Another Perspective

Sweet Charity?

Charitable giving no longer costs anything.

By 7.13.07

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Because my wife is a great cook, our kitchen cupboard holds many different condiments, not least among them a bottle of coarse sea salt "harvested by hand, unrefined, from the pollution-free isle of Noirmoutier, off the Atlantic Coast of France." It's good salt, and I salute the fifth-century Benedictine monks who made gathering it possible by draining wetlands into salt marshes, but sprinkling it on buttered pinto beans doesn't make me feel as though I've been to Noirmoutier, any more than using Santa Maria-style seasoning makes me think I've pointed the car in that direction lately.

Odd as the analogy may sound, that's why the dumbing-down of charity worries me. Catholic theology makes a distinction between bodily or "corporal" works of mercy like feeding the hungry, and spiritual works of mercy like consoling someone else. To those noble categories of long usage, Internet entrepreneurs have apparently grafted a third option: the "virtual" work of mercy. That's when you as a computer user send microcash to some organized charity simply by clicking an onscreen button or viewing an ad.

Any frequent visitor to web portal sites like Yahoo or Microsoft Network (MSN) has seen the encroachment of the "feel-good click." MSN headlines recently cajoled viewers to "Help Refugee Children" by using Microsoft's new "Live Search." That promotion launched January 17, with an announcement that all searches done from a designated portal would trigger a donation from Microsoft to an organization called ninemillion.org, which is sponsored by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. A Reuters report estimated the sum involved as $0.01 per search, with a minimum of $100,000 and a maximum of $250,000 (assuming 250 million searches). The promotion ran through the end of March, and was not original to Microsoft. If you missed that window of opportunity, Microsoft still lets you send instant messages that generate kickbacks to the Sierra Club. And all of that was just a warm-up for the hoopla over the recent "Live Earth" concerts.

A website called www.charityclickdonation.com lists charities that receive donations from advertisers when you click on particular links. Grant a company you don't know permission for a visual drive-by, and its accountants or accounting software will chuck a penny or two in the direction of a charity you do know.

The easy charity mentality can feed an unwarranted sense of victimhood. For example, Bob Keating of the Open Directory Project (ODP) says his company is "fighting the good fight against the encroachment of the profit motive into what is rightfully an editorial process." ODP is undersized (3.8 million sites in its Web search catalog compared to about 4 billion in the Google catalog), but this is one case where the roguish thing to do might be to root for Goliath over David. Why wouldn't an intelligent algorithm be as valid a search tool as a recent college graduate whom ODP pays to catalog some portion of the web?

Is this nostalgia from a guy prone to such sentiment? Yes, but there are other reasons why under-the-radar charity is something to grouse about.

First, the "feel-good click" blurs the line between charity and commerce. I have no quarrel with "socially responsible" long-distance telephone service like Working Assets (on the left side of the political spectrum) or the Sienna Group (for people who think that George Soros and his ilk are rich enough), because those things are instances of putting your money where your mouth is. Green initiatives, co-ops, and credit unions deserve applause, too.

The Susan G. Komen Foundation has turned breast cancer research into such a high-profile cause that you'd never know that lung cancer kills more American women annually, but at least if you "walk for the cure" and wheedle pledges from your friends, you're actually doing something. Clicking through an ad to send a penny to Greenpeace doesn't even rise to the level of consciousness for most of us. Talk about cheap grace! Martin Luther once railed against the medieval Catholic Church for the practice of selling indulgences, and now many merchants are doing precisely what corrupt monks were told to stop doing. Exhibit A would have to be Al Gore and his carbon offsets.

Investigations by the Financial Times (London) and a few other outlets found that "Companies and individuals rushing to go green have been spending millions on 'carbon credit' projects that yield few if any environmental benefits." Right-wingers at the Washington Times responded to that news by chortling that "Our blogs are posted on carbon-neutral Web servers, using certified organic computer personnel and biodegradable pixels." At least one Australian company augmented its product line with carbon offsets for dogs and cats. National Geographic reports that "For 35 Australian dollars (about 27 U.S. dollars), customers of Sydney-based Easy Being Green can offset a year's worth of carbon emissions linked to their dogs, from trips to the vet to, yes, breaking wind."

The carbon offset boondoggle shows a second reason we should be wary of easy charity: because its rapid growth provides cover for other nefariousness. Did you know, for example, that Planned Parenthood operates off millions of dollars in tax money? In 2004 and 2005, Planned Parenthood received $551 million in governmental funding. Title X of the Public Health Service Act covers overhead expenses that the country's leading abortion provider would otherwise have to pay for itself, which means that devout Christian taxpayers in the U.S. help to fund the abortions they oppose.

Author Sam Harris is fond of declaring that mainstream Christianity provides cover for kooks, but his "gimme shelter" thesis applies more to easy charity than to religion. If clicking through an ad is a good deed, we're only a step away from suggesting that it's just chumps who rise at dawn to volunteer in soup kitchens.

But feel-good clicks are Pavlovian gimmicks better suited to mice or monkeys. Real charity depends on interaction with other people; people whom you have to love if you do not want them to resent your help. Better to help the homebound senior next door with her grocery shopping, or overtip the bartender at your local watering hole, than pat yourself on the back for a conscience-raising song download or a "charity click."

Patrick O'Hannigan is a writer in North Carolina.

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Patrick O'Hannigan is a writer in North Carolina.