Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Philanthropy Thursday

"You must be the change you want to see in the world."--Mahatma Gandhi

I was in the grocery store tonight. I needed some light bulbs and thought I'd shop for the dinner we're hosting tomorrow night. My cart was laden with wine, good cheese, organic fruit, chicken, and ingredients for dessert. As I stood in line at 9:30 in the evening, I waited while a young mother ahead of me struggled with her purse. Her two children were beside her, their eyes heavy looking and I wondered if it was past their bedtime. I looked at her items. White bread, a gallon of generic whole milk, and a five pound bag of russet potatoes. My reverie was broken by the curt words of the checker. "Your card's declined."

I froze. What could I do? I wanted to offer to pay for her paltry fare, but the last thing I wanted to do was embarrass or shame her. In those few wasted seconds, she hesitantly took out what was clearly a credit card and handed it to the checker. It went through, and she was on her way.

This happens all the time where I live. Maybe it does where you live, too. We're just a few miles from the Navajo Reservation, and the poverty there is astounding. It is a third world. And it is a black mark upon every American citizen, if you ask me. There are people everywhere struggling to feed their families; sometimes it's obvious, and sometimes we have no clue. There are probably women blogging today about some funny thing their kid said and failing to mention their need.

What should I have done? How can I quickly face a situation like that in the future? How do I avoid coming off as an over-privileged asshole who is showing off and expecting thanks and instead more like a woman who simply wants to lend another woman a hand? What do you do in situations like this? If you suddenly were handed the keys to a large charitable foundation, how would you disperse the money? Why?

If you would humor me, and help me out, I would be really grateful. So grateful, that I'll enter you in a drawing to win a beautiful "Be the Change Cuff Bracelet"(winner to be announced this weekend). With the purchase of the bracelet, The Hunger Site funds 25.0 cups of food. More importantly, it is a lovely reminder that in order for our world to change, we have to change. I want to. Do you?


Nancy said...

It's called thinking fast.

I would have said, something like:

"You're not going to believe this, but I was given XXX amount of $$$ by our womans church group with the task of using it in some way this week to help a person in need. Please help me complete my task and allow me to pay for your items."

Sure, it's isn't the truth, but like you said, the point isn't to embarrass her. Giving her an out by implying this opportunity would be helping YOU, it may have worked.

mjd said...

You present an interesting and what might be heart-wrenching dilemma. Since she had another credit card that was not declined, you made the right choice. If the second card was declined, perhaps then you might have offered assistance.

As far as a large charitable foundation...well, that is another dilemma. Would it be best to concentrate on immmediate needs, or would it be best to concentrate on long term solutions? Since I cannot decide, I am going to invest half of the funding in feeding the hungry and the other half of the funding on education. Additionally, my foundation will cut overhead costs so that more funds go to those in need.

Jessica @ A Bushel and a Peck said...

I think Nancy's reply is a great idea, although I don't know that I would have had the presence of mind to come up with that. As for a charitable foundation--I have often wodered this myself. If I had the means, how would I pick one thing when I see so many areas where people need help??? But I think I can safely generalize my foundation down to this--helping children in need. Whether they need clothes, food, a stable home--I would direct my money toward giving children in need a chance to grow up and become successful adults against the odds that face them.

Mary Alice said...

My foundation would provide parenting education and support within communities. It is only through supporting parents in their efforts to raise children who are kind, patient, empathetic, peaceful, problem solvers, (and that are ready and able to embrace the opportunities of education) that we can look forward to new generations that will be a positive change in our world. Parenting is not necessarily an innate quality. Parents need effective tools for parenting and emotional support as well.

painted maypole said...

I think i would have offered to pay for the food. It may have been embarrassing for the mother, but I think that more likely she would have been pleased and relieved by your generosity, and I would say that the positive possibility outweighs the negative one. Perhaps phrasing it in a "let me get those for you - sometimes those credit cards can be so finicky" way would be a way to soften the blow - not mention her need and yet take care of it at the same time. Or even just a simple "please, I would be honored if you would let me pay for those" (sort of like Nancy's suggestion of taking the focus off of her need, and onto you wanting to do it)I don't know for sure what the right way to do it is, but those are some ideas.

