Translating charity

As our foreign exchange experience comes to a close, I’m marveling at how little I know about Rosí’s culture. I don’t mean the little stuff. I know Dominicans drink their coffee small, strong, and syrupy sweet. I know that being a pedestrian in the Dominican Republic is hazardous to your health. And that following the traffic laws there is hazardous to your health, too. I know that few Dominicans pay their utility bills because the electricity, water, and Internet are often off for hours or days at a time. As in several hours a day, every day. Nothing is reliable, she says.

I know details. But I don’t know how that feels and informs assumptions.

When I first learned Spanish, reflexive verbs fascinated me. In particular, I was (and am, still) obsessed by the differences in language wherein your thought process and language output say “my leg broke itself on me” rather than our apologetic “I broke my leg,”or the passive “I am called by others this name” rather than our ownership claim, “my name is.”

I haven’t thought much about these linguistic differences while Rosí has been here because she speaks to us in English and her challenges are not those conventional differences. In fact, her biggest colloquial struggle, for at least the first month, was saying she wanted “light” instead of “a little” of something. She wanted a light bowl of chips and a light minute to get something done. Her predominant linguistic challenge is pronouncing vowels correctly, i.e., the lazy-mouthed American way. the schwa is not a Spanish sound, fyi.

But yesterday, her confusion about an email reply she’d gotten confused us both.

About halfway into her stay, Rosí proposed creating and funding an animal shelter back in the Dominican Republic so she could attend to all the strays running the streets of her community. She asked a charitable arm of the organization that got her here to the United States for a contribution to her cause. They turned her down and told her to try something more modest.

So she applied for funding for a friend’s chemotherapy.

The organization emailed her to praise her idea and tell her how worthy the cause is. And they told her that she just needed to organize an event or fund drive or project to which they would contribute. They gave her several examples, including a story about a woman in a similar situation who organized a party for the cancer ward of her hospital. The charitable foundation contributed to that party.

Rosí simply didn’t grok.

“I don’t understand,” she said. “I have to do something and then they will give money? So how do I get money to do an event or a project if they don’t give it to me? Why would I do something so they will give me money, if I can just ask for the money and get it for him? That’s ridiculous.”

We talked at length about ideas she could develop that would provide the trigger the foundation wanted: a way to contribute but not completely fund something. A project that would show her, Rosí’s commitment, so they could help fund her efforts, but so they weren’t just giving cash to one person.

She seemed flabbergasted. And livid. She had a worthy cause and she wanted funding, and she didn’t plan to do anything. Asking for money toward a worthy cause was doing enough.

I asked our mutual fund if I’d explained it well. I was baffled by our foreign exchange guest’s response.

But our friend explained succinctly. Where Rosí lives, there is substantial need. Someone identifies the need, raises funds, and arrives with cash. In short, Rosí watches charitable funds being delivered, not being gathered. She sees problems addressed, not to the process of identifying and measuring the problem and designing a potential solution.

I’ve marveled since high school at what it means to think of your body as something that breaks itself on you. Or the world view that develops from thinking you don’t so much own your name as receive it from others. What’s it like to think that charity is something that arrives, not something you really, really ought to do because you empathize but can’t actually fathom?

I thought about how we approach charity in this country. Throw money at someone’s idea for fixing something that’s wrong. So many words in that sentence sound problematic, don’t they? Who determines what’s wrong? Who chooses the fix? Why do we fund other people’s ideas rather than generating our own? And why throw money at need rather than spending time or educating in the interest of change or…

I thought of the op-ed by Peter Buffett, who argues that we’re going about charity all wrong. I thought of conversations I’ve had with clients, predominantly low-profit and B corp organizations who want to change the world, and the barriers that include trying hard not to just slap an American solution onto a decidedly non-American challenge.

Shouldn’t we go about charity differently? Are we swooping in with dollars and dropping them off and flying off again to our next project? Are we engaging the people for whom we’re doing charitable work to ask what they define as the problem and how they envision solutions?

