Thursday, June 24, 2010

money on my mind

This is not a judgmental post. I do not mean to bitch about how small the hearts of our Messrs Moneybags are. I just want to understand this business of money and parting with it and how it can be done happily.

Take a look at this piece. If you believe the statistics here, we really aren't growing more generous although many of us are doing much better financially than we could have hoped to, barely two decades ago. In other words, we aren't exactly anxious for our money to trickle down. Whether this is because we are suspicious of agencies who seek donor funds or of NGOs themselves, I'm not sure.

I have rarely taken decisions motivated solely based on how much money I will make or lose, but I have slid back and forth between need and greed on the lifestyle scale. And I find it hard to understand what makes people hold on tighter to their wealth as they acquire more of it.

When I was younger I believed - I can no longer imagine why - that those who had more than enough money didn't care about it. They just spent and shared and demanded without even thinking about it. I used to think that those who had to scrounge, those who had to hang on to every four-anna bit were forced into pettiness, being fiercely protective of the little they had. This was received wisdom, I suppose, because I had neither much money nor much cause to worry, nor any truly rich or truly poor friends. Or perhaps, it was something absorbed from media. Notions like 'the middle class was 'balanced' in its approach'. There were also a few assumptions about 'class'. About how money allowed people freedom and refinement.

But once I began reporting and was exposed to society's extremities and fringes, all certainties vanished.

I found myself in the homes of millionaires and saw an obsessive approach to money. I also saw simplicity and good breeding. But not always. Often, I found tight fists and snipped corners. But work usually took me to the homes of those who would prefer to be left alone. Even in the midst of a crisis, I found the poor behaving with a measure of civility and consideration.

This had little to do with what I could offer them. Small examples: I once accompanied a police team raiding a brothel, after a tip-off about minors being held there. The frightened and irritable sex workers were unfailingly polite, and slightly apologetic. If they weren't being rounded up and hauled off to the police station, I'm sure they would have offered me some tea. And my presence certainly did not prevent them from being hauled off.

I also remember going to a struggling (but pedigreed) actress' home for an interview. It was a time when she needed to stay visible and could do with all the interviews she could get. But she kept me waiting, didn't bother to apologize, and remembered to ask whether or not I'd like some tea only when I had abandoned all hopes of getting a cup.

Over the years, I found this turning into a pattern. The richer the person, the lesser she/he seemed to care about your needs.

And even today, I find this hard to explain. What is it about money? How does it manage to change human beings in such ways? I would understand if having money lessened your insecurities and made you generous. I don't understand why it draws your empathy out into a single thread that is wrapped tightly around your immediate family and yourself.

And like I said, this is not a judgmental post. It is very likely that if I made a little more money, I would find myself changing in the same way. Perhaps, there is some in-born need to protect what you have and you always need more to protect more. I am just trying to understand why it happens.

I have been getting phone calls quite frequently, especially over the last three months, asking for donations to this or that 'sanstha'. I have always said a firm 'no' - primarily because I don't have any money left to give, but also because I don't like direct solicitations on the phone from strangers. I have not signed up on a list, nor allowed my phone number to be given out to NGOs. In fact, I have repeatedly signed up on a DND (do not disturb) list, which neither Airtel nor Reliance seems to respect. And so, when I take such calls, I am annoyed in much the same way as when I get calls from banks, insurance providers or real estate developers.

But assuming I had more than enough money, and assuming I wanted it to trickle down, would I give it to charitable organisations?

I know a lot of Indians - including many in my family - are content to help lesser privileged people in their immediate sphere of influence. Domestic workers, chauffeurs, neighbourhood sanitation workers, their extended families, and so on. 'Help' often translates into volunteering time to teach the children of such service providers, or helping organise their weddings, giving presents of money and clothes and food.

I suppose it is better than nothing. To want to help others around you is great. But there's no getting away from the fact that there is a selfish motive built into this kind of charity. You give old sarees to the cook to ensure she stays put. You put the gardener's son through school and hope he will tend to your papayas with more enthusiasm. And while there is nothing wrong with wanting your workers to stay on and work well, such 'help' seems more like work incentives, an additional family benefit or bonus.

The only people who receive money from millions of Indians, without really giving anything back but their blessings are beggars. And many of us do give money to beggars quite often, although it is not a good system to give through.

Which brings me back to what I started with. What makes us so reluctant to give to organised charities? As the article says, there is some suspicion of NGOs. I, for one, would like to have actually seen the kind of work an NGO does and if I approved and found myself able to donate something, I would.

