Understanding the balance of independence and charity
By Tim Wheat
EDITOR’S NOTE: The CPWD strategic planning starts tomorrow and I want to make clear my views on Independent Living and charity. Here is my first installment of what I suggest we consider to make us experts at giving. The second part will be ideas about how we can practice good procedures of giving.
Too often I seem to play the part of Scrooge when it comes to charity. People, especially this time of year want to give and I have tried to point out why charity can be counter-productive for a Center for Independent Living. Year-round there is a feeling that giving stuff away is always a positive thing, that charity is an absolute good. Unfortunately, the message I convey to my co-workers is that charity is bad. This makes me a Scrooge.
But what I have failed to express is that actually, giving can be done an empowering way and can value the gift and the giver. What I wish for my compatriots in Independent Living to see is that giving can be done well. Regrettably, it can also be done poorly. I have found myself stuck explaining what is wrong with charity. Therefore I wish to start by pointing out what is positive.
First, it can empower the individual. They may need a car to get to work and the gift of a car brings with it a new freedom and success. In this instance, the car is a gateway to more independence, and without the gift, it is easy to imagine the individual never overcoming the transportation barrier, and never achieving that freedom that helps them flourish in the community.
Charity can be valuable. If your neighbor leaves a band-aid in your mailbox you might just throw it away, but if they bring that band-aid by just when you have cut your finger its value is significantly greater. Value can be a function of timing and need. Recognizing the “need” can be the significant value in a gift, and can far outweigh the intrinsic value of what was given.
Finally, charity can feel good. This is a statement about both the giver and receiver. The person getting the charity may feel relief from a specific burden; or they may just feel the warmth of another person caring about them. Of course, giving can also feel good for the person giving. “The Economics of Charitable Giving,” a paper by the Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis concludes:
Although some people may be altruistic when giving, economics tells us that the dominant motivation is the internal satisfaction that individuals derive from the act of giving itself. Individuals derive utility from giving much in the same way they obtain satisfaction from buying a new car or eating at a restaurant…
These are three very general positive aspects of charity, there can be other specific reasons that fit into these general categories and some that are unique and wouldn’t fit in the categories at all. Because we work with people, we always work on the specific level, a human level. We must become experts in giving in a way that expands independence, empowers the receiver, and conveys value of the gift.
I believe that as a CIL we should become good at giving. That does not mean we give a lot, it is a respect for the process and our mission. I think it also acknowledges what we are paid to do and our overall mission of independence. I feel strongly that there is a place for charity, but as a CIL we must also be able to clearly assert our role and defer to local charities. After all, local charities are the experts. They may get the warm feelings and prestige in the short-term, but real sustainability in the community is the difficult task, that we have chosen.
The first step in understanding how to be good at giving is to recognize that giving is the focus of charitable organizations in our community, and it is not our mission or focus. I hate the “not my job” excuse and I’ll bet you do also. We must recognize that Center’s for Independent Living were not begun, organized or funded to be charities.
For many years before the IL movement, services, supports and charity for people with disabilities were all the same thing because disability was always a justification for charity. Our movement has been essential in changing the view that charity is always positive. A friend pointed this out to me today by the example of the Jerry Lewis Telethon. Very simply, the plea to pity can be more harmful overall even when done with good intensions.
But don’t get the idea that this is black and white; that Independence and charity are opposed to each other. On the contrary, it is clear that the two can work in combination. The problem is that historically charity toward people with disabilities has been demeaning and devaluing. I believe it is clear that as a CIL, we must take steps to ensure that any gift is not given out of pity or self-gratification. Furthermore, we must use any charitable contributions to advance self-sufficiency, and make sure our altruism is not also creating dependency.
Part 2: How we can become experts at giving.