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MARCUS: 'Tis the season for getting for giving

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Morton Marcus

Charity Castle is a kindly and generous woman. On a wintry day, her company is as refreshing as the brew at the Celestial Stag, her favorite bar/coffee shop.

“Yea, verily, the end is near,” Charie says. “Yes, 2009 is about to end. Daily the mail brings appeals for funds from every not-for-profit known to mankind. I love them all.”

“How can you?” I say, shocked but disbelieving. “There are so many worthwhile causes. We have to pick and choose. It’s difficult. We cannot relieve all the ignorance, poverty, illness and environmental threats here in Indiana, let alone throughout the world.”

“I do my part,” Charie says. “My contributions may be small, but my criteria are clear. I support the organizations I deem worthwhile and which give me nice gifts.”

“That’s bizarre,” I say.

Charie’s smile is benign as she says, “I suffer with the world’s problems as much as any other comfortable American. But I give to those groups that help me remember their causes during the year.”

“I don’t understand,” I say.

“Well,” she says, “I’ll send my dollars to groups that send me snappy mailing labels, calendars with outdoor scenes, snuggly blankets, CDs or restaurant discount cards.

“This week’s mail brought some handsome return address stickers from the Environmental Defense Fund and the National Wildlife Federation. There was a lap warmer from AmeriCares and a beautiful set of seasonal greeting cards from the World Wildlife Fund. I also now have a convenient pocket calendar from the Indiana University Foundation and several nature calendars from outdoor organizations.”

“For me,” I say, “it is a question of matching my ideals with the focus of the agency. I don’t value ‘gifts’ in return for my contribution. I don’t want monthly or quarterly newsletters about the good the organization is doing. I don’t want regular appeals for extra contributions because of the ‘emergency conditions facing us today in these difficult times’. And, please, no lists of generous contributors without a full financial statement from the organization.”

“You don’t understand the issue,” Charie asserts. “Not-for-profits know we want something more than good deeds for our contributions. Take public television. They give us endless hours of programming for the terminally sentimental.

“Lawrence Welk is a staple. There are ‘specials’ offering original recordings of doo-wop; Peter, Paul and Mary; and a host of yesterday’s popular entertainers presented in a saccharine format. I’m looking forward to contributing $700 and getting an authentic replica of George Washington’s chamber pot from ‘This Old Outhouse.’

“My support,” she continues, “for the Indiana chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Nature Conservancy, as well as Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana and the Indiana Historical Society, are based on the publications they send me during the year. Not a penny would go to the Southern Poverty Law Center if they didn’t keep my mailbox full with reports about U.S. hate groups.”

“You’re telling me,” I say, “that you don’t give to worthy causes unless they give you more than the satisfaction of supporting good deeds?”

“Not-for-profits have consultants who tell them to compete with ordinary market opportunities,” Charie responds. “Abstract satisfaction is not sufficient for people today. I want frequent tangible, if token, rewards. It’s a strategy that maximizes giving; it works.”

I stare into my cup and mutter, “Because something works doesn’t make it virtuous.”

Charie hears and retorts, “Because something is virtuous doesn’t mean it works.”•

__________

Marcus taught economics for more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU’s Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at mmarcus@ibj.com.

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