Thursday, July 23, 2009

Limited Resources

Some months ago I succumbed to the guilt trip put on me by the Middlebury Alumni Association. Some anonymous donor gave a million dollar grant to Middlebury on the condition that 50% of Middlebury alums also contribute. Not matching funds, this time, but getting alums involved. It worked. I sent them a small amount of money so my head would be counted. Today I get a letter telling me 62 percent of alums contributed, which makes Middlebury the number-one school in the nation for alumni support.

Well hot dog. Middlebury got the million dollars from anonymous and all that money from alums and this is a real success story. I’m not actually sorry I gave the money and I’m real glad to see what has become of Middlebury since I graduated from there almost a half century ago. But the fifty bucks, or whatever it was, could have gone to Equality California. Or Lambda. Or GLAAD. Or Médecins Sans Frontières. Or the ACLU. Or Amnesty International. Or the kid at the front door selling magazines so he can summer on the Riviera with everyone in his sixth grade class who’s going but him.

I don’t know whether it’s that I’m old and sedentary and answer the phone too often, or whether solicitations have skyrocketed in these financially tough times, but I seem to be bombarded by fundraisers on all sides.

I’ve never been particularly generous. I rarely give money to street people, have no trouble saying no at the door and I think twice and then think again before writing a check even when I know the money will do much more for hungry children than if I used it to add sugar to my gut. Which I would, most likely.

I don’t resent the solicitations. After working for the No on Prop. 8 campaign and seeing how hard volunteers work to make good things happen for themselves and others, I appreciate the work of good-cause volunteers. I now make a point of thanking them for the work they do.

And I volunteer more myself. Last night I worked three hours at Equality California Headquarters entering data on contributions. It’s hard work. Joe Blow from Lincoln, Nebraska is visiting his sister in San Diego, gets asked for a donation to bring back the right of same-sex couples to marry in California, reaches in his pocket and gives five dollars, and ten days later I pay BART and MUNI fare to get my butt from Berkeley to the Castro in San Francisco to enter that fact in a data bank, complete with his zip code, telephone number and e-mail address, so he can be solicited for more money in the future. Absurd as it sounds, I found the experience uplifting. I came back grumbling that they ought to have ergonomic chairs and fewer idle conversations distracting the data entry workers, but still savoring the sausage on the pizza and the conversation with the kid who told me that kids of lesbians and gays were now calling themselves “queer spawn.”

I’m going back Monday for more. And I think I’ll keep going back until all those thousands of five or ten or eighty-seven dollar contributions are duly recorded.

“We’re having a rally in Oakland on Saturday,” the voice in the other room booms out. The guy is on the phone drumming up support. “Can we count on you being there? … Oh, bummer. Well, we will be doing this regularly. Can we count on you coming next week? … Oh, sorry about that. Well, we’re trying also to raise funds to counter the lies put out by the other side on the campaign for marriage equality in California. 187 days have passed since …. Can we count on your giving $187 to the campaign to help us win? … Oh, sorry to hear that. How about $36, which represents the 36 … OK? I have trouble giving that much, too. How about $18, one for every thousand gay and lesbian couples who married before they took the right away? … You can? Fantastic! Just let me get some information…”

At the end of the evening, they had collected a bunch of money. Not a lot, but enough to get applause from the twenty or thirty folks sitting around being debriefed. Whereupon the same guy who got $18 out of that phone call then turned to the volunteers and thanked us profusely for our efforts and put the make on us to contribute ourselves. I handed over forty dollars.

Not so much when you consider that delicious sausage pizza.

In the news this morning was an item about how people in Maine are fighting an uphill battle against the Catholic Church who want to overturn the right of same-sex couples to marry. I know somewhere in Portland or Augusta, Maine, there is somebody like me registering five dollar contributions and looking at the million dollars coming from the Knights of Columbus on the other side and feeling a sense of despair.

There seems to be no alternative. We should not be giving money to Middlebury College. They’re one of the richest schools in the nation. We should be giving money to build schools in Guatemala, maybe. Or hospitals in the Congo, maybe. But here I am giving money to my alma mater because they have more successful fundraising tricks. And I’m giving money to organizations fighting for gay dignity against organized religion because letting that bunch continue to walk all over us without a fight would be bad for my soul.

How do you decide whether to give, how much to give, why to give to this guy and not that guy? Probably the way most people do, on impulse. You respond to where the shoe on your foot pinches and move on.

I thought I was being clever once in saying to a telephone fundraiser, “If I give twenty bucks to your cause would you give twenty bucks to mine?” But no sooner was that out of my mouth when I realized it wasn’t clever at all. Nobody with a good cause should have that cause denigrated or their priorities challenged because there are other worthy causes.

But the operant word is worthy and the challenge is to define and use that word appropriately. You, Catholic Church, have a cause. You want money to take away rights of same-sex couples to marry in California, in Maine and elsewhere. That forces me to give money to people to fight you on that, money I would have to give to a life and death cause. Criticize me if you will for not letting you have your way and helping children climb out of a lousy situation. If you want, you can guilt me on that.

But then you’d have to consider yourself why you are spending money on taking civil rights from the citizens of Maine and California instead of relieving some of the suffering of the children of Guatemala, wouldn’t you.

Wouldn’t you?

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