The Relentless ASK: How Much of My Money Is Enough?

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Apathy always sounded like more of a dirty word to me than those four-lettered verbs for which we are supposed to apologize.  I’m a liberal, and I believed liberals took positions. They care. They do stuff. They read papers and listen to the news.  And I know this isn’t just a liberal thing.  If I were conservative, I imagine I would write the same things.  Red or blue, apathy has always seemed unacceptable.

Philanthropy, I believe, is a responsibility married to economic good fortune.  My husband and I have always written checks, lots of checks.  We give money to the United Way and NPR, our community religious organization, health causes, school causes, children’s cause, etc.  We send donations to Kiva and help a Cambodian go to college.  Not unrelated, we have been giving money to political causes and political candidates.  This, I preached to my children, was the “right” thing to do.  I hope I haven’t been smug, but I have been proud of this stance in the world.

No more.  I want to hide from all those organizations, all those people soliciting my assistance.  I am unsubscribing every day.  I am wrestling with the previously despicable apathy.

I attribute all this to one of my favorite aphorisms:  No good deed goes unpunished.  In this contentious political season, I increased the number of candidates to whom I sent a small check.  One check and I am their new best friend.  I hear from them, their children, their campaign staff.  We have, it seems, an almost daily relationship.  They are a needy bunch.  And they all have needy friends.

If I give to a charity, it seems to signal permission to ask again . . . and again.  I once wrote a check to the Southern Poverty Law Center.  In the following month, I am sure that the postage and paper they sent to me cost more than my modest contribution.  I had to demand I be removed from their rolls to stop being angry at an organization I started out supporting.

I understand the need for money. Political campaigns are ever more costly.  Not-for-profits struggle in all sectors.  Animals, artists, old people, poor people, sick people, handicapped people, passionate people—they all want more help than they are getting.  They all, it seems, want MY help.  Probably you feel as if  they want your help as well.  And it’s not that I think they don’t need all that help. 

But enough.  I have supplication fatigue.  The constant demand for my empathy has triggered apathy.

Now this is the paragraph where I am supposed to present a fresh solution.  And it’s not that I don’t want to tell you how I have used my ire to solve the problem for all of us.  Except that I haven’t.  Rather, I’m writing this because I’m feeling rather desperate for an attitude change.  I don’t want to be a philanthropic curmudgeon.  I don’t want to tell the Museum of Fine Arts or our local facility for autistic children they need to get along without me.  I don’t want to tell candidates who have the courage and drive and passion to try to provide decent government that I’ve lost interest.  

Please tell me what you do.  Do you allocate a certain sum of money, apportion it to selected organizations at the start of the year, and ignore all those random requests?  Do you support one political candidate or one party and let others support the rest?   Do you have categories and give to a different organization in that category each year?  Is there some sane way you have found to deal with this onslaught?

I am writing this because, right now. I have an alarming urge to hide.  I think it is not my best long-term solution.  I know I can’t stay here, but when I feel like coming back out to play, I need an easier game.


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  • Leslie in Oregon March 28, 2014 at 8:35 pm

    This is a very timely post for me. My husband and I are each lifelong contributors to church and other charitable, as well as political advocacy, organizations. We donate every penny we can, mostly through careful research and planning and occasionally in response to an emergency.

    Since the Citizens United decision opened the floodgates of corporate political contributions, we have been deluged with by 12-35 email pleas from political advocacy organizations every day. Some of those emails ask us to sign a petition or letter; all ask for money. Every liberal/progressive political advocacy group seems to be convinced that money determines elections, and to some extent that has proved true. My husband and I, however, no longer have time to read, much less respond to, every email plea we receive. Overwhelmed by them late last night, I went to unsubscribe to emails from every group that sends them to us. As I did that, many of the sites gave me the option of getting fewer emails, which I will try. I unsubscribed from the rest. We will continue to contribute as we can, and we will do more political advocacy in ways other than contributing money or signing online petitions and letters. It’s too bad that email is so grossly overused for fundraising; otherwise, it could be very effective for that purpose.

    As far as snail mail is concerned, after not responding specifically to a fundraising letter (or in-person advocacy at our front door) for years, we now only receive mailings from the two organizations to which we have made unsolicited online contributions: Oxfam and Doctors Without Borders. Those mailings arrive every few months and contain a great deal of information about the work these organizations are doing. (At the same time, these organizations send us few emails.) Interestingly, this restrained, informative approach to donors seems to mirror these organizations’ efficacy in the field, doing the work they do.

    With all other charitable organizations to which we contribute, we make an unsolicited contribution by snail mail accompanied by the least possible information about us (and no email address), a directive that we not be put on their mailing list and a statement that if they do send us fundraising mail, we will not make any contribution in response. This has proved effective in preventing solicitations.

    I hope that these limitations put us back in the position where we can engage in philanthropy joyfully.

  • Penny Harris March 28, 2014 at 2:40 pm

    Susan your experience is typical of the treatment donors recieve today. It is partly why 70% of donors don’t renew their gift. A gift is an investment in some community need that you have interest which helps improve the quality of life in your community, With your gift you become a participant in creating the success of the organization you choose to support. Philanthropy is at the heart and joy of generosity. Giving is good for us. When you feel that your money is more important than you, it is fair to make another choice. The amount of your gift is not the question. Setting a higher standard for you and your support is okay. You are not an ATM nor should you be treated like one.

    I am a philanthropy professional and have over 25 years of experience. Currently I work as a coach in philanthropy. I believe donors deserve real relationships with the organizational leaders and staff they invest.

  • Tobysgirl March 28, 2014 at 10:26 am

    One must pick and choose carefully to whom one gives money. We gave a monthly contribution to our local public radio/television station, but I am disgusted by the poor quality of the news they both deliver (and much of the programming), and we cancelled our contribution. At the same time, we increased our monthly contribution to our community radio station, which we listen to a lot.

    Interestingly, when I cancelled the public radio/TV contribution, they did not even bother to inquire why and they keep sending me stuff in the mail, which goes into recycling. When I cancelled our monthly contribution to a statewide community group, they did not ask me why, but the next time they asked for money I told them I stopped contributing because they endorsed a political candidate, something I did not feel positive about even though I plan on voting for said candidate. They said they “hoped they could regain my trust,” which I found compelling.

    The best thing to realize when giving money is that you have no influence; only large contributors have that. Just give money to organizations and people who are really important to you, and ignore the rest.

  • Wendl in Manhattan March 28, 2014 at 6:07 am

    I worked for a not for profit for many years and learned quickly that fundraising is all about relationships. Now that I’m retired, I have pretty much reduced my giving list to those places where I have a PERSONAL connection — e.g., a friendship with the executive director; when I want to support research for a friend’s medical condition; or I just have a deeply felt & personal response to a charity’s mission. At first it was painful & guilt-inducing to stop supporting many of my former regulars, but reality has trumped — i.e., I simply have less income to share and less patience with being bombarded with “Thank you so much, please send more $$ right away!” I wish you wisdom and peace with your decisions.