me + charity

I haven’t been able to hit this theme as hard as I wanted to due to the move, but here’s the promised post on why I care so much about this issue. There’ll be one more later this week about why Richard Armitage’s interest in directing fan attention to his charities is a significant factor in his appeal to me.


Despite the turmoil of the last few years, I have always led a materially comfortable life, particularly in comparison to people who live outside the first world. I’ve never had to stay in a Salvation Army shelter or get food from a food bank. Even so, though it might not be immediately obvious to you, I am a major beneficiary of charity. In fact, it’s hard to imagine how different my life would have been without the contributions of people who gave without counting the cost, largely in ignorance of the lives of those they’d eventually benefit, simply in the belief that giving was a virtue in itself, or that certain kinds of charity assistance could change people’s lives. None of the people who helped me set out to ask about whether what I would eventually do with their charity was worthy. They thought that charity in the abstract was a worthy activity that could benefit people like me, and the activities in which we engage, in specific. And they did change my life.

My parents aren’t destitute and even when they were poor they didn’t realize it. They grew up on struggling dairy farms, but so did everyone else around them. As a consequence of skills my father learned after being drafted into the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, they were able to “get off the farm” (their main shared life goal) and joined the lower middle class as that was understood in the U.S. Midwest of the 1970s and 80s. We had a comfortable, if frugal, childhood in that context. The family of my best friend from school went hungry over winter if her father and brother did not shoot deer during hunting season, for instance. Even now hunger charities (like the ones Calexora mentions here) get a lot of attention from me; growing up in a farming community — U.S. farmers are rarely hungry even when they’re cash poor — makes hunger read to me as an especially extreme sort of poverty. We weren’t hungry. Ever.

My parents’ big dream for my brother and me was college, and to that end, every spare cent and every cash birthday gift and (once I started working) much of every bit of pay was diverted into savings. My school didn’t have too many extras, so enrichment came mostly from other groups, and cost money that wasn’t really in our budget. The clarinet I played as a fifth and sixth-grader: donated to the school by someone well-meaning. (After that I got my own.) The music camps I attended in the summer for four years: paid for entirely by scholarship from the local Music Boosters Club. The first three years of piano lessons at a private university conservatory: arranged for by a well-meaning teacher at no cost to me. The Girl Scout trips and camping that substantially expanded my world: paid for by people who bought cookies and participated in other fundraisers. Youth group events at church, church summer camps for seven years: paid for by the church and the people who donated to it. None of this necessary in the sense that food and shelter are. But these activities sharpened my conscience, they taught me practice, teamwork, and the habit of being meticulous, and they very much expanded my awareness of a world behind the tiny community in which I grew up. They prepared me to be an adult as much as school or my parents did.

Frugality notwithstanding, my parents had no idea what college really cost. Everything we had saved would have covered a year, perhaps. It was the end of the 1980s and Pell Grant money was going mostly to poor families, while the middle class was being diverted into government-subsidized loans. I’m sure my parents would somehow have gotten both of us through college. But they didn’t have to. Because my college tuition was paid for entirely by benefactors through the company my father worked for, a local paper mill that had donated to the National Merit Scholarship Corporation, and most significantly, by alumni donors to the institution I attended. I worked only to pay my living expenses, and I got away with one tiny student loan (for study abroad — something I couldn’t have done had I had to foot the entire bill myself). And because of these grants, I received a demanding private education of a much higher quality and with a great deal more individual attention than I might have had I attended the local public institution of higher education.

The first job I had the summer after college was at a foundation dedicated to improving the U.S. political process. It was funded completely by an endowment created by an important American inventor. My parents had no idea what graduate school was or why it would be necessary for anyone to attend one. At that point they had my brother’s college tuition to worry about. And so my graduate education was also paid for by charities: by alumni donors to my graduate institution, and by a foundation created by heirs to the fortune of an important American industrialist and banker.

As generous as those grants were, they didn’t cover the time I’d have to spend in Germany researching my dissertation. Most of that cost — over two years of complete support during the dissertation years — was covered through a private association that is heavily funded by the German government. Before you object that this was not philanthropy, but government assistance, let me point out that the agency itself is a non-profit, and also that the German government didn’t have all that much reason to think that it would ever profit from subsidizing additional research on the topic of my dissertation. This agency is the largest grantor in the world of support for academic exchange programs; it assists more than 50,000 students per year. To me, it was charity.

