Monday, March 3, 2008

Charity in Vain

I was watching Lost the other night, not because I enjoy the show but because someone else was watching it and I was in the same room. It was the episode where Charlie goes into the hatch and turns off the jamming frequency but then drowns as foreseen by Desmond. Later on Hurley goes off on a rant about following Locke so that Charlie's death would not have "been for nothing". That got me thinking about all the times in television shows and movies that the line, "he didn't die in vain," or some form of that line has been used to give meaning to a character's existence. I also thought about the myriad of news stories about slain children or servicemen and how if someone turned over a new leaf because of that tragedy or if some charity was successful at raising money that meant the death was not "in vain" or "for nothing". But are we simply making up a reason to comfort ourselves?

There are obviously many ways we measure a life's worth. There are monetary measures in terms of insurance, damages in wrongful death suits, and net worth accumulated over one's lifetime. There are also the accomplishment measures in terms of community work, societal impact and changes effected, charitable work, and masterpieces created. You can also measure life's worth by family and friends. Each of these measurements typically represents either total assets or total potential of assets over a lifetime.

So how is it that a posthumous accomplishment, change, or payout makes the loss not for nothing? If seven year old Jack is struck and killed by a drunk driver, does getting a law passed as Jack's Law that stiffens the penalty for DUI or forces bars to collect car keys make little Jack's death not "in vain"? If puppy dog Toto dies from neglect, does bringing awareness to animal abuse make his death not "in vain"? You could say that at least some good will have come from a tragic event, or that other people will be able to learn from these mistakes. But it would seem rather that these are simply "too little too late" good deeds to make the person suffering the loss feel better. Is that necessarily wrong? No, it isn't, because there must be some way to cope with grief. It's simply advertised as something more meaningful and lofty when it isn't. "I am educating people about drunk driving because I am devastated about my son's death and don't know what to do with this grief inside of me." That makes more sense than, "People should be aware of the dangers of drunk driving so my son's death will mean something." There is an innate hypocrisy in the second, since his son may not have been killed by a drunk driver had he gone out and educated people about drunk driving.

The same phenomenon is seen with charities. Let's be clear up front--charities are good. They serve good purposes. But have you ever noticed that when someone has a person close to them diagnosed with a disease or disorder, suddenly they are the biggest proponents of charities for that disease? Whereas before it affected someone close to them, they may have only been partially sympathetic to the charity if at all? The two most obvious examples of this phenomenon are autism and breast cancer. You could put two donation jars side by side anywhere. Label one "Find a cure for autism," and the other, "Find a cure for muscular dystrophy." At the end of the month, guess which jar will have more money? It doesn't mean you are a bad person if you put your money into the autism jar and not the muscular dystrophy jar. It just means that you're up a creek without a paddle if you have muscular dystrophy. And only a fraction of people would actually put money into both jars, which is why you rarely see charities asking for money right next to each other. How many fund raisers have two different and unrelated charities being supported?

This very predictable behavior of people toward charities is also easily exploited. Witness breast cancer awareness month. Created by Congress in good faith, October is slated for public education of breast cancer. With this awareness, the American Cancer Society and Susan G. Komen foundation gain a surge in charitable donations to education, research, literature, etc. With this awareness, for profit companies can generate more revenue by putting the right shade of pink on their products and stating that they will donate a portion of the profits to the Susan G. Komen foundation or the ACS. A portion such as 10% or less of the profit from the sale of the pink labeled said product. And so while shopping people are more inclined to impulse buy a pink labeled Susan G. Komen supporting product because "it's for charity, after all." So what losses the companies take from donations, they more than make up for in increased sales. A win-win you say? It's a win if actual researchers are shorted funding that goes into the executives' pockets? It's a win because some donation is better than no donation?

Then I have a charity for you. Donate to the Thin Slice of Life Fund. For each donation you will get a pink sheet of construction paper with a "Thank You" printed from my laser printer. But I promised that 5% of all donations received will go to the Susan G. Komen fund for breast cancer awareness and research. A win-win.