lenten journal: compassion competition


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.



  1. Brother, I share your discomfort with the contradictions of organizations being pitched against each other in “compassion competition, a great phrase. And, I like your alternative suggestion for engagement of social media to help raise funds for important issues, and maybe that is something the Triangle Community Foundation, and others could be encouraged to utilize. In the meantime, root for the Bears. the Heels, the underdogs, and keep slogging along with me along in the mud of contradictions, and keep voting until midnight tomorrow for Housing for New Hope.

  2. Milton, I don’t get it either. I have always resented and avoid the purchase of all things pink for the Susan Corman breast cancer fund==just seems like a rip-off to me. I also don’t like all the ribbons and rubber bracelets for every cause with a new one seemingly added each day. If I want to donate money, I will donate without the middle man

  3. So true. Prophetic in discernment. Thank you for sharing to me who has no interest in the NCAA. YOu ever think of running for office? Well, don’t. It is a lesser calling, if any calling can be lesser!

  4. “Creating a competition out of compassion” – this statement is very powerful, and asks me whether compassion is something you can buy? Your last paragraph suggests that there is so much more going on, and the reality is none of this is simple at all.
    You have given me food for thought, especially as I begin the work to re-start a community co-op kitchen venture again.
    Thank you as always for your insight, and your compassion.

  5. Welcome to the world of the cynical. Advertising is just propaganda to get people to buy things they probably don’t need. And corporate philanthropy (is there such a thing?) always benefits the corporation more than the recipient in need.

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