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Behind the Curtain



Too many have dispensed with generosity in order to practice charity. — Albert Camus

My landline was blowing up. Three calls in ten minutes, all from charity organizations. I glared at the receiver. This was either an extraordinary coincidence or, as my cynicism whispered, the institute to which I’d donated a few days earlier had sold my number to the Bleeding Heart Data Center. I silently cursed whatever power had made nonprofits exempt from the national Do Not Call list.

The Caller ID read “Breast Cancer,” “Meals on Wheels,” and “TMR,” whatever that is. Probably “Tele-Marketing Research.” If it’s not money they want, it’s information. I let out a chuckle for having such curmudgeonly thoughts. I’m such a hater, I thought. Why the hostility? These people are only looking for funds to support their chosen crusade. I silenced the ringer.

When he returned from his studio, David noticed the blinking light indicating new voicemail. “Who called? Weren’t you home all day?”

“Just a bunch of charities,” I said. “Don’t worry, I’ll clear them.”

David sighed. “I got stopped outside my building by someone with a clipboard.”

“Let me guess — worthy cause? I hate that phrase,” I said. “Every one of them thinks their cause is the only cause.” I don’t mind signing a paper now and then, but for the most part, I bristle when someone steps in my path to advocate on behalf of some overarching concept like the “environment” (a misleadingly generic word, as so many “environmental” organizations champion vastly different policies).

A few weeks ago, I allowed myself to be stopped by a man with a clipboard at the mall in Mission Valley. I wasn’t in a hurry, and I was sympathetic to the equality symbol on his shirt. He opened his mouth to speak, but I was first: “Are you looking for a signature or money?” He began to answer me with a meandering explanation of his organization. I cut him off. “Yes, yes, I know who you guys are. I’m up to date on all of the issues. If you’re looking for a signature, I’m happy to sign. But I don’t give money to people standing around with clipboards, regardless of what’s written at the top of your paper.” At this, he started to argue the case for money while I began to regret having ever made eye contact. Being more firm than polite, I extracted myself from the conversation.

The other night, I was in the dimly lit lounge of the Imperial House when a friend told me about Charity Navigator, a website that breaks down how nonprofits spend all the money they raise. With the lounge’s premier entertainer Rick Lyon crooning the words to “Werewolves of London” while playing his famous synthesizer, my friend explained: “You want to make sure your money is being used well,” he said. “It’s too easy for the industrious to create a nonprofit because they want to make money under the guise of a noble mission. Go on there, you’ll see. Many charities are great, with most of their money going into their programs. But some spend half of the money they raise on administrative costs — like their own salaries.”

The next day, as I typed in the url to discover where the money goes, I felt like Dorothy peeking behind the curtain. According to Charity Navigator, the CEO for the organization to which I’d recently donated earned $848,802 last year. Guess he’s not feeling the recession. That’s twice as much as the CEO of Susan G. Komen for the Cure (who earned around $450,000, still not too shabby). The American Cancer Society has two CEOs, one of whom made over a million dollars last year; the other, close to $700,000.

Though I found it hard to justify the inflated paychecks, at least the majority of the funds raised for those charities went into their programs. Can’t say the same for the Police Protective Fund — only 34 percent of the money they get is put into their programs. For years, I donated to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital; never once did I wonder how they spent my paltry pledges (close to $600,000 for the CEO, and 30 cents for every dollar toward administrative and fundraising expenses).

I felt bad questioning nonprofits, especially those with words like “cancer,” “children,” or “animals” in their names. What kind of heartless bastard ignores a genuine plea from the underprivileged? But that’s how they get you, isn’t it? For every samaritan squirrel conscientiously gathering nuts in its cheeks, there’s an eagle waiting to swoop down, skewer it with talons, and gobble up the lot. Sean Hannity is a good example: in March, it was revealed that for two years in a row, less than 10 percent of the money raised at his “Freedom Concerts” went to the charity, which claimed to pay college tuition for children of soldiers who died in active duty. The rest funded administrative costs such as private planes and pricey consultants. Being predatory in the nonprofit market is simple — just check your soul at the door, throw up a few pathetic images of real suffering, and reach out your arms, palms facing upward.

I want to believe most charities are altruistic at their core. But even if every nonprofit in existence was on the up-and-up, I can’t endorse all of them. My brain can’t handle knowing about every tragedy that occurs outside my sphere of experience. If I tried to maintain awareness of every victim, invalid, and persecuted soul, one day I’d finally snap and end up going Britney — shaving my head and getting a stupid tattoo.

As with money, I only have so much emotional energy to spend. My mother used to tell me to finish all the food on my plate because “children were starving in China.” But I was indifferent to children I’d never met. How was cleaning my plate going to keep them from starving? Suffering is universal. Children are abducted, towns are demolished, and people are afflicted with terrible diseases. In the wake of these disasters, those of us who are aware and willing do what we can to help.

While I will continue to donate my time, energy, and money to certain causes that I believe are worthwhile and fighting the good fight, I recognize I can’t “save” every whale, child, and tree. The next time I am stopped on the street, I may just politely respond, “I’m sorry, my emotional investments have been fully allocated. I am unable to care about your cause at this time.”

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