And then there were the charities that supported my work after my dissertation was complete: the various private associations and foundations in Germany that paid for summers at the site of my research; the private non-profit in the U.S. that financed a year of sabbatical for my book manuscript; and then, finally, the other German foundation that gave me a two-year grant. That fellowship had the label of “Marshall Plan Thank You.” The Marshall Plan was a landmark act of U.S. government philanthropy: $13 billion was transferred to Europe with no expectation of payback.

And in all this, I’ve only talked about money. I haven’t discussed the gifts of time and energy made to me by teachers and other volunteers who believed in my potential: Girl Scout leaders, music teachers, Sunday School teachers, youth workers, writing center tutors, professors, and so on, and on, and on, and on. All the people who didn’t think about spending another hour of their day to further my education.

The result for me: I’ve become incredibly convinced of my own amazing luck — not just in being born in the U.S., or in having parents with goals and a strong work ethic and moral orientation — but also in being the recipient of so much largesse from people and foundations that chose to believe in my path and my goals. And every time I think about how fortunate I have been, I realize how easily it could have been different. Had I been born elsewhere, and not had access to solid pediatric care, or a handy, safe water supply, or good public schools, or a safe environment around me. Had I had parents more focused on their own welfare than on mine, or ones who needed my labor on their farm more than they desired my education. Had my father carried away more negative baggage from the war than he did. Had my mother been disabled. Had my parents divorced. Had I been afflicted with a serious physical or mental illness, or suffered an severe accident. Had I been the victim of violence. Had I been in the path of a hurricane or tornado at any time. Had I succumbed to drug addiction. Had I been unemployed for a long period of time (academics all know what a random stroke of luck it can be to find an academic position in a situation where there are up to 300 applications for every position). And if you’re tempted to say to me: well, you deserved these awards, you’re smart, you work hard, my response is: what if I hadn’t been lucky enough to be born with a strong helping of intelligence? I’ve worked hard, all my life, really. But even the capacity to do that is not something that I created. It was given to me, instilled in me, cultivated, and rewarded — by charities. And let’s face it: I’m a human. I don’t always deserve what I get, in the sense that no one who has a year-long grant is able to spend every second of that year on work. Scholarships paid for my studies, and I’ve used the time responsibly, but they also paid for me to have a life — to drink a few beers, to make friends, to go sightseeing, to read an extra book. And there’s no sense in which I deserve things like clothing, food, and shelter any more than any other human being.

Charity is thus a framework without which it is difficult for me to understand how I’d have developed. Everything could so easily have been different.

So the upshot of all of this is: I think a lot of my “luck” in life has been fostered and created by charities and various philanthropic ventures, and by philanthropists with money and philanthropists with time. That doesn’t mean that I necessarily give indiscriminately. I, too, have my favorite charities — most of them are educational, or have to do with women’s health in the third world. Sometimes I think it’s better to give time, and given how much time I’ve been given by teachers over the years, I try never to refuse a student’s request for time. But at the base of what I do manage to squeeze in lies my conviction that  charity is a practice of central importance to improving our world, because I know how charity has improved my own world. And when I think how it has improved my world — I, who have never really suffered in the sense that we typically think of human suffering — I know how it must impact the lives of those who do suffer in those ways. Charitable gifts of the kind that Mr. Armitage has recommended create luck for a lot of people, a little bit at the time. Not the kind of luck I’ve had, maybe. But things that are a lot closer to the ground, like the good fortune of not having to spend another night on the street, or finding an ear to listen to one’s adolescent troubles.

I worked one summer in grad school soliciting donations from alumni for one of the alumni foundations that sponsored my education. As part of my training I learned that the number one reason people do anything, including make donations, is that they’re asked. So if you’ve made it all the way to the end of this post, I ask you:

Will you — in whatever way you can — engage in philanthropy? Will you make someone else’s life a lucky one, today?

Thanks for reading.


Happy Birthday month Richard Armitage! In honor of this event, consider donating your time, energy, and thoughts / prayers to an effort that’s meaningful to you. If you need a suggestion, here’s a link to Mr. Armitage’s recommended charities at JustGiving, as well as a link to means of generating a charity contribution on his behalf at, and a link to Act!onAid, a child sponsorship organization for which he recorded a voiceover in December 2010. Donate to Christchurch Earthquake Appeal here.

~ by Servetus on August 15, 2011.

27 Responses to “me + charity”

  1. Servetus,

    I am reading through this at work and choking back tears. My eyes have been bothering me a great deal today anyway so I could use that as an excuse.

