Yesterday I walked into the Citizens Against Domestic Violence office and saw a few boxes of blueberries, an unidentified melon and about 1000 over-ripe bananas. That’s a lot of bananas. CADV accepts donations from local grocers and sometimes they end up with a lot of one item. They are very grateful for the donations, but it got me thinking about times when I’ve been in need and times I’ve donated items.
This post is the result of personal reflection that I wanted to share. Many years ago when my older daughter was being treated for cancer, we received many gifts of stuffed animals- no where near 1000, but more than my sick baby daughter could really appreciate. I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but what I really could have used was a home cooked meal or a break from the hospital. I don’t want to malign the organizations that raise money to give teddy bears to sick kids, but there are other things that may be more effective and cost about the same, or even less. I see the same thing now for women who are diagnosed with breast cancer.
Of course there is no rule that we have to give anyone anything, especially strangers. Maybe you’ve been in this predicament with family. Maybe as a young person, struggling to get your career going, you received a very generous but ultimately useless gift. Of course you appreciated it and really, that’s life. You hopefully recognized that you are lucky to have someone care about you.
Problems arise when there are strings attached to gifts, when the gift maker wants to be seen as a great benefactor and responsible for your success, or when you still are left wanting but precluded from asking for appropriate help. The generous gift maker can be left feeling devalued, bitter or even angry about the unused gift.
We regularly make donations to the Goodwill with clothing that my girls have grown out of. I’m pretty sure they get used, but it’s obviously a benefit to me as well because I don’t have to worry about what to do with excess stuff. I am sure the bananas were given for similar reasons. A grocer had bananas they could no longer sell, but it seems a waste to chuck them in the garbage. So why not donate them? There’s really no problem here. It is true that now CADV’s office is full of fruit flies and I have no idea if they actually had time to do anything with the bananas before they became inedible. Still, they take what they can get and I know they are grateful.
They problem for me is when a person or a company wants credit for these throw away gifts, and I’m not talking about a $20 tax deduction for donations to the Goodwill. It makes sense to sweeten the pot for people who could just as easily throw their old clothes or bananas into the garbage. However, entities are taking advantage of tax deductions for throw away items or misleading people about the nature of their philanthropy. 1000 bananas is no substitute for real financial support. At a personal level, those who donate throw away items without recognizing that they also received a benefit, or without a sense of humility or shared humanity, can become smug, bitter, cynical, hopeless or apathetic.
Charity is a gift from the heart. There are many reasons to give, and not all of them are selfless ones. As long as we understand that, I think we’re OK. We can have a personal investment in the success of a family member we help, we can have guidelines for how we’d like our donations to be used. We also have to be open to understanding that we don’t always know what’s best for others. Ultimately, we should also be open enough to offer what people actually need and not what is easiest to give.