Give It Away, But Give It Some Thought

Last week, Zoe Romanowsky made the sensible call to "stop giving our junk to the poor." She asked us to ask ourselves:

Does what you’re putting in that box honor the people it will go to? Is it your junk, or is it a sacrificial gift?

She challenges us to ask ourselves if we are giving sacrificially, to help the poor, or are we giving just to get rid of stuff, to help ourselves; and to ask ourselves if we're giving away stuff that will make the poor happy, or if we're giving stuff that seems good enough for them, because they are poor, and we are not.

Jane the Actuary at Patheos responded with a few questions of her own, trying to refine our standards for how and what to give. She wonders if, when we're donating food items, it makes more sense to give a few luxury items that will cheer up someone who's life is dark and full of trouble, or if we should spend the same amount of money on cheaper staples, which do a better job of taking care of the poor's physical needs.

Consider two sets of baskets donated to a food pantry. The one consists of brand-name items, special treats, maybe organic, perhaps even some rib-eye steak if the food pantry is equipped to handle fresh meat.  The other was purchased at Aldi — and none of their “Specially Selected” line, either.  Just basics:  maybe some pasta and sauce, some canned tuna, some vegetables.

Which donor did a better job of caring for the poor?

The first basket gives one recipient a lot of joy, and lifted spirits.  But the second basket, for the same price, stretches further.

These are interesting questions to me, since we've been on both sides of charitable giving.

I know the sting and frustration of receiving useless stuff that people gave us just because we were poor. I remember opening my front door to discover that someone had anonymously delivered something like 18 lawn-and-leaf-sized bags of clothes to us -- most of them designed to clothe a short, paunchy old man. Which we didn't have any of. I spent an entire day sorting stale clothing (and my time was worth something! Even though I was poor!), and then I had to pay the garbage man extra to haul most of it away. And yes, we had several children who needed clothing, but they didn't really need forty stained T-shirts with the name of someone else's softball team on it. I did sell a few items on eBay, but it was a net loss of time and effort, not to mention frustration. 

But I suspect that the donors believed they were doing a good deed. They saw their clothes as useful and valuable, and wanted to share. In this situation, the donors were giving me something that didn't seem like junk to them. They missed the mark, but it was mostly a failure of imagination, and not any kind of contempt, that made them give me useless stuff. 

On the other hand, it was that same year that I was cleaning out my refrigerator, and the children next door came over to play -- and were horrified to see me throwing away dregs of smelly salad dressing and jars with discolored jelly congealed in the bottom. To them, it was perfectly good food I was throwing away. That's how poor they were.

To me, even on our tiny budget, the food wasn't edible, and I would have felt like a real rat giving it to a poor person. But they still wanted it. In this situation, the food these hungry kids wanted really wasn't fit to eat; but the fact that they wanted it was a wake-up call that I needed to help this family directly -- not with my discarded jelly, but with actual food. 

On the other other hand, people sometimes offer me clothing for my kids, and apologize profusely for making more work for me, pointing out every tiny imperfection in the garments -- and the clothes are gorgeous, so much nicer than anything I could even afford to buy used, never mind new. They are things that look unwearable to their owners, though, because they can easily afford to replace them.

What's the main point of the way these people made their donations? They asked! They were aware they had no idea if their cast-offs would be well-received or not -- whether they were helpful or a hassle, a blessing or an insult. They were aware that their standards were different from mine, and they were anxious not to cause trouble or offense. I can easily imagine some wealthy, well-dressed person thinking, "Oh, nobody would want this old jacket. I'd never insult the poor by donating it," -- and throwing it away with the best intentions, not realizing that I'd actually love it. They could have taken the easy way out and just thrown their cast-offs away, or dumped them in a collection bin, but instead, they approached me and asked. I think this took real courage.

The truth is, we don't know how our charity will be received. We don't know if the needy we're trying to help will be grateful for our cast-offs, and will consider them useful and helpful, or if they will be annoyed to be treated like some kind of indiscriminate black hole of need.

The question Zoe is asking is really more about the giver's intentions: Do we give until it hurts, or do we just shuck off our extras? Are we thinking of the poor as a bin to receive our useless items, or are we thinking about what the poor might really want as people?  But the question Jane is asking is really about the receiver's needs and desires: Do poor people really need useful items, which keep them alive, or do they need extras, which comfort them and remind them of their humanity?

These are both reasonable questions. The only answer I can give is that the Lord loves a cheerful giver; and there are all kinds of need in the world.   It's okay for different people to be generous in different ways. If you feel like you're doing well when you donate practical items to the food pantry (shelf-stable milk, tinned meat, peanut butter), then you do that. If your heart moves you to donate something foolish and comforting (cookies, gourmet coffee, cherry preserves), then you do that. If you have a lot of extra clothes and you give those extras to the poor, then that's a good thing. If you don't have a lot of extra and give anyway, then that's a good thing, too. 

When in doubt, ask! Ask the recipient, or ask the person who facilitates donations. The one thing poor people feel very keenly is that no one asks them. The only real mistake we can make is to decide it's too complicated, and to do nothing. Pope Francis has made it clear that doing nothing is not an option! Do give it some thought, and do ask people who have experience; but don't be so afraid of giving the wrong way that you don't give at all.