    I thought of my parents, who were determined we would have the advantages and opportunities they did not, and yes, the fact as a child on a farm even when the bank account was near empty,

    I never had to go hungry, even if it was just peas and cornbread. It was a lot more than some folks had. I had some wonderful clothes because of my mom’s skills as a seamstress. I had a fertile imagination because of the gift of reading, and oh, thank you, thank you to all the authors who have written so many books I have dearly loved.

    I thought of my teachers–school, church, music–and how they believed in me and prodded me at times and forced me to step out of my comfort zones when necessary, when my shyness and self-consciousness held me back.

    As I grow older, I find myself thinking more and more of how different my life could have been. I was born with the umbilical cord wrapped around my neck. A little extra time and I would have suffered brain damage. As you know, technically, I shouldn’t even exist as the biological child of my parents. Yet, here I am. With a lot to be thankful for.

    Rather than concentrating on what I don’t have, I always try to remind myself of what I DO have, and what I can share, whether it is money, talent or experience to help someone else.

    As I said over at Calexora’s blog, it is amazing what we can do if we pool our resources together. We really can make a difference.

    Thanks for sharing your story. It is a testament what giving can do to make this world a better place.


    • People have made big sacrifices to get us where we are, I think so often, and it’s only fair that we make the same efforts, within our capacities. Over time, I’ve come to think that the motivation matters less than the effort — of course parents want to help us more than random strangers do — but the point is that they made the effort. That we, in turn, make our own efforts.


      • I remember a student of mine at the school for the blind. Linda’s parents thought they were doing her a kindness by locking her in a closet during the day because that way their blind daughter couldn’t hurt herself. Her only contact with the outside world was talking with her siblings through the door and listening to TV.

        She was in the prevocational track at the school, not due to a lack of intelligence but due to everything she had missed that put her behind other students.

        I was amused at how much like the smart-mouthed kids on TV sitcoms she sounded at times–well, who else did she have to pattern herself after? But there was a truly sweet girl with a passion to learn underneath the sometimes withering sarcasm.

        I remember walking around the classroom one day, going from one student to the other. I paused and placed a hand on Linda’s shoulder–a simple gesture, and not uncommon for me.

        Suddenly her shoulders went back, her head was held high and a beautiful smile crossed her face. I was humbled by how much that little gesture meant to that young woman.

        Sometimes something as simple as the power of human touch can make such a difference in someone’s life. There are so many ways we can give of ourselves.


  2. A most interesting post, Servetus.

    My parents also had to make ends meet and they did not have any further family to support them. We definitely lived a frugal life in the middle of the German “Wirtschaftswunder” / the economic boom in the 60s / 70s. Nowadays I know how difficult the sixties were for us but as a child I seldom noticed. I didn’t mind having to wear my cousins’ hand-me-down clothes and I certainly never suffered from hunger.

    Growing up within the German welfare state system not only did I receive a proper school education for free but – unlike my parents – my brother and I could go to university without having to pay any substantial fees. We would not have been able afford a university education otherwise and we did not have to rely on charity. I think that constitutes a big difference between Germany and the U.S. As a “side effect” as you may know the concept of philanthropy does not play such an important part in our society yet (although Germans tend to donate a lot towards charities such as Unicef etc).

    You’re quite right – one should not forget to be grateful for having grown up in such relative comfort and – having a secure job today – I am fairly well off and I’m thankful for that as well. Your post reminded me to donate (although I really shouldn’t need such a reminder) – I always find Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors without borders a worthy cause but every charity be it local, national or international needs support.


    • This is an interesting reply. I wish there were more research on the shadows of the Wirtschaftswunder — the people who weren’t participating in the big income / consumption boom.

      The German educational system, for all of its problems, is really an amazing thing. The respect that German society has for education and the way that it’s embodied really dumbfound those of us who come from different settings. That Germany would pay not only for the education of its own university students, but also for *me* — that floored me.

      Doctors w/o Borders is an important charity, I agree, esp. in these times.


  3. Like you, I believe in luck and being there at the right time, at the right place for the right reasons. A lot of the circumstances are out of our control and yet they contribute greatly to how we will turn out.

    People may mean well when they say “You deserved all of it, because you worked hard!’, but don’t seem to realise how denigrating it sounds. As if a less fortunate person doesn’t work as hard as you to deserve some good in their life. Or that they simply don’t try hard enough to strive for better things, therefor are unworthy.

    Not to mention how does one compare?

    We would like to think equal opportunities are accessible for all, but that’s not true.


  4. Thanks Servet for reminding us how much we are blessed in our lives.
    And many do not have the same blessings, but we can make a difference for someone donating our time, love or resources.


