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Life Arts    H4'ed 11/13/13

What Is a Moral Person To Do?

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   Jerome Richard


Much of the criticism of the Citizens United case has been aimed at the corrupting influence of the large amounts of money flooding into political campaigns since that 2010 Supreme Court decision. Voting 5-4, the Court held that corporations, non-profit associations, and unions had the same First Amendment rights as people. What this Voltaire-like decision amounted to was a declaration that both rich and poor were equally entitled to contribute as much as they wanted to political campaigns. Contributions could be made directly to candidates or indirectly through issue-oriented advocacy organizations (PACs) as long as they were not "directly" supporting or opposing a candidate for office (wink, wink). The result was that the 2012 election was the most expensive in history, fueled by contributions to these non-party organizations, with the bulk of the money going to Republicans. ( See )

The ruling has had a corrupting influence on politics, but there has been another, little-noticed effect of this ruling. While the large bundles of money going to political campaigns from corporations and political action committees probably do not exclude charitable giving, many of the smaller contributions from individuals surely do. The appeals from national and state party committees, senate and house campaign committees, individual candidates, and non-party political actions committees are sapping donations to charities and donation-dependent publications.

Notice for example the increasingly frantic tone of appeals labeled "Urgent!" "Reply by ..." "Emergency appeal." They arrive not only by regular mail, but by telephone, e-mail, and solicitors at the door. Television channels and radio stations that rely on donations seem to spend more time fund raising than programming. Since the recession most people are not as well off as they were before so money is more scarce, but the frenzied tone of so many appeals is certainly driven as well by the increasing competition for donated dollars.

  Yesterday I received appeals for donations from three organizations finding cures for various diseases, one that provides food for hungry people, two that work for peace and/or justice in different parts of the world, a disaster relief organization, my alma mater, and two appeals from political organizations. This was a little more than usual, but not by much. Appeals by e-mail pretty much doubled the total. Most weeks bring that many appeals, and then there are the phone calls, the kids who knock on the door, or the homeless people on the downtown streets. I would like to contribute to every one of them, but I cannot afford to in any meaningful way. What is a moral person to do? How does one choose between world peace and saving the environment, finding a cure for Parkinson's Disease vs. Alzheimer's Disease? Will my money do more good in the hands of a homeless person or contributed to a local arts organization?

It used to be easier. I would give to the organization researching a cure for the condition a close friend or relative had, but as one gets older the variety of afflictions of one's friends and relatives grows. And then I developed kidney disease. Should the Kidney Fund therefore take precedence over the Heart Association?

I am at the point now when if a donation seeker calls (I usually avoid them thanks to caller id, but it sometimes fools me) and asks for a contribution, I say, "Instead of whom?" That usually ends with them settling for a small donation, as if willing to split my available charitable funds with the food bank or the Red Cross. The requests on forms that come in the mail generally start these days at $50 and go up to four figures. Even the suggested donations to the March of Dimes begins at $15. Of course, there is always an "other---" box if you want to be even more generous, or if you are chintzy enough to offer less.

Then there are the guilt inducing "gifts" that come with some appeals. I have sufficient return address labels to last me another lifetime, and enough notepads to write another novel. Anyone want three 2014 calendars? Today a charity upped the ante with a calculator, a pocket notebook, a sheet of return address labels, and a certificate of appreciation. I have also been the guilt-ridden recipient of an "Indian" dreamcatcher (made in China).

The worst part of this charity assault is how cynical it is making me. Last week an appeal arrived with a penny attached. Cheap skates, I thought, other charities include a nickel, or even a dime.

Cynicism is a defense against self-loathing when I have to discard a plea bearing a picture of a young blind child with the reproachful slogan "Help me see!" because I have already stockpiled more appeals than I can ever get to in a significant way. If my candidate loses a close election, is it because I did not donate enough?

It would probably do more good to save up and contribute five hundred or a thousand dollars to one or two organizations rather than twenty-five or fifty to a couple of dozen, but I can't bring myself to do that. Conscience is already beginning to mock my efforts.

In 2011 there were 1.1 million charities and charitable foundations registered with the IRS under Section 501 ((c) (3). That represented a drop from the previous year, but a sharp increase from the 626,000 registered in 1995. Of course, appeals also come from many unregistered sources: temporary appeals to help a destitute family, car washes to raise funds for school programs, bake sales to help pay someone's medical expenses.

As I contemplate the pile of envelopes pre-addressed to various charities, I have to consider not only which ones seem most urgent (all of them), but which ones will make the best use of my modest contribution. Some spend most of their income on administrative expense or fund raiser's commissions. CNN reported on a charity (Disabled Veterans National Foundation) that was supposed to help veterans but which actually lost money because the expense of raising funds, conducted by a professional fund raising company, exceeded the amount of funds raised.

Fortunately, there are a couple of charity watchdog websites that help make that decision. The most comprehensive is charitynavigator .org . They currently rate 5,500 organizations that seek donations, 1,600 of which receive four-star ratings. That's a good way of narrowing down my choices, though many of the 3-star charities and some of those not rated also deserve consideration.

My political contributions go, I believe, to candidates who will advocate for government aid to the needy. Meanwhile, there is the ten-year-old girl at the door selling cookies to raise money for her school library. What do I tell her, that it is more important to elect senator so-and-so?

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Jerome Richard is the author of the novel The Kiss of the Prison Dancer, and editor of the anthology The Good Life. He presently works and lives in Seattle.
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