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.

6 Replies to “Charity”

  1. I dunno…I think you might be reading too much into it…I think that no matter what projects get funded, it’s a good thing for the class…and since the donations fund one thing maybe that frees up cash to get other stuff, who knows…plus, I recently found out that my tennis partner’s kids (who go to my school system in weathly suburban NJ) are sent home in September with a list of school supplies they must bring in — unlike when I went to schioll when you’d get a list that included stuff like a binder or notebooks and pencils FOR YOUR PERSONA USE, this particular list included things FOR THE USE OF THE WHOLE CLASS as well as your own notebooks and what have you — I was horrified that our tax dollars aren’t funding things that I took for granted when I was in school, like construction paper and glue for Pete’s sake…the problem is the same all over, unfortunately.)

    Regarding your actual donation, though, how utterly awesome is it that you guys actually get thank you notes? Every year when we adopt that family at work I always hope that they think to write a note saying how much the kids loved the stuff but they never do — it doesn’t make me not want to help out, but it sure would be nice to know that the kids actually appreciated that hand-knit scarf or the very expensive rollerblades we sent. You don’t do it for the gratitude, but that sure would make my day to hear firsthand how what we did helped.


  2. Well, I think there’s a difference between having to buy your school supplies (unfortunate though that is) and having to be (and act) beholden to someone else for them.

    And the Donors Choose projects really are in competition with each other. Because there are so many schools from so many different places involved, money given to one project is unlikely to be of any help to the potential beneficiaries of other projects. If you look at the site, it really is framed as a contest, with statistics about the percent of students that are low income and impassioned pleas from the teacher (“Pick me! Pick me!”), leaving the donor to choose whatever project tickles their fancy, like a prospective dog owner visiting the pound. It’s an unfortunate dynamic, though its antecedents lie well outside of anything Donors Choose can correct on its own.

    That said, I think the gratitude of the students, which seems entirely genuine, is fantastic. In purely pragmatic terms, that for which we’re grateful is far more likely to actually be beneficial to us. I find their thank you notes so moving not for anything I get out of it, but for what the students get out of it. It shows that they’ve gotten something of value to them, that they’ve been touched in a kind way by someone else in a way that matters to them, and that they’ve felt the immeasurable satisfaction of appreciating something.

    On the whole, I think Donors Choose is a great idea. I will certainly donate more money through the site, and I would suggest that anyone thinking about making a donation at least consider doing the same.


  3. I do understand your discomfort. The idea of charity being the only thing that guarantees a complete educational experience is kind of bizarre in the developed world.

    But I’m so glad you gave, for those kids’ sake and for yours!

    My mom raised me to write thank you notes for EVERYTHING — I think it made me consider gifts and givers differently in such a positive way. That’s something I plan to instill in my kids.


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