  5. Thank you Servetus for this very moving post today. Being born just a year before the outbreak of the Second World War, I think I was too young to truly understand what hardships my parents, and particularly my mother, experienced. I was an only child (not by their choice) and even so feeding and clothing us was not easy in those days of severe rationing not only during the war but for some years afterwards. My Dad was in the army so my Mother bore the burden of it all on her own. No wonder she started smoking to help her handle the stress of the bombings. Even in air-raid shelters we weren’t totally safe. But looking back I think what we went through made us very close and I still miss her to this day. I’m so thankful I never went hungry even though naturally there were many things we had to do without.

    Like Angieklong, I look back fondly at my childhood and growing up years and think of family and friends; the many, many wonderful books I read; music I loved and was surrounded with and being fortunate enough to be able to learn to play the cello while in school with no cost to my parents if I remember correctly. Even though I was an only child I don’t remember ever feeling lonely as I could get lost in the various “worlds” of the books I read! I still love books and read every day (sometimes forgetting the time!) and can never stop acquiring them.

    I hope I never get complacent and forget how fortunate I have been. Life could have been so different and even though I have never been (nor likely ever will be) rich in the monetary sense I feel rich beyond measure in what I do have and I thank God daily for all of it. Food to eat, clean water to drink, a roof over my head – basic necessities that millions lack to this day – and so many other things too numerous to list. Surely when we see others suffer we cannot sit back and do nothing. We can’t save the world on our own but every donation can go some way to relieve that suffering to some degree, as Richard and many of you are already doing.


    • I think a lot of kids who grew up in the Second World War share some variation on the bomb shelter memory, Teuchter — I’ve heard a version of it repeatedly from different people I’ve met, and it’s interesting to me how fear and togetherness intertwine in those accounts. A colleague of mine said to me, “I remember being really scared, but I remember groups of old women saying the rosary together, and falling asleep while listening to them pray” (for instance).

      I think shared hardship can unite people — and also that people who don’t have family members to share their difficulties with need our help.


  6. Thank you for this. We make tzedakah an important value and activity in our family’s life and teach it to our children, but I had not until now thought about the ways in which I’ve been the beneficiary of other people’s charity, including countless volunteer hours and, like you, a Mellon fellowship.


    • The thing that I got from tzedakah (learned about as a consequence of converting) that I didn’t get from my Christian upbringing was the idea that refusing to give is not really an option. I grew up in a “no free will” version of Christianity, and there was a lot of gnashing of teeth about motivation — was charity being motivated primarily by concern for oneself as opposed to by some divine motor — if not motivated by G-d, it was harmful. After living in México for a year and seeing a kind of poverty I’d never encountered in the US, I decided that that was nonsense. Of course it’s better to give out of the correct motivation and not out of a desire for personal glory (as Judaism acknowledges), but it is also better to give for any reason than not to give at all. And if we want to repair the world, we must give.

      The Mellons: oh yeah. Andrew W. Mellon and George Marshall both have stars on my calendar. This research that’s coming out now that claims that wealthy people are less altruistic puzzles me because of that. What about all of these wealthy people with their big foundations? The Gateses, inter alia? It’s not that I want to support the ongoing development of plutocracy, but there are many examples of extremely rich people acting to improve the world, and my life’s been better for it.


  7. Lovely post, Servetus.

    Germany seems to have such a wonderful attitude toward higher education. I have friends who have studied there from bachelors to masters at no cost. It’s amazing to me that they offer education for free to internationals as well as their own. In Australia, as I am sure it is in the USA, international students are BIG business.

    I run my own small business, through this I am able to provide goods to various organisations for fundraising purposes. I also shop at a local grocier who has a program where a percentage of your purchase goes towards the charity of your choice. Also, because I received assistance to help set up my business years ago, I’m rather found of micro-finance organisations like Kiva, who I’ve supported for a number of years. Although my income is meager, as I am still studying, you really don’t need a lot to be able to give back, so I try to do what is within my means.


    • One thing the DAAD does that really impresses me is the effort they place on furthering the studies of students from developing countries. It’s a huge struggle for all kinds of reasons — cultural and linguistic barriers, and the fact that Germany is hardly a prejudice-free society toward people of color — but the ongoing emphasis is impressive. That the German govt essentially pays to educate medical doctors who will return to their countries of origin has always moved me. It’s expensive, and what do they get?

      I’ve given to Kiva at times — I really admire their ethos.


