Art in Gratitude

In New Orleans I worked for a housing rehabilitation nonprofit where people from all around the country volunteered regularly. Most of them were church or school groups, but occasionally we’d have high end corporate types and celebrities. One of our regulars was a wealthy, charming, attractive actress and everyone was glad to have her on site for one reason or another.

One day, she was working with a friend, J, and asked him how much he was paid. He said that we were technically volunteers, too, and we got a living stipend of $12k annually. A few minutes later, when his back was turned, J felt the actress reach into his front pocket and then walk away. He looked and found that she’d given him a hundred dollar bill.

J told this to our supervisor, M, and I one day during a 24-hour build. M nodded and asked, “And you know what you do when something like that happens, right?” We both shrugged. M said, “You say ‘Thank you,’ and you mean it, and you accept their generosity.”

Giving and taking were and still are difficult concepts for me. I’ve volunteered, and I’ve gone out of my way for others, but I think I’m only just starting to grasp how complex these desires are in the adult world.

For the first time in my life, I have a salaried position and excess cash. I can afford the things I want and have done a lot of purchasing lately. But I’ve also started to donate regularly, both in terms of time and money. I’ve done my best to support my friends in their recent ventures (check out Story Club Minneapolis and OUTspoken), but I’ve also started contributing to the things I like and believe in.

For instance, Pseudopod. If you’re a fan of horror, you should be listening to this podcast, because it’s all that stands between us and the unspeakable horrors we all know exist. And, if you start listening, start donating. Because they and their sister podcasts, Podcastle for fantasy, and Escape Pod for sci fi, are hurting. Moreover, these three podcasts are some of the best venues in speculative fiction today. If you want to support the literary arts, this is as good a cause as any.

I wouldn’t have been able to make that hard ask a couple years ago. Whenever I heard appeals for money from NPR or even Pseudopod before about 2012, I always thought they were talking to someone else, that some rich person would be able to give to the cause and I could ignore the plea. Now that I work in development (a sexy term for fundraising), I suppose I’ve become more callous to hitting people up for money, but my perspective has changed significantly, too.

I work, I play video games, I write, I do a lot of seemingly meaningless things during my day and I’m beginning to understand this desire to be generous, which is more or less what I’ve told people who are trying to raise money for their projects. Somewhere, there are a lot of people who care deeply about the same things you do and want to do something about it.

True, there’s a certain pettiness to this, if you look at it like a cynic (which I am). Philanthropy is vanity, but there’s more to it than that. Most people don’t know that they can make a difference because it isn’t obvious. There’s seven billion of us sharing this planet and in a media-saturated culture we’re constantly reminded of what we don’t have that other people do, like money, talent, prosperity, good fortune, etc. It’s easy to think that Someone Else Can Do It, not because people are lazy, but because people don’t realize that You means Me.

Furthermore, most people never think to Ask. My own partner hates asking me for favors and I feel the same way, because we were brought up to believe that you have to earn everything you get. From that perspective, it’s humiliating to ask for or accept help. Pride is a powerful compulsion. But no one gets anywhere without someone else – it’s part of the reason why marriage and family are cultural universals.

So, here’s a lame way to wrap up this post: be generous and grateful. It’s good for you.

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Filed under Nonprofiteers, Things That Happen

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