My wife and I have a seven-hundred square foot apartment in which, among other things, we have more books than a reasonably stocked independent bookstore. We’ve also got about all of the computer and audio-visual equipment that we can use (and some we still haven’t used). At this point, we can’t bring anything into our apartment without first removing something else. For the last couple of years, we’ve been trying to convince anyone who might be inclined to do so not to give us tangible gifts of any kind, and we’ve pretty much stopped giving each other gifts.
For our anniversary this past summer, in lieu of a gift, I made a donation in my wife’s name through Donors Choose. The donation was to buy books, journals, and markers for a second grade class at P.S. 11 to keep journals during this school year. Since my wife was herself a dedicated journal writer as a child not far from there, I thought that would be fitting. She was touched at the time, and then we pretty much forgot about it.
When I got home from work last night, I found my wife sitting on the couch in tears, holding a pile of papers. The papers were thank you notes from all of the students in that class at P.S. 11, each personal and all ardent in their declarations of their love for my wife. One even declared that this would allow her to be an author. Seeing this, I was struck by two things.
First and foremost, I was deeply moved. Seeing such genuine appreciation from these kids that someone actually cared about them, it was impossible not to be. And I think that response is a result of the best aspect of Donors Choose’s approach, which is to allow the teachers themselves to define the projects to be funded as opposed to having the projects defined by funders, who likely have no idea of what’s actually needed, meaning that their efforts are more likely to be informed by guilt and ideology than anything else. In Dark Star Safari, Paul Theroux makes a compelling case that such a dynamic has led to charity and other aid efforts in Africa actually making conditions there worse.
But it also occurred to me that most elementary school students in this country don’t have to write thank you notes for their school supplies, and that’s probably the way it should be. That some do is why I found this so depressing yesterday. And I think this gets at something about Donors Choose’s approach that makes me a little uncomfortable, which is that the projects that the teachers define then have to compete against each other for donations, with these notes from deprived innocents as the enticement. I have this image in my mind of a geography teacher not being able to get new maps and globes for her class because its not an alluring enough project to potential donors.