The Alms Race: On Beggars, Solicitations, and Charities
Mendicancy makes a simple proposition that it is perfectly okay to take money in exchange for nothing more than the giver’s being eased of a vague feeling of guilt. In a material world in which money or influence is given only in exchange for goods and services, the proposition of reaping without sowing can be faintly disconcerting, even if the parties are related.
Powerful people surround themselves with a phalanx of retainers to ward off all but the worthiest petitioners. They may be selling concerts for sponsorships, or looking for business opportunities or jobs for which they are unqualified, or securing a personal loan with no plan of repayment, the personal version of a bailout package. Or, they may simply want a photo opportunity. (At the guest speaker’s right is an unidentified guest.)
Not all cultures scorn beggars. In Buddhist cultures, monks show detachment from the world by owning nothing and begging for their daily needs as a form of humility and trust in human kindness as a manifestation of divine providence. Other religions too, including ours, confirm this dependence on divine prodding with a second collection specifically intended for a project and intending not to touch the proceeds of the first one.
Is fundraising an elevated form of solicitation too, relying on the kindness of rich strangers? The causes can be limitless. They encompass all manner of worthy endeavors, such as the building of homes for the homeless, construction of a community chapel, or enabling a math wizard to join the Math Olympics in Kazakhstan.
Successful events in the “alms race” often involve a ritzy crowd attending a ritzy event being entertained by ritzy performances in a ritzy setting.
The art of opening palms, including those closed for a very long time, rests on the premise of exacting a contribution in return for benefits that are ephemeral and symbolic, such as a name on a plaque or a photograph with the beneficiaries receiving a gigantic check the size of an unhinged door. The tokens of appreciation are becoming more varied and hope to appropriately honor the act of generosity.
Only those with excess cash, usually the same list that keeps on giving, are tapped to open their checkbooks quite frequently. Creativity has been employed to make the donor feel sufficiently recognized for his generosity. Depending on the amount given, the donor’s name can be assigned to a whole building or to smaller articles. (This pencil box has been made possible through the paltry donation of Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge.)
Ever since the philanthropic giants like Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and Ted Turner, it has been cool for billionaires to share their wealth with other nations and causes.
Because it is the same list that gets tapped for generous endowments, those in it have formed a defense strategy of putting up their own foundations to focus on particular advocacies. These foundations, although originally endowed by their principals, then plunge themselves into raising additional funds to make the philanthropic arena more orderly and run like a corporation. They have vision statements and stakeholders, along with measurable goals.
Giving has been turned into a competitive sport. Ever since the philanthropic giants like Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and Ted Turner, it has been cool for billionaires to share their wealth with other nations and causes. The wealthy now try to outdo one another not in the levels of their net worth but how much they give away. Other leaders like the former American president Bill Clinton use their exalted positions to spearhead massive donations from different individuals and countries. He has written a bestseller on this effort, called Giving, which delves into the whole culture and appeal of philanthropy.
The coolness of fundraising lies in distinguishing itself, not just in terms of the amounts involved but in the whole approach to differentiate it many galaxies above the begging of the blind man knocking on the window of a car stopping for a red light. Fundraisers opt for glitzy events where organizers/fundraisers dress up and implicitly tell a potential donor who may not even be as snazzily attired—this money is clearly not for me since you can see I can pay for my own gown. This implicit message makes the event itself an act of self-sacrifice for the organizers who are clearly doing this for other people. Successful events in the “alms race” often involve a ritzy crowd attending a ritzy event being entertained by ritzy performances in a ritzy setting. The rich and famous are banging the doors (rather than car windows) to be invited and stand in front of the tarpaulin for their photo ops. One must not underestimate the need for the wealthy to be reassured and accepted as indeed belonging to the upper crust.
Giving is a declaration of humanity and being part of a bigger community whose values and wealth we also share.
Begging need not be considered servile. The supplicant does not necessarily see herself as inferior to the target donor. They may occupy the same rung on the social ladder or travel its edges together. The fundraiser can even be more powerful than the one he is requesting donations from. Chairs of committees for fundraising are, after all, the prime givers. Their designation is often premised on their ability to excite their peers and subordinates to part with their wealth. Such unequal exchange of something for nothing can take on the form of informal taxation. “Nothing” in this case refers not to the absence of gain, but the acquisition (at least, temporarily until the next event) of a powerful friend.
The benefit to the sponsors of the fundraiser offered in exchange for a big sum of money is sometimes expressed in terms of “media values.” The cornucopia of goodies is intended to make the donor (or sponsor, in this case) more willing to part with his money and charge it to advertising.
Is fundraising an elevated form of solicitation too, relying on the kindness of rich strangers? The causes can be limitless.
The garden variety of beggars walks the streets under the hot sun to put the palm out. They work in crews which probably include the cops who manually override the automatic traffic light to increase the number of prospects by prolonging the duration of the stop light. (Can I switch to green now? People are honking.)
Mendicants of the street variety understand their market. Deformities are no longer a staple. Maybe, prospects flinch at the sight of an empty eye socket or hands covered with sores. Extreme and clearly visible ailments elicit a reluctance to risk skin contact when transferring coins from one palm to the other. Beggars now prefer the more ordinary profile of merely undernourished children possessing clear skins and maybe selling Sampaguita strands.
But supplicants of all types are proliferating.
Is our patronage culture creating a cult of entitlement? Does our political process, especially in an election, require a candidate to dole out money for emergencies, jobs and t-shirts to gain support and end up promoting a continuing dependence? Is the pattern of getting something for nothing the root of cronyism and corruption?
Is the informal taxation of small businesses by agents of the mayor, local police, military and armed gangs simply a more aggressive form of collecting something for nothing? Like Buddhists, we too tolerate beggars. Ours don’t wear saffron, live a life of deprivation, and hold out begging bowls for their daily meals as a form of prayer. They simply phone prospects to have their cash ration delivered… or they text.
While giving in to extortion does not qualify as a corporal act of mercy, it does keep a small business from closing down, even if it is not certain where the contribution goes, or even if the business can keep it up.
Still, altruism has a place in a world that is interconnected. A pain in one place should be soothed in another. Giving is a declaration of humanity and being part of a bigger community whose values and wealth we also share.