Like many people in America, I’ve spent as much time as I could find the last two days watching the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. I enjoy the competition, whether I know the teams or not. And I would love for everyone to come down to the last shot, perhaps even overtime. The ability of these young men to do what they do, much less do it under such intense pressure is awesome. As arguably the world’s worst basketball player, I can only imagine what it must feel like to shoot with such confidence.
At the same time the tournament was kicking into gear, I began receiving email messages from several folks who work with nonprofits in our area inviting me to vote for their organizations who are being pitted against one another for money. In this age of social media, it has become fashionable to make people or groups bring out the vote in order to get the resources they need. I’ve made a point of voting everyday this week — because part of the idea is you’re supposed to come back and vote everyday — and I don’t get it. I don’t understand the logic behind creating a competition out of compassion. They all need the money. Why make them fight and beg for it?
It makes my wonder how Jesus might have delivered the Beatitudes in this age of social media: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, but the kingdom of heaven will only be theirs if you vote for them over the meek, the mourning, and the peacemakers.” How does that make sense? These are organizations for whom fundraising is not a game. They work hard to not only raise money but spend it well — and they are dealing with issues and causes we should be paying for: literacy, homelessness, environmental stewardship. If we want to challenge them, why not offer a matching grant for votes: get five hundred votes in three days and we’ll give you $5000. If everyone gets five hundred votes, then everybody gets the money, making it a social media take on a matching grant. Why ask them to spend their own valuable resources to drum up votes in a winner-take-all competition that may mean they could have used their resources more effectively?
I think I’m finding different ways to ask the same question over and over because I am so incredulous. I’m not sure the semantic difference I am about to make holds up in anyone’s dictionary, but I have come to see a difference between being generous and being philanthropic. Generous, to me, is straight out of Jesus: you need something, I have something, here. In America we talk a great deal about philanthropy, which I have come to see as giving with agendas attached. So McDonald’s says every time you buy a Shamrock Shake they will give a dime to the Muscular Dystrophy Association. That’s product promotion disguised as philanthropy. They could write any sized check they want without selling one shake, which says to me the point of the whole promotion is to sell shakes and let the MDA pick up a little change in the process.
My take on the compassion competitions, therefore, is there’s more going on here than everyone trying to get their constituencies to vote. Underneath the philanthropy is an agenda. The nonprofits are getting used so someone can collect email addresses or publicity or something. If that’s too cynical a perspective, I’m willing to be convinced otherwise because, as I said, I don’t get it.