decade, so I understand a lot about charitable giving in this country. I pointed out that the reason why charity alone is insufficient is because people's good intentions to donate or volunteer are often derailed by laziness or apathy, or are limited by very real barriers such as cost and time.

Why charity alone cannot address mental health needs

In this post, I'd like to address why charity alone can't address the needs of our mental health care system. In particular, I'd like to discuss a comment on another BlogHer blog, in which a conservative commenter said that in the wake of the Arizona tragedy, we should be looking at how to provide better mental health care in this country, supported by private funds. (emphasis mine)

My thought upon reading that comment was, "Private funds to meet the needs of the severely mentally ill in this country? Not likely." Working as a fundraiser, you gain an understanding of why people give to charity. There are several factors that inspire people to give, and unfortunately, mental illness lacks most of them. Please note, I'm not sharing these things to be cynical, just realistic.

Mental illness lacks the appeal of other charitable causes

1) People give to relieve urgent, immediate suffering. When people can visibly see suffering and recognize it as urgent, they are very motivated to give. That's why many people donate generously to provide aid after a natural disaster or tragedy--they know their gift will have an immediate and profound impact.

In contrast, the suffering of mental illness is often invisible, and both the conditions themselves and the treatment for them are long-term. People don't feel the urgency when they can't see the suffering, nor do they have the satisfaction of knowing that their gift donated today will relieve someone's suffering right away.

2) People give when the recipients of the gift are appealing. That's why programs that help young children or animals are often very successful in raising funds.

In contrast, many severe mental disorders such as schizophrenia (which some have speculated afflicted Jared Loughner) don't arise until a person is in their late teens or 20's. And the condition may make their behavior appear odd or scary--the very opposite of appealing.

3) People give when they are personally affected by the issue. Programs to support cancer care and research have been very effective in attracting donations in part because so many of us have been touched by cancer. When greater than 1 in 3 Americans will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime, virtually all of us will be affected by cancer in some way.

Mental illness, ranging from mild to severe, may impact Americans to as great a degree, but again, it's much more invisible. And it's much more stigmatized--you are much less likely to know that your neighbor or co-worker (or one of their relatives) has a mental illness than that she or he has cancer. Out of sight means that many people don't feel a personal connection to the issue, and are less likely to donate to it.

4) People give when there's a strong possibility for, and/or track record of success. This is crucial to my role as a fundraiser: I have to always make the case to potential donors why our programs are, or will be, successful. People want their money to go where they feel like it's making a difference.

Treatment for mental illness doesn't easily make the case for "success." Many mental illnesses affect those with them for their entire lives, and often the best one can hope for is to manage the disease, not to be cured. In contrast, many cancer survivors go on to live cancer-free for decades.

As a result, the treatment of mental illness requires public funds

These factors are why mental illness has usually been treated via public funds, such as Medicaid and state hospitals. Even private nonprofit providers of mental health services are primarily funded with government dollars, because people don't give to address mental illness the same way they do for many other causes. Perhaps the shootings in Arizona will raise enough awareness about the needs of people with severe mental illnesses that charitable dollars will follow. But there's no guarantee of that. In the meantime, should we just let people suffer?

Next post: charity and health care reform

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!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

UPS: 1; Fed-Ex: 0

UPS accepts used packing peanuts for reuse. Fed-Ex doesn't. 'Nuff said.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Cheap green tip: old socks = doll clothes

Are you like me? I have a bag of socks in my room, waiting in vain hope for their missing matches to turn up, or for me to darn them.

My mom gave my daughter a Baby Alive for Christmas. This toy has been around since I was a kid, but it still seems to be the rage among the 3-7 year old set.

Guess what? My daughter and I have discovered that old socks make great baby clothes! Cut off the toe, and then cut other holes for arms or legs, depending on what you want to make. My daughter's small socks make great underwear and tops, and my larger socks make great dresses, skirts and pants. And the cutoff toes can be used for mittens or socks--just secure to the doll's hands or feet with a small rubber band or scrunchy.

My daughter is now the envy of her friends, because she has the best dressed Baby Alive!