I just read about an effort by Panera Bread Bakery and Café to run restaurants based on the honor system. The idea is that if you can afford it, you pay what the menu says, but if you can’t, you pay what you can or you work it off at the restaurant. Whatever profit is made at that particular restaurant is donated to local food banks. I think this is a brilliant idea and I hope that other places emulate it. I’m aware that some independent restaurant owners around the country already are.
This got me thinking about philanthropy, charity, generosity, and altruism. Who gives, why do they give, how much and how often, and to whom? Many wealthy people donate millions to a variety of charities annually. Do they do so purely for the act of giving, or is there always some small glimmer of influence from our tax code that allows such donations to be written off? Many of the people who give time to soup kitchens are working class people themselves, and may be one misstep away from having to be on the other side of the counter. Many of us give tithes to our religious organizations, or participate in fund raisers such as races/walks for medical issues. Lots of people donate items to Toys for Tots at the holiday time or to the Red Cross when there is a disaster. Whenever the mood strikes you to give, there is someone in need waiting. And it does make you feel good, doesn’t it?
In a book by Matt Ridley, Origins of Virtue, he claims that altruism is in fact based on a Darwinian survival instinct. This is a text-booky paperback well worth slogging through to get you thinking about the issue. His ideas are controversial and cause lots of debate about the issue. At the basis of his theory I found this; that humans are born wanting to cooperate, discriminate, trust, gain a reputation, exchange goods and info, and divide labour. He believes that this is part of the evolution of our species. Therefore, giving to others is an exercise in self-preservation or at least preservation of the species. Interesting thought, that we are generous because at a genetic, cellular level, we have to be. Takes some of the fun out of it, though.
My husband and I, as well as our children, believe in sharing as much as possible. We look to help the maximum number of people- best bang for our buck, as it were. Our favorite place to start is local; charity begins at home after all. So we support the Deveraux Millwood School for Autistic Children and the Neighbors Link program for new immigrants. But we are not adverse to spreading the wealth to other places, mainly because political boundaries should not affect the human ones. So our children went to Nicaragua to build homes when they were in high school; and we support an orphanage in Cali, Colombia where the proprietor (a family member by marriage) takes care of 350 children from newborn to 18 pretty much single-handedly.
No matter what or where or when or to whom, generosity with spare time or money is, in my opinion, a social obligation. There, but for the grace of God go I… That being said, I won’t give to young adults and teens taking handouts on the street instead of working; although I have given a stranded kid a train ticket. I also love to throw a quarter into an expired meter to help someone out. I’ve heard that this is actually illegal, but I’m willing to take that risk. It just feels good.
You can read up on Panera’s efforts at: http://paneracares.org/
Also if you are looking for a place to donate, check it out first at http://www.charitynavigator.org/ to get background info.