I have absolutely no answers right now, but I’d like to hear your thoughts. When the need in the world seems overwhelming and we want to facilitate the solution, how do we identify need and how do we design solution?

And should we just keep writing checks to help? Is it helping? I’m not being cynical; I’m completely sincere. What is the best use of our passion for help and change and fairness and equality and rights and…should we choose one issue and focus? Should we research and become part of the charitable organizations’ resource pool? Should we close our mouths and listen to the underlying questions, hear the answers to those questions?

That’s where I’m starting right now. Closing my mouth and listening to your ideas.

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Thanksgiving for Santa.

Peanut has been in an intense no-sharing mood for almost a year. So he’s intrigued lately with the concept of giving presents. You give someone stuff, but you’re not sharing. It’s not yours; it’s theirs. You don’t get it back. There is no control after the giving. But there is control in the choosing.

He likes this.

He’s picked out birthday presents for friends, telling me exactly what his friends get and what they don’t. He usually picks out something for himself, too, though he’s perfectly willing to have it put away until birthday, Hanukkah, Christmas, Nana’s birthday (which is a great holiday at our house–Nana’s birthday is a couple days before Christmas, after the all important Solstice. Nana’s birthday is a holiday nobody else gets (except, well, Nana). We love Nana’s birthday. We get presents for no other reason than because we’re lucky enough to have her in our family.)

So we’ve been talking about Santa in our house for two years, because I knew it would come up, and, like making spiders and owls and wolves friendly, and fairy tales completely non-scary, I wanted to manage how this once-benevolent and now out-of-control commercialist holiday is portrayed in our house. I want him to believe in magic and hope and love, but not in getting stuff because you’re good. So I researched Santa Claus and found that the original dude, on whom the St. Nick character is based, was intensely into charity. He gave to the needy. That, Spouse and I discussed, is something we can be down with.

We taught Peanut that Santa, when he was around, gave to people who need. Santa’s not around anymore, but remembering him makes people want to give. True. Not as true as I’d like it to be, but still. (And yes, I did just teach my kid that Santa’s dead. So? He’s a myth. He’s fun to talk about and believe, and being honest now makes it less upsetting to find out later that Santa’s a myth.)

So each year, as often as we can, we give to people who need. After we moved, a truck came to take all the gently used things that we don’t need anymore, but another family might. He was totally fine giving stuff to the truck, because we said it was like Santa’s truck. When we read books about Christmas and Santa has a bag of toys, we tell him that it’s like the fire station and the library having Toys for Tots barrels. Santa has a bag of toys because the family left them out for Santa to take to people who need. Santa’s not bringing to the people in the stories. He’s taking, so he can redistribute. (That’s called being nice, you pre-election hatemongers.)

So I asked Peanut what he wanted to do for Christmas to help like Santa. Last year he wanted to bring toys to the dogs and cats at the local shelter. He loved every minute of giving, in part because he got to choose which dog got which ball, and which cat got which feather. This year he wants to bring apricots to the Food Bank. Because he says they don’t need raisins, but “if they need apricots, I give them apricots.”

Then he said, and I won’t let him forget this ever, that maybe some people just need someone to cuddle them. Maybe, like the babies Grandma cuddles at the hospital, maybe some people just need friends. He would like to find them, he said, and listen to them and cuddle them and make them feel better.

So that’s what we’re doing for Thanksgiving. We’re going to try the local retirement community, and see how he reacts to cuddling seniors. He tends to be wary of older people, so that might not work. Then we’ll bring apricots to the Food Bank.

And we will head to the animal shelter again this year. At least once a month. Because those dang critters love them some attention. And though it’s hard for me not to bring them all home, it makes Peanut feel very important to cuddle small creatures who don’t have families yet. He needs to feel important. And lots and lots of people and pets this year need love. So Spouse and I are going to try to meet as many of those needs as we can, and teach Peanut in the process that the best thing you can do is give.

Santa didn’t come to our house last year, and won’t be coming to our house this year. We don’t need anything. But we’ll make sure that we help whomever we can.

So let us know if you need a cuddle. ‘Cuz we’re ready for ya.