Sunday, December 30, 2012

Holiday Giving

Mark Zuckerberg’s recent $500 million donation in Facebook stocks to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation created a stir in the world of philanthropy. The Facebook co-founder was following up on his pledge to donate half his wealth to charity as part of the “Giving Pledge” campaign inspired and promoted by billionaires Bill Gates and Warren Buffet.
Reading about mega-donations by billionaires can cause the average American to suffer from some kind of an inferiority complex. After all, in these difficult times, many Americans will be hard-pressed to come up with a $500-dollar donation to worthy causes.
A perspective comes from Ted Turner. Fifteen years ago, in September of 1997, the billionaire Cable News Network founder made a “spur of the moment” gift of $1 billion to the United Nations for programs to help refugees and children, clear land mines and fight disease. It was the gift that launched not a thousand gifts but several high-profile multi-million and billion-dollar gifts from entrepreneurs like Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and now, Mark Zuckerberg.

Talking recently to the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, Turner said that people should not be overwhelmed or intimidated by the dollar amount donated by the rich. “You don’t have to have any money to make a difference; you can pick up trash walking down the street, and I do that all the time,” he said. “You can volunteer your time. You can be a big brother or a big sister.”
This is a deeply moving and practical dvice. The key words are “making a difference.” After all, anytime we donate even a dollar, we fervently hope that it will have the maximum impact for good in the recipient. The most common mistake we make is to think that unless our charity is a hefty amount quantifiable in dollars or pounds or euros, it will not make a difference, even though, intellectually at least, we know better. This is the unfortunate byproduct of minds brought up in a capitalistic environment. But hearing a capitalist like Ted Turner extolling charitable acts rather than dollars offers a much-needed reminder. Notice also the example Turner gives about doing something while walking down the street. Most often we think that removing thorns (or nails or sharp objects) from the path of pedestrians is the only worthwhile act of charity we can do. Not so. Pick up any trash. Sweep or gather fallen leaves in bags. Clear a neighbor’s driveway of snow. Smile at strangers. There are hundreds of acts of charity you and I can do simply by walking a few blocks in our neighborhoods. By being alert and observing what others are doing can also open up creative ideas for charity.

A few months ago, while stopping by to pick up some toiletries from my local pharmacy, located in a mini shopping center packed with restaurants, a bank, a fitness center, a dentist’s office and the quintessential Starbucks, I noticed an old man poking into the various garbage bins with a stick. As I watched, I realized he was looking for recyclable cans and bottles. Every time he located one, his face broke into a triumphant smile. His bag was about half-full with the collection.

When I came home, I collected all the bottles and cans I was going to dump in the neighborhood recycle center. Like everyone else, I have been doing this for years but I had no way of knowing where all these “capitalistic wastes” were going and exactly how they were being recycled. But now I had found a greater purpose for them.
Two nights later, around 8 PM, I waited for the old man at the same spot. I had almost given up when, about 45 minutes later, I saw him begin his round at the dumpster behind the bank. He walked slowly and patiently. I had time to read the sign nailed into the outer wall of the pharmacy: “No skateboarding. No Trespassing. Violators will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
When he came around, I offered him my collection. He seemed stunned for a moment and then thanked me profusely. “Not at all,” was all I could mumble as I quickly left. I was already feeling guilty in thinking that I was engaging in an act of charity.

I now see the old man once a week. We don’t talk much although I want to tell him the privilege is entirely mine when he looks me in the eye and says simply, “thank you.”
I am sure you have all seen someone at a gas station or a shopping center intent on making something out of the bottles and cans we carelessly toss away. We are talking at most a few dollars here but just the act of gathering your recyclable stuff and handing them over to a particular person isn’t something that can be quantified. Thank God for that. Do it and see how it transforms you and spills over into other areas of charitable and holiday giving.

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