Thursday, September 17, 2009

"Everyone Will Win At Least One Prize"

I found a sort of materialistic utopian charm in this phrase, extracted from a friend's email about a fundraising "walkathon" she's encouraging folks to join. Imagine. EVERYONE wins! And not only wins, but wins SOMETHING! And maybe MORE!

It's all about "yes, you CAN have a happy childhood, no matter how old you are, starting now." "A prize in every box" of caramel corn and peanuts. "Prizes" that used to be real magnifying glasses, metal or plastic figures, actual toys.

Now those candy-box "prizes" are invariably stickers or temporary tattoos. The grownups get the "real" "prizes" now.

But if everyone wins a "prize", what have they really won? Is it just a race to get to the bottom of the candy box? Once upon a time, "prize" meant a token of recognition for some particular excellence--not merely a random chance (as in "door prizes") or a certainty ("everyone will win at least one prize").

The very fact that not everyone got one is what gave real prizes their meaning. A prize didn't mean that others hadn't done well, it just meant that the one with the prize had somehow excelled. There was a certain delicious anxious excitement (rapidly becoming an endangered species) in waiting to learn who would get the prize...a blend of carefully guarded hope mixed with a feeling that was all of Kubler-Ross's 5 stages of grief mixed into one, ready to be deployed at the MC's stumbling over someone else's name...followed by an opportunity to show good sportsmanship when the winner--once again--wasn't you. Not much opportunity to feel that feeling any more. You know you're going to "win" from before you even pay to play.

When one person at the party receives a memento of their outstanding performance at pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, THAT's a prize. When everyone gets a memento of the party, it's called a party FAVOR. And they don't "win" it. They just get it, just for showing up. Like being part of a fundraising campaign.

Inversely to the deflation of candy-box prizes, I see a trend towards the inflation of "prizes", gimmicks and complicated incentives towards fundraising for charitable causes (not to mention my off-farm employer's corporate safety incentive progam, which has a gambling theme. Gambling on safety? I don't get it). More and more prizes are needed to gain the same level of motivation...oh, wait, that's not inflation, that's ADDICTION.

Once upon a time, people knew a neighbor needed help and they went over and pitched in and helped with their time and energy. If a stranger needed assistance, they gave them some food or clothing or spare change. If there was a larger cash need, they passed a hat, or the church(s) took up (a) special collection(s).

Then causes became broader, and appeals became broader as well. Instead of supporting a neighbor who was suffering from some dread disease, people put their resources together to try to find a way to prevent the disease. That's a good thing--we've learned a lot about the bodies God's given us on loan. But when people are giving to a Big Cause, are they still giving as much to their neighbor and to the stranger on the street? And why aren't our public institutions fulfilling this public need with our tax dollars, instead of (or in addition to) reinventing the food pyramid, building roads that go nowhere, or other projects of dubious value.

We used to give out of a noble human impulse called "altruism". We shared our resources simply because sharing felt good, because our community and our church expected it of us, and because it says so in the Bible (and other scriptures as well). We shared because we knew others would share with us if we needed help, or because they had already shared with us, or because we were glad we didn't need to be shared with.

At some point, though, something changed. It is no longer enough that their children won't face the health risks their parents did. The relief of someone else's suffering does not motivate people's charitable giving any more. People want something tangible in return for their cash, and they want it NOW. A big, fun party. Or a competition. Or food. Or all of the above. At the very least, "everyone will win at least one prize."

So instead of writing out a check for a nice sum to the current cause celebre, a bunch of volunteers plan an event, for example a walkathon. They have to print brochures, entry forms, etc. The printer gets some business. Local media provide advertising, but probably not all of it is free. They have to provide snacks and prizes so they ask merchants for donations. The merchants get a tax deduction. The participants have to pay an entry fee and collect donations from their friends, family and co-workers. People expect tax deductions for their donations. Participants go home with "prizes"--another t-shirt, another water bottle, maybe they won the drawing for the grand prize and got a digital camera. But they came to the event with those things already!

By the end of the event, everyone's exhausted. The gross proceeds look good, but all those expenses must be deducted.

Then there are the hidden costs. Time away from families (and pets! says Toss and the kitties) to stuff envelopes and man the check-in table. The fossil fuels consumed in transportation related to the event, in the life cycle of the "prizes". The long-term health effects of the stress added to already stressful lives.

While the participants are walking the walk (getting some exercise for their donation dollars), they may be also paying a commercial service to mow their lawn (diverting funds that could go to altruistic causes, and foregoing another form of exercise--one that might put them face to face with the neighbor whose name they barely know. Who might be suffering from the very disease they are walking to cure. Who might feel terribly isolated because all the able-bodied are out raising donations for good causes, and don't have time to visit shut-ins.)

I've witnessed one fundraising event that was different. One that was truly energy-efficient, family-friendly, sustainable, and do-able for everyone. It was called a "non-event", put together by the enterprising peace and justice committee of the Canadian Quakers (if I remember right). They gave away--for a donation--tickets to this fundraising event--very simple, photocopied tickets. And what was the event? Nothing! Or--anything! No scheduling hassles--they were good any date you wanted to use them. The deal was, when you wanted to clear out a night on your calendar to just stay home, or do something with your family or friends, and folks kept asking you to do other things, you could simply and honestly say, "I'm sorry, but we already have tickets for that night." Tickets for what? "For a fundraiser for (whatever the exact organization was called)". A perfect opportunity to share about the work of the organization was thus created...diverting the conversation from the exact nature of the event. And possibly an opportunity to sell more tickets. No need to let them know that the benefit dinner was mac-y-cheese at home with the kids, followed by a romp in the park. What an inspiring way to simplify our lives!

Do we really need to be bribed into giving? Have we truly lost the character of altruism, of generousity?

Jesus only mentioned giving alms in private. He never mentioned anything about wearing the promotional t-shirt afterwards.

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