It began a spirited discussion about the very nature of philanthropy, and the moral questions that arise when we see something as complex as the Mortenson scandal, or Kony 2012, or Lance Armstrong.
One blog follower, Tommas Coldrick, a British ex-pat who is teaching English in Moscow, left this comment:
“It’s a shame that these people get branded so badly. Who cares if they tell a lie or two, or if they make a mountain out of a mole hill. I think they should be judged by what they achieve, not how they achieve it. If a few lies are necessary to get the right media attention, to get enough funding, then it’s cool with me!”
Great point. Perhaps it's better to do whatever it takes to ensure action for a good cause, even if you have to cross the boundaries of fact into fiction. In Mortenson’s case I doubt that he would be able to drum up so much support over the years without a neat, tidy, heart-warming story to help market his cause. Or is it flat out lying, especially when financial transparency is clouded?
Lance Armstrong cheated to win a ton of Tour de Frances. By doing so he also achieved the international fame necessary to launch his Livestrong foundation as one of the top grossing cancer charities of all time. If we could go back in time would we prefer that he didn’t lie or cheat, thereby rendering him an average competitor who is truthful and virtuous…but sacrificing tens of millions of dollars for cancer charities? Tough questions. We’re taught to always tell the truth, but when politicians do anything possible to win elections, athletes do anything possible to gain an advantage, and the media sensationalized news stories so rampantly that they have a very think tendril to truth, why shouldn’t we “sell it with the sizzle” in order to achieve the success of a great cause. All great people come under great scrutiny, and most great people have great faults.
Mother Theresa came under blazing criticism late in her life for accepting money from less-than-sanctified donors. Once she achieved living Sainthood status drug dealers, arms traders, and crooked politicians lined up to make contributions, basically trying to buy their way into heaven. She took their money and applied it to her charitable organizations, without questions or a scolding. “It’s all washed clean in the presence of God,” she said to her detractors. I love me some Mother T – she had no use for big words like politics or no taste for prosthelytizing - if someone was hungry she fed them, if they were sick, she healed them, and if they’d lost hope she gave them a hug.
However I often question the role of religion in philanthropy. No one wants strings attached to good deeds, even when there are golden harp strings. The Colonization of Africa took place under the sweeping ruse of spreading Christianity to the “dark continent.” That caused a lot of harm but also built schools and hospitals and provided education and opportunities for many Africans. The same goes for some of the Islamic schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan which are really no more than ways to spread hatred of the west and recruit. But if they are the only schools available to children because their own governments and international charities don’t build others can you blame them for attending? When it comes to religion is it better to give with a sharpened agenda than to not give at all?
I want to give as much as the next person and do my part to make the world a better place. I think most people have great intentions but somewhere lose a lot of steam somewhere between intention and manifestation. Can you blame them as we’re raised in a culture of self-interest, let down by our heroes and institutions again and again?
So where do we start? I guess we could Google charities and pick the biggest and most far-reaching one that comes up. But with that comes a slow mountain of red tape and too often high administration costs. Basically a lot of them are safe but slow to efficacy.
Or is it better to endorse the small, agile organizations unburdened by bureaucracy but light on accountability? People like Paul Mortenson achieve the unthinkable based on their raw passion, but too often they are their own charity and it all falls apart without their Herculean energy. Should we endeavor to achieve grand, sweeping changes? Or small victories that may ease individual suffering but fade quickly? Should we try to “fix” the poor? Focus on forgiveness of Third World debt or buy into microloans to poor women in those countries? Is it best to give up hopes on the present world and focus all of our help on the children and the next generation? Or are medical charities the best place to give so we can try to cure diseases that afflict so many? Go local or across the seas to people who need it more? Don’t forget the environment, because we all need to live on this planet, and for that matter so do animals, who are defenseless. Is the world more in need of our time or our money? Is it better to give a man a fish, teach him to fish, or build a Red Lobster in his village? The hell if I know.
When someone tells me that they want to get involved in charity work and ask my opinion where they should start I say “yes.” That’s the answer, in all seriousness. “Yes,” I tell them, “do something, anything, as long as it creates positive momentum in the world.” Pick a cause that's near and dear to you or something impersonal but important, give of your time or work to spread awareness, donate $100 to one cause or $1 to one hundred causes, it really doesn’t matter. Just find something that’s in your heart and give as much or as little as you want, as often as you want, because in the grand scheme of things stumbling one step in the right direction is far better than being paralyzed by careful thoughts of idealism.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on philanthropy, and what charities you are involved with, so leave a comment here or connect with me on Twitter @NormSchriever.