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A means to an end

August 12, 2010

For several months I’ve been trying to force myself to write a little bit every day. There are several reasons for this–catharsis, to organize thoughts, to share with a wider audience the things I care about, to prevent brain atrophy, among others. Sadly and ashamedly, it has literally taken me months to start a blog because I have been stumped on what to call said blog. Yes, it’s true. Perhaps someone out there will empathize with my fickleness.

Anyhow, I’m dedicating my first post to the concept of “a means to an end.” It seems to be a theme that’s presented itself in my life as of late. Take this blog, for example. Honestly, I’ve felt an urgent–nay–DESPERATE need to put my thoughts down on paper. I am a writer. Not just by trade but by being. I need to write. And I haven’t had an outlet by which to legitimately write for fun in a long time (and I am positive my creativity has taken a hit because of that). So this blog is a means to that end–despite the fact that likely no one besides my mom or my husband will read it (hey, guys!), it solves a problem of personal need.

Continuing with this concept, Stephen and I grabbed a quick bite to eat at the Yard House in Pasadena since I was tagging along for his class tonight. We had a couple of beers (I savored a pint of my personal favorite, Pyramid Hefeweizen) and chatted about my potential blog (now a REAL blog!) and the discipline of writing. When we got our bill, there was a sticker and small card inside the padded check folder that said “Round It Up!” Basically, from what I’ve found in my research, it’s a program available at several restaurant chains that offers guests the opportunity to round up their bill to the next dollar amount and donate the additional funds to charity. For example, if your bill is for $14.55, you can round it up to $15 and give the extra $.45 to charity.

I thought it was a pretty cool idea–an easy way to give a little to help a lot. Stephen was disgusted disagreed, saying that it was just another way to exploit consumerism without really engaging people with the issues at hand (i.e. TOMS Shoes, Ethos Water, and any other buy-this-item-and-we’ll-donate-$X-to-this-charity business model). His main beef is that it gives people a feeling of relief for their apathy, without changing hearts or fixing problems–plugging a hole in a leaking ship instead of fixing the ship completely, in other words.

I argued that programs like this are a means to an end–a way to engage people who would otherwise be doing nothing. If I were benefiting from the, say, $.45 that someone “rounded up”–I wouldn’t really care if in order to benefit from that $.45, the happy hour-goer had to first purchase two beers. Who cares? Someone is helped! Ditto for something like TOMS Shoes. Yes, it does play off American consumerism. Yes, it is a trend. But people are going to buy trendy things anyway. Why not help kids while you rock those kicks? And I truly believe that people who Round Up or buy TOMS Shoes are now aware of or at least more tuned in to the issues at hand. Means to ends are not always as neat and prim as the rooms in an IKEA catalog. They’re usually messy and they’re usually compromises because an ideal solution wasn’t possible or available. But they get the job done. Does that mean they’re wrong?

I cautiously raise my glass to philanthropy by proxy. I’d love to hear what you think.

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18 Comments leave one →
  1. Erika permalink
    August 12, 2010 2:35 am

    Amen! Anything that gets our characteristically apathetic society to lend a helping hand is good news by me. I’d love to see people do more and get truly behind social causes. But, in the meantime, baby steps will do.

  2. Chelsea Farnam permalink
    August 11, 2010 8:43 pm

    You must keep this up. Writing everyday is just one of those things the rest of us all seek to attain but never truly achieve. Like the 8-minute mile. Or actually getting your daily amount of fiber.
    But more on your topic- I’ll be annoying and compromise between you and Stephen. While I think there’s nothing inherently wrong with “philanthropy by proxy,” as you put it so well, I think that loving the people who are close to us is a lot more difficult. Like reconciling with an old roommate or having lunch with an ex is probably a million times more formative than buying TOMS shoes. But reconciling with an ex does nothing for shoeless children in Africa. So I guess the question is more about whether philanthropy is for the giver or the receiver.
    But honestly– we have to pick our battles. I think shoeless children in Africa is a leaky ship that I simply can’t fix on my own.

    • August 12, 2010 9:05 am

      Anne Lamott says to aim for 300 words/day.

      I wanted to follow up on your comment with this: I get that we have to pick our battles and that we can’t fix the problem of shoeless African kids (or adults) on our own–BUT I would argue that a) you can probably work on loving the people around you and contributing to charity via the items you’re already consuming (i.e. shoes, water, your restaurant bill) at the same time. And b) yes we can’t fix shoes in Africa on our own, but isn’t it better to do something small than nothing at all?

      Thanks for reading and for the comment!

      • Stephen permalink
        August 12, 2010 12:08 pm

        Ok. First, let me throw out a regularly cited quote from Oscar Wilde (we must forgive him for gender exclusive language), “The emotions of man are stirred more quickly than man’s intelligence..it is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought.”

