As Christmas nears, charities are jingling their cups withgreater urgency. For many of them, the days are short, and so are the dollars, toys and food they had hoped to have in abundance to help needy families.
Recent reports of shortfalls at a number of charities in the area raise inevitable fears of compassion fatigue, of failing generosity. Even the United Way of Central Maryland is still struggling to recover from a recession-related drop in giving, as well as last year's scandal over the excessive compensation and lavish operating style of the organization's former national president.
But it would be a mistake to read too much into these reports. Charity is not only big business in this country -- non-profit organizations employ 10 percent of the work force -- it is also part of the atmosphere.
Americans contributed $124.3 billion to charitable causes in 1992 alone. Some of that money came from foundations, bequests and corporations, but the vast majority -- 81.9 percent -- came from individuals.
According to Independent Sector, a Washington-based coalition of corporations, foundations and voluntary organizations, 71 percent of American households contributed to charity in 1991. Even more impressive, given the stressed-out schedules so many people keep, is that in 1991, 51 percent of adult Americans volunteered their time to a non-profit group.
For charities, time is a form of money. Soup kitchens, shelters, youth activities, tutoring, mentoring -- these endeavors add a personal dimension to altruism that many people consider an indispensable part of generosity. Face-to-face charity demands something beyond simply writing a check.
Yet even in a country which places a great value on charity -- officially recognized by the tax code -- there is general agreement that voluntary organizations cannot fully substitute for the power of government.
The Salvation Army collected $726.3 million in 1992 and is by far the country's largest charity. But even this social movement can only help to relieve a small fraction of the country's needs. No charity is big enough to displace welfare or federally subsidized housing or Medicaid. But because they are smaller and more entrepreneurial, charities can touch people in ways government never can.
Voluntarism does have its critics, however. Some people say that volunteers can bring a demeaning element to the equation, that recipients of services may feel the volunteers are looking down on them. That may be true in some instances. But it is apparently a minority view, as demonstrated by the thousands of Americans who serve in soup kitchens, staff homeless shelters, tutor people learning to read, hand out provisions in food banks or do the hundreds of other tasks that keep charities running each day.
But the critics have a point. Giving, by deed or by dollar, is rarely the simple act it seems.
We give for many reasons -- because we were taught to give, because we see a need, because we feel guilty or grateful or both. In a nation built on the notion of possibility and opportunity, it is more difficult to resign ourselves to the idea that a bum is a bum because he deserves to be.
But as Americans grounded in individualism, we also reserve the right to choose the causes we support -- or that we refuse to support. That process is becoming both agonizing and time-consuming these days. Do we increase the pledge for public radio or send something to Care for refugees overseas? Do we help a nurses program in Appalachia or Toys for Tots in Baltimore? And how can we not write a check to the Maryland Food Bank, which says the needs it sees now are greater than ever?
Giving to charity is a great American tradition, but generosity always makes us vulnerable in some way. The panhandler can spend our handout on booze; the organized charity can abuse our trust by allowing lavish perks for staff members; the well-intentioned soup kitchen can squander our donation through bad management or disorganization. And does any of it do more than provide temporary relief?
But still we give, as well we should.
Giving helps the recipient. But, as we remind ourselves more frequently this time of year, it helps the giver too. That's one reason the spirit of altruism thrives through scandals and scams -- and why the flurry of appeals keeps coming strong. It's not just that the less fortunate need our gifts; it's that we, inhabitants of a land of possibility, also need to give.
There are plenty of impulses in human nature that need to be discouraged. Not this one. Altruism is a sign that there is hope for humanity after all.
Sara Engram is editorial-page director of The Evening Sun.