So, is 'outreach' the solution? Should charities invite more donors over to look at where the funds are being spent? I know that there are enough NGOs out there that are well-known enough to be trusted. Which doesn't mean they spend our money better. It just means that we have heard of them so often and in such positive contexts that we don't really associate their staff with misappropriation of funds. Yet, India hardly donates.

Or is there something inherently flawed abut the structure of charity and the way it makes appeals to your conscience? And why does it work better in some countries and why not in India?


Pushpz said...

When ppl give charity to any NGO, they expect instant results, and some recognition too, or else they lose interest...every NGO have their own priorities and though they may not be mis-using funds, it sometimes becomes difficult to convince the donors that their funds are properly chanellized:))

Bhagwad Jal Park said...

We may be mixing up the causes. It's possible that those who have lots of wealth have it BECAUSE they have a tight fisted nature. Not just directly in a miserly way (though that is also probably there), but through a sort of grabbing mentality. I'm not drawing a broad swathe here, but that might help explain observations.

It's not that money corrupts. It's that money is attracted to corrupt people (again - not always).

This hypothesis will be falsified if we find a genuinely good poor person who changes once they become rich. Not by observing already rich people...

And I totally understand your problems regarding charities. I've often wanted to give money to charities, but didn't know if it was doing any good. There are four approaches to this:

First, we donate our time instead of money. Helping old people and teaching kids I suppose not only lets us know we make a difference, I imagine it must be more fulfilling as well.

Another approach is by donating in kind. Money is too liquid and open to transfer and we never know what it's used for. Donating food and clothing ensures that it reaches those who need it.

We can also simply accept the risk that our cash will be misused, but still donate on the principle that not doing anything is worse. After all, there IS a chance it's helping someone. Moreover, one might feel that you're giving money for the good feeling YOU get. Not for how it ultimately turns out.

Finally, you don't donate anything or give money, but only help when the situation arises and you're sure of the need. I bought a pair of slippers once for a beggar girl when I was doing my MBA in Hyderabad and she was so happy that I've never felt better :) It cost me so little (not THAT little - I wasn't earning yet!) but meant exponentially more to her.

I wish I had more of those situations...

Unknown said...

But Annie don't you know that all generalisations are always unfair ! :-)

If it wasn't for poor people, being rich would be quite boring.
This pholosophy is what drives our country. The caste system has is morphing itself into an economic class system.

Sumeet said...

Frankly, the whole idea of donation is a touchy issue.

As in the regular employed Indians pay taxes (at least I hope most do !), which goes into government accounts, so they are definitely giving their due share back to the people through a very streamlined and thorough tax process.

So, this charity is obviously an 'extra' , which as you point out, may have some ulterior motive.

Also, I think that donations to Prime Minister Relief Fund etc. are more likely to reach the benefactors rather than donations to charitable organizations, which may have shady credentials.

In any case, non profits themselves get generous tax cuts and the good ones have United Nations authorization and other checks to ensure authenticity.

So the donor should be careful when he chooses to donate! Because to donate and see the money whitewashed/eaten is very depressing indeed!

dipali said...

Spot on, Annie- I've found that the richer people I know have a strange sense of entitlement that allows lesser mortals the privilege of serving them. And then they do not tip well, or at all.
As for charity, we tend to respond fairly well to disasters (though many also give old clothes and other things in a terrible condition, which negates the point).
I feel a little safer giving donations to organisations like CRY and HelpAge India, as well as to people in my immediate orbit, where, as you say, there is always a vested interest. I cannot give anything to a person or organisation who/that solicits charity.

Anonymous said...

Dear Annie,
the comments to your post provide all the clues to need to your question !

Chandni said...

Hi Annie,

For now, I'm just sharing a few links:

Reasons People Don't Give:

annie said...

thanks. some of this was really useful!

Jai_C said...

I offer my own reactions as a confirmation of some observations.

I read the links from Chandni and others, most were excellent. Direct appeals to help Saifullah with a manageable amount, for eg.

When I browsed fundaCause directly, it kept up till I met a post asking for funds for somebody's foreign jaunt to Russia.

Kept going though. Next up I read of Sunitha Krishnan talking about needing *1 Crore* to do a film on trafficking.

Closed the site and left.
Reflected on this in a few minutes.
Felt it needed to be recorded as a comment and so here it is.


Chandni said...

Hi Jai,

Glad you liked some of the links I shared.

Through my blog, I'm documenting what people in India are asking money for - and how. (I make a distinction between 'seeks money' and 'needs money' on my tweets.)

The idea is that people will offer helpful inputs, including constructive criticism (about the money sought to make the film, for example).

Also, many people go abroad to study and attend conferences, and I find it relevant to post their mails seeking grants too. Like I did on


MISSquoted** said...