        What does this mean? Everyone sees poverty around the world. We see pictures of black children without shoes, etc. We in u.s. america feel guilty because of our historical oppression of black people. Thus, we go about trying to solve the problem. We buy TOMS shoes, we buy fair trade coffee from Starbucks, etc. So, now when we see these pictures, we can feel good about ourselves because we have a pair of shoes and (theoretically) we gave a pair of shoes. We have assuaged our guilt and we have put a flimsy band-aid on the bleeding sores of the poor. Meanwhile, nothing has been done to alleviate the systematic, structural problems which have led to entire continents existing in abject poverty.

        So, in the abstract, theoretical, individual sense, yes, giving shoes to a child is a good thing. If we can help individual people, why not? But, my contention is, that in the aggregate, these little band-aids prevent us from ever attacking the root of the problem. I’m basically arguing the old, “give a person a fish, feed them for a day, teach them to fish, feed them for a lifetime.” Except what I’m saying is that we are giving people a fish, while at the same time preventing them from learning to fish. To me, that is unacceptable.

  3. Stephen permalink
    August 11, 2010 9:14 pm

    So glad that you’re blogging! Sometime when my school wifi isn’t being stolen by someone *ahem* I will give you a fuller response on the evils of charity. 🙂

    Can’t wait to see all the great writing to come!

  4. Amanda Brockman permalink
    August 11, 2010 9:33 pm

    Congratulations on the birth of your blog! I have been considering doing some writing myself, so I admire your ability to get started. Meanwhile my brain atrophies 🙂 Leave it to Stephen to see the holes in charitable consumerism (he’s smarter than the average bear)—I agree with both of you. It’s good to help if your spending anyway, but don’t use this form of retail therapy as an excuse to pat yourself on the back and give yourself a gift. Kudos Keatings! PS. Adding you to my favorites 🙂

  5. Joy Robertson permalink
    August 11, 2010 11:41 pm

    love that your blogging miss katie 🙂 was talking about you tonight, actually. perfect timing!

  6. Dan Farnam permalink
    August 12, 2010 5:40 am

    Good thoughts. Anxious to see what else you will come up with to cause my mind to twist into a knot.

    It’s hard for me to find fault with anyone’s generosity. A generous spirit comes from God. I think some are more blessed with that spiritual gift than others. But when we see it (and I think rounding up counts) even if the attempt is feeble, I think we have witnessed a touch of the divine in somone. We can only hope that God will imbue all of us more and more with this winsome quality.

    My two cents. Dad

  7. fishandchipsandsalsa permalink
    August 12, 2010 6:52 am

    Love your new blog! I remember how much passion you had for writing when we did the yearbook many many moons ago.

    I think that your point and Stephen’s points both have merit but I don’t think the type of giving like the round it up program or TOMS shoes is any worse than the hoardes of people and companies who give to charity for the tax break. Sometimes it takes the money from the apathetic to fund the real work being done by the passionate.

  8. Katie permalink
    August 12, 2010 6:59 am

    Way to go, Katie! Love the post!

  9. Debby Chen permalink
    August 12, 2010 10:04 am

    Congrats on the blog. Go you! Looking forward to reading whats noodling in your head. 😉

  10. August 12, 2010 2:57 pm

    (a) love that you started a blog; (b) great topic, and 12 comments already?!? Well done!; (c) I think the Round Up concept is great and totally agree with you- hey, at least someone’s benefiting from my purchase. Although I totally understand Stephen’s point too.

  11. Aubrey Hoeppner permalink
    August 12, 2010 9:13 pm

    I was recently talking to a guy who is starting a non-profit similar to this, but instead of rounding up, people forgo a purchase and text the organization the amount they didn’t spend and have it donated instead. For example, you could have, in lieu of drinking that pint, texted the organization the cost and you would have an account set up that donates that amount to the charity of your choice. The founder was telling me that in addition to raising money, it’s about teaching participants how to redirect their spending from consumerism/indulgence to giving. (I don’t remember the name exactly, but I think it might be something like Philanthrotext)

    Stephen, I understand that charity can lead to people being self-satisfied in their giving even though they have done little to change themselves or taken it upon themselves to change the larger structural issues of a hurting community. But don’t these programs have the potential to affect the structural issues if they are collecting funds for one person/group to make a more serious contribution? If someone wants to set up a school in Africa, he is addressing a larger issue of illiteracy rather than just soothing a need for a day or week. But he will need money to do this. Why is it wrong for him to collect funds in this way?

  12. Mary Helen Farnam permalink
    August 14, 2010 4:01 pm

    Katie! So glad that you are starting this blog. I love reading it. Great food for thought. I love you. Mom

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