Thursday, April 23, 2009

One Born Every Minute

A new church moved into my town a year or two ago, and its members seem to be multiplying like mosquitoes in August. You can see them blocks away, dressed in immaculate white suits (skirts for the women, slacks for the men), beribboned like war heroes, and starched within an inch of their lives. These people—mostly young adults—cruise the sidewalks near busy intersections and set up folding tables in front of Wal-mart, begging for money. Mostly they’re silent—they just hold out their paper-covered coffee cans and—here’s the scary part—people put money in them! Traffic backs up when lights turn green as people lean out their car windows to drop money into these coffee cans.

The tables at Wal-Mart are draped with hand-lettered signs that claim that money raised goes to the poor and homeless.

What poor and homeless? I’m aware of several shelters and soup kitchens in the area, but none of them are run by these folks. For all their contributors know, they use the money to have orgies, fund al Quaida, or buy babies to sell into slavery. It’s apparently some kind of conditioned response—stick a can under some people’s nose, and they put money in it.

Whatever these crusaders use the money for, the ruse apparently pays off. Somebody’s paying a whopping bill for dry-cleaning!

The people tossing money to these folks aren’t all driving Mercedes and BMWs—but what if they were? The point is that many, many people are incredibly gullible and quick to support things they don’t understand. It’s another example of people “thinking” with their emotions—or rather, in this case, not thinking at all but rather acting impulsively.

A mathematician would point out that even very small sums of money, wisely invested, could result in a great deal of money over time. How many of the people who casually throw cash to strangers on the sidewalk save money regularly? How many have a cause they support—one they’ve researched, thought about, and really believe in? How many—perhaps having learned something from the near-collapse of the world economy—live within their means, using cash or debit instead of credit?

The gullibility of the American people supports a great many questionable causes. Utter certain magic words over the phone—“veterans,” ‘blind,” “missing children”—and people pledge. A key phrase, shouting in LARGE PRINT on the back of an envelope, is enough to make many people take out their checkbook. But experts warn that anyone can set up a phone bank and solicit money for a phony charity, and even the legitimate ones may waste as much as 90% of their donations on administrative costs. Billions are wasted by well-intentioned people who give thoughtlessly.

Even charities that have been around a long time—a few that come to mind are PETA, the NRA, and Greenpeace—have changed their missions since they were founded years ago, often becoming much more radical and politicized. People who believe in the general causes these mega-charities represent would be well advised to take a close look today and see if they still support what the organizations stand for.

Americans gave almost $300 billion dollars to “charity” in 2006. (Presumably, this doesn’t include money casually tossed to strangers on the street.) Imagine what good that kind of money could do if it were spent carefully and used efficiently!

I say we all just say no to supporting people and things we don’t know anything about and start acting deliberately to make the world a better place. Now that we have the Internet, a few keystrokes is all it takes to get information about any legitimate organization. At the very least, the change we throw out the window could be saved in a jar and donated at Christmas to a local food bank, homeless shelter, or Goodwill Industries—anywhere where we know it may actually do some good.

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