A little late in the day, but I have to say it touched a chord somewhere that you did not display an explicitly disparaging opinion towards beggars and the system of begging. I some ways, I understand that giving is encouraging the system (and it really is a system, an organism with a life of its own now. Sigh.). However, for the life of me I cannot recognize what alternatives the beggars would be forced into if our meager contributions to them dried up. As long as no clear and promising rehabilitation exists for these beggars, I make it a point to hand out small sums of money each time I encounter them. It might be going to the head honchos of the begging nexus, but at least it is ensuring some basic food and shelter for the beggars. Of course, I might be completely off about this last presumption. But the smiles on the beggars' faces almost always make me believe otherwise.

As far as NGO contributions go, yes it is a problem when the organizations' activities are abstracted from us donors. But in some ways when we are choosing to only donate money, and not our time to volunteer for instance, we are essentially limiting our involvement in the process. I mean I do expect the NGOs to send me a brief every now and then about how my money is being utilized - CRY for instance does this. But more often than not, these are generic. And really, who is to say if my money is actually being used that way? On the other hand, it would be impossible for an NGO to offer cogent updates to every donor - maybe they could do that for the very generous ones? Another alternative being that if you choose to support a child for instance, a mechanism that ensures that your donations are continuous and consistent, then an NGO does and should help you track the child's progress. More mechanisms such as these would be wonderful and could possibly encourage the public to donate more.

My 2 cents :)

Shantinath Chaudhary said...

Hello Annie,

First of all I must thank you for such a though provoking post.It was nice to read and it rhymed with my thinking.
Yes, I do believe in the statistics you have given the link of in your first paragraph, in fact I have felt the same.
I am no big Donor but I have very good experience with two big fund-raising campaigns(one involving 6 lacs and the another involving 70 lacs INR),so I think I too can express my opinion on this matter. So here is my take-

I agree with your view that-
"The richer the person, the lesser she/he seemed to care about your needs."
and in my opinion, the reason for this is not that those rich people are sceptical about or have some doubts about those NGOs or not that they get too many requests for donations so they get irritated of sort....
I think the reason for this is that once they get rich, money and success gets into their head, they find it hard to relate themselves to the needy, they think they have their own empires to build,their own unfulfilled dreams and desires to make true, their own never-ending-wishlists to fulfill.
And they keep working to do these things forgetting that somewhere their fellow countrymen are just on the verge of loosing the battle of LIFE, that even their 0.01% of wealth can help give a new life and bring happiness on the face of numerous involved persons.
And the basic reason for this attitude-Lack of संतोष (SATISFACTION) their being over-ambitious.

But at the same time I feel such kind of attitude will creep into only those rich people who have inherited their wealth (or profession).
Persons who have risen from dust, those who were once poor and then became rich after lot of hard work, or those who have seen the life's tragedies very closely....I don't think these kind of people will ever ignore a dying fellow-countryman. These people will definitely play some role, they might not play a big role but I am sure if they have risen from dust then they will definitely donate even a small part of their wealth.

and as far as INDIAN Vs WESTERN people are concerned in terms donating tendency, I fear I have not much to say regarding this. I too am a bit puzzled why this is so. I mean why foreigners have a more donating tendency than us.....
That's still a big puzzle for me, If you somehow come to learn about it then please let me know too.

THANKS again.... :) :)

P.S.- My English is not that good, hope its bearable enough for you :)

Shantinath Chaudhary said...

really liked your view on Beggars,
till now I never give a single penny to beggars howsoever disabled he/she might be, my reason for doing so- I don't feel it a right way to help, of course it will make some difference to him but its like a temporary solution, its similar to our Govt. imposing various caste based Reservation Quotas just because they miserably fail at the Grassroot level(i.e. they fail in providing free Education/Books/Food facilities to the deprived class of the society).

The big question is, why don't we attack at the root cause, why do we run away from pursuing the bigger goal, and in total,why do we have this OSTRICH approach?????

Anyway, your take on giving money to BEGGARS is really worth getting noticed and I am forced to take a review of my thinking on the same.

Shantinath Chaudhary said...

@Bhagwad Jal Park:
I must say your comment is an impressive one. :)
But I disagree with one point, u said-"Firstly we donate time instead of money"......Well, this is perfect for students or persons who do not earn,but once a person comes in a professional life I think he will get very less time for these things, so for professional persons,donating money will be far easier than donating time (its another thing that donating time and making personal efforts will be more fulfilling).
Apart from that your points are perfectly agreeable.

Shantinath Chaudhary said...

By the way, here is a fabulous blog titled-
"Six reasons people don't give, and what you can do about them"
Just have a look, it seems pretty good :) :)

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