  8. In addition to all the things everyone above is thankful for, I am thankful to have been born caucasian. I spend time wondering about the special thanks a white person needs to feel to her creator. Even in Africa where the dark race is in the vast majority, white folks prosper and black kids starve. Here in the West where dark races are given every opportunity and preferred in many instances, those darker people do not prosper. I wonder if the failures of the black race is my fault.


    • I’m glad you raised this because — after our discussion of the nervousness about meeting new fans, and Judi’s discussion of her position — it occurred to me that I hadn’t even mentioned the luck of white privilege.


      • Having spent my childhood years in a segregated society, my eyes were opened to the inequities of our community.

        I heard one of my black classmates in high school speak about how ill-prepared she felt for the challenges of school compared with many of her white classmates.

        The unqualified teachers, the lack of textbooks and equipment and other factors of her early years made it necessary for Peggy to work that much harder when the schools integrated in 1970.

        Peggy went on to graduate an honor student, got her engineering degree from Alabama and now works in the traffic division for the City of Atlanta. (She has written a wonderful, candid memoir published by the U of A press).

        I realize how much I would have had to overcome if I had been born into a different family, if I couldn’t drink out of certain water fountains, or eat inside the Dairy Queen or even use the same walk-up window as other people because of my skin color.

        There are a lot of inequities in this world.


  9. Thank you Servetus and Angie for your comments. I wondered if Servetus would simply delete my comment, but went ahead anyway. Is it “the luck of white priviledge” ideed, Servetus, or is it something else? We really are not here on this post to discuss such thorny issues. However, I thank whatever gods may be that I am caucasian. My dear mother-in-law asked me once, “would you prefer to live 100 years as a black person or 50 years as a white person.”

    My husband and I have been dancing to old recordings (1960) of Marlene Dietrich which were made during her first visit to Berlin after WWII. I am still singing Johnny when it’s your birthday I’ll spend the night with you and Peter, Peter I’m out of cigarettes, and you’d say, “I’ll be right over.” She sings in German which I don’t understand but my husband translates for me.

    When we were very young we lived in New York’s Germantown and frequented a bar that played all the Dietrich songs. We used to dance and drink into the wee hours. New York was always open. My husband went to an all men bar called Hans’ and I wished I could have gone. He said it was very boring and the men just played chess and “stuff.” right. Anyway, back to Marlene. She was is her 70’s when she made the recordings we have (my age now). No wonder the men had such high spirits.


    • Well, my point wasn’t to be saying “thank G-d I wasn’t born black.” In the context of what I was saying about my life, I was pointing out that I’ve been incredibly fortunate in so many ways, like being born a U.S. citizen. That’s an incredible privilege and amazing luck, but it doesn’t equate to saying, “thank G-d I wasn’t born a citizen of Somalia” (for example). The general thrust of the post was that those of us who benefit from inequities (like racial privilege) should acknowledge our arbitrary fortune and try to address the inequities, and one way of trying to do that is via philanthropy.


  10. Philanthropy is one of the noblest ideals of mankind and giving back is something as precious as well. Yes, we are lucky and privilege enough to have been born and live in a western society compared to the people of Somalia without demeaning their spirits and their will to live in dire circumstances. We, on the other hand I think should learn about their survival skills.

    In the end, I hope the people of these countries and their Governments join hand in hand to live above politics to help alleviate the enormous problems their countries are facing. Governments and politicians in these part of the world should be more accountable and open to the public to progress. Education is an important equation to the problem.

    Wondering if the United Nations is doing enough in monitoring progressive changes in these kind of governments ?


  11. Update on above…..(2 folds)

    Opera Tenor, Placido Domingo is donating the profit of his concert on Oct. 6, 2011 to be held at Canterbury Arena in NZ to help reopen Court Theatre and Christchurch Synphony Orchestra.

    United Nations is investigating the possible theft of food from supplies ship to Somalia to counter famine. The breakdown of security delivering the supplies are due to dangers and restrictions, humanitarian supply lines remain highly vulnerable to looting, attack and diversion by armed groups.
    (Herald Sun-17 Aug. 2011).

    What a pity to the starving and callousness to the looters!


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  13. […] reasonable, honey,” my dad says. “You were the one who wanted a Ph.D. We just wanted you to go to college, and be a teacher or maybe a nurse, and settle down and marry. It’s probably too late for you […]


  14. […] to neglect the charities they already support. Still, it’s fairly personal for me. In fact, I’ve been a huge beneficiary of charity myself, so I spent all of last August blogging about charity, specifically urging people to donate to […]


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  16. […] you, sister bloggers and fellow fans. You know how I feel about stuff like this, but I got it from […]


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