Such Great Heights

Last time, I looked at how “philanthropizing” creates vertical ties where none may have existed before.

This may be due to a market failure. A necessary one. On some level, we need the insulation of institutionalized philanthropy because it’s intensely awkward to give to a stranger directly. (Giving to people you know has its own joys and complications.)

I experienced this in the Rockaways shortly after Sandy. I was volunteering at a church that was receiving and distributing donations of goods. In the late afternoon, folks started coming in to receive them. Folding tables were set up in a horseshoe in the church gymnasium. Behind them were piles of clothes, blankets, toys, canned goods, and cleaning supplies. Between the tables and the goods were volunteers.

I was on canned goods for a while. Easy enough. I noticed that it made a difference whether I offered something or asked what they wanted. I was being given the micro power to shape expectations, and I didn’t want it. But at first, fairly harmless. When a woman said, “I just want something that reminds me of Thanksgiving,” I delighted in fishing out a can of yams I had just carefully sorted into a section with other starches (yes, there’s such a thing as canned potatoes, alas).

Things got weird when I moved I over to the paper goods. How many rolls of toilet paper are enough? How many rolls of paper towels? Who the eff am I to say? We had some vague guidelines, but it was incongruous to be parroting those to people when a stream of volunteers was piling twelve-packs of paper towels atop each other behind me. I get that the guidelines were there for a reason, but it all felt so arbitrary in the moment.

Here was a vertical tie emerging, unbidden, unwanted on either end. It’s easy to think the alternative would have been a free-for-all; some structure is needed to distribute scarce goods. But I would have been glad, in that moment, for more intermediation. I had chosen this type of volunteering because I wanted to do something direct. But that particular setup and structure left a sour taste. (Delivering hot meals to homebound seniors in the Red Hook Houses felt simpler and “cleaner.”)

Market relations are corrosive when they invade every corner of life. (I’m looking forward to reading The Moral Limits of Markets, which I have waiting on my Kindle app.) Their impersonal nature erodes solidarity. But sometimes, a little distance may be helpful.

This leads me to wonder whether contemporary philanthropy needs a market framework to operate, a certain amount of structure and impersonality. That feels counter-intuitive or wrong – giving is from the heart – but that church gymnasium, with its scoreboard blankly tallying HOME and AWAY, keeps coming back to my mind’s eye.


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