Plus ca change

Pollyanna, as the Nonprofiteer’s older and wiser brother once observed, gets a bum rap.  Her name is taken to mean an idiotic insistence that everything’s fine in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, when in fact the character is someone who so clearly appreciates life’s setbacks and trials that she’s created an entire system for managing them, namely, finding something redeeming about them, even if it’s only that things can’t get any worse.  Pollyanna is a prescription for bravery, and for charity in its broadest sense: an acceptance of life and people as they are.

As it turns out, Pollyanna Grows Up–Eleanor H. Porter’s 1915 sequel to her smash-hit book–is also a description of charity in the narrower sense, as practiced by more than a few donors.  Our heroine discovers people living in grinding poverty, and drags her own benefactor Mrs. Carew to see them.  It turns out Mrs. Carew is the landlady of their hovel, and she quietly arranges for necessary repairs.

But this, to Pollyanna, was a mere drop in the bucket.  There were yet all those other sick-looking men, unhappy-looking women, and ragged children out in the street–Jamie’s neighbors.  Confidently she looked to Mrs. Carew for help for them, also.

"Indeed!" exclaimed Mrs. Carew, when she learned what was expected of her, "so you want the whole street to be supplied with fresh paper, paint, and new stairways, do you?  Pray, is there anything else you’d like?"

"Oh, yes, lots of things," sighed Pollyanna, happily.  "You see, there are so many things they need–all of them!  And what fun it will be to get them!  How I wish I was rich so I could help, too; but I’m ‘most as glad to be with you when you get them."

Mrs. Carew quite gasped aloud in her amazement.  She lost no time–though she did lose not a little patience–in explaining that she had no intention of doing anything further . . . . At some length she explained to Pollyanna that there were charitable institutions, both numerous and efficient, whose business it was to aid all the worthy poor, and that to these institutions she gave frequently and liberally.

Even then, however, Pollyanna was not convinced.

"But I don’t see," she argued, "why it’s any better, or even so nice, for a whole lot of folks to club together and do what everybody would like to do for themselves.  I’m sure I’d much rather give Jamie a–a nice book, now, that to have some old Society do it; and I know he’d like better to have me do it, too."

"Very likely," returned Mrs. Carew, with some weariness and a little exasperation.  "But it is just possible that it would not be so well for Jamie as–as if that book were given by a body of people who knew what sort of one to select."

This led her to say much, also (none of which Pollyanna in the least understood) about "pauperizing the poor," the "evils of indiscriminate giving," and the "pernicious effects of unorganized charity."

Shades of our present-day social entrepreneurs, who aren’t satisfied to be generous but also insist on knowing "what sort of [solution] to select," on not "pauperizing the poor" and on giving only with the greatest discrimination. 

Obviously it’s important to give as wisely as one can; but it never hurts to have a reminder that arrogant wealth (like poverty) is always with us, and that a dash of humility about the likely impact of what and how one gives goes a long way in converting "charity" to its alternate translation from the Greek: "love."

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5 Responses to “Plus ca change”

  1. Holden Says:

    I don’t think it’s about arrogance or humility at all – it’s about personal connection vs. lack thereof. If I knew a Jamie who needed a book, I’d buy him the book. When I’ve done what I think is appropriate for the people I know, and I still have money left that I’d like to use for good – meaning I’m now going to give that money to an organization that serves people I’ve never met – the importance of picking the best solution rather than giving indiscriminately doesn’t seem to be in question.

  2. Nonprofiteer Says:

    The “arrogance” piece is the concern about pauperizing the poor, which today presents itself as, “Don’t give money–lend money!” My posture is, people without resources should be given resources. We can have a debate about what resources are the most useful, but there’s no moral superiority represented by requiring people to earn what they need. In this, my attitudes come from George Bernard Shaw, who asked reasonably enough in Pygmalion, “But what about the undeserving poor? Don’t we need things just as much?”

  3. Holden Says:

    Personally, I am someone who believes that the whole notion of “earning” or “deserving” wealth is misguided. The only thing I want to do for the poor is help them become less poor. Period.

    But when it comes to specifics, I see strong reasons to believe that lending is often superior to giving, when this is the only goal. For one thing, lending ensures that the finite money available gets to the people who are more likely to be able to use it to help themselves. Related, it’s simply cheaper, meaning the same money can help more people. Finally – this part is probably your least favorite – some people genuinely need help with discipline. Yes, it’s arrogant to say “I am going to help you with your discipline,” but again, I don’t give a crap whether it’s arrogant or not, I care what works (in reducing poverty), and there’s some reason to believe it works.

    I personally don’t know enough to know when it’s best to give vs. lend, but my only criterion is what will reduce poverty more. Maybe some people support lending for the reasons you’re describing, but I wouldn’t assume that’s what’s going on.

  4. Nonprofiteer Says:

    Your point is well-taken: donations exist for the welfare of the recipient, not for the salvation of the donor’s soul. Arrogant money relieves hunger just as well as humble money. But there’s so much about our current system of alleviating poverty (or, rather, failing to do so) that’s humiliating and dismissive of people whose only fault is having chosen their parents poorly that I try to stay on guard against it. That’s no substitute for rigorous evaluation of what works, and I’m not proposing it as such–just talking about a way that donations can feel better to giver and receiver alike.

  5. Holden Says:

    Agreed that charity should not be humiliating or dismissive, I just think you’re barking up the wrong tree criticizing lending – this is the first place I’ve ever encountered the argument that the poor should “earn” their charity, whereas all the other defenses I’ve heard of lending are simply that it’s better at reducing poverty.

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