The big foundation question is a toughie. There are so many things in our world I want to fund... homes for the homeless, art education in schools, ending violence, safe places for victims of abuse, the rebuilding of New Orleans... How would I pick one? Oh... to have the money and have that dilemma!

I wrote my own Philanthropy Thursday post today! (well, late last night...)

Lisa b said...

Oh wow. That is a tough one. I just wanted to comment as now that you have brought this up I will know what to do if the chance comes up for me.
I like painted maypoles idea - I would commiserate and say 'oh I hate it when that happens' and offer to 'lend ' her the money. That way she can save face in front of her kids. You could give her your phone number, or a wrong number so she could ostensibly pay you back. I suppose it is just creating another lie but people do have to have their dignity.

theflyingmum said...

I wonder if you could ask the cashier (after the woman was out of the store) to void the woman's credit card transaction, and put her groceries on your bill? It would be totally anonymous that way.

Crystal said...

Tears just well up in me thinking about this. Being raised by a single mom with we had very very little money to get by on sometimes. I can remember putting things back after the total rang up and we didn't have enough money to cover it all.
I think I would say, "Someone helped me out when this happened to me one time, can I please offer to help you out now?"
The bracelet is beautiful. I am going to go buy one. If I happen to win the drawing I will pass it along to someone I know who is having a hard time right now.
I will be dropping off 10+ bags of clothes at GoodWill for Philanthropy Thursday.

flutter said...

I think the answer is to act locally. Knowing what you do about the hunger in the Navajo portion of your community, perhaps seek out a food bank that would be interested in starting a program (or maybe has one) to help with that need.

I love food, and am a bit of a foodie, and so I like to volunteer at our local foodbank to help out. Small and incremental changes in one's community on an individual level often results in sweeping change.

No amount of help is too small. Nothing is too inconsequential.

Dinsdale said...

Next time try something like this:

Just hand her a $20 saying "we've all been there". If she objects, wave her off saying "when you see someone in a jam, help them out"

It has the benefit of being the truth (we've all had trouble) and giving her respect and dignity.

About the Foundation? I work for a charitable foundation (not one of the biggies) and it's the small things that make the big differences. Things like recreation programs for kids who don't have any outlet for their energy or a place to belong, breakfast programs in schools so kids aren't hungry (parents can volunteer and then they get fed too).

andi said...

I love that quote. And I have no idea what I would have done in the same situation - I too would have been worried about embarrassing her, but also wanting to help out.

secret agent said...

I would surely have froze
worried about shaming her
but you are getting some fantastic suggestions here.

I like the pay it forward one best.

and thanks for the sweet comment today

Queeny said...

In this case, you were wise to wait. Many a "privileged" person has faced the embarrassment of having a credit card denied.

On the other hand, Flying Mum makes a good suggestion. An anonymous gift would spare the young woman any humiliation.

But I suppose you're wondering what to do in a situation where there was no alternate form of payment. I would offer to help by understating her need for help and not being pushy. I'd say something like:

"May I be of some assistance? I'd be glad to cover your costs to keep you from having to go all the way home for money."

I might even offer my phone number and say, "You can pay me back later," to keep her from feeling like it's a handout. Of course, I wouldn't accept or require reimbursement.

Fairly Odd Mother said...

Wow, tough situation----I think that if her credit card hadn't worked, I would've offered her some money. I couldn't have let her leave with those kids and no food. I love the idea of asking the clerk to anonymously void out her transaction so that you could pay it.

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dawn&brian said...

Wow. Funny, earlier today I was whining because I had to pass up an expensive pair of shoes I do not need. THANK you for this post - I needed to be put in my place.
I'm not sure if this would be at all possible: but if it is a small town and you could get her address, wouldn't it be so much fun to deliver a big bag of groceries to her doorstep periodicaly and annonymosly? Since it is a whole community that struggles like this - maybe you could hit ramdom houses weekly. Or donate to their community church or school, encourage them to start a food shelf if there is none.

jen said...

am i ever late to the party on this but i love this post. i've been in this situation before and i've offered to help. and i ask them to pass it on.

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