Today I had my first annual sighting of one of those ubiquitous Christmas institutions, which also happens to be one of the most readily recognizable fundraisers in the country*: A Salvation Army bell ringer. One can’t argue with the effectiveness of the branding: The sound of the bell and the sight of the red bucket are instantly recognizable, and the volunteers don’t need to be charismatic or have an eloquent spiel; they just need to ring bells. But again this year, concerns about the organization’s positions towards GLBT people are rising to the surface, and many potential donors may choose not to drop a dollar into that bucket.
I’m going to leave aside the validity of the concerns and, for the sake of this post, assume that they are correct. If so, not donating may indeed be a prudent thing to do. Donating to charity, while generally laudable, is not inevitably so: It depends on the organization. Some are drowning in fundraising costs; others actively use the money to detrimental purposes; no one deserves brownie points for letting their money get lost in nonprofit bureaucracy or spent to advance agendas they disagree with.
But they also don’t deserve brownie points for not donating. This is an attitude I see far too often: people not giving money or volunteering for something and then acting as if they’ve done something admirable. They haven’t done anything admirable; they haven’t done anything at all. Avoiding squandering your money on bad causes is more of a baseline than a positive action (although, admittedly, many of us fail to meet that baseline from time to time).
This type of slacktivism is related to Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day and the many other permutations on shopping/not shopping at a certain location or buying/not buying a certain product to show your support for or opposition to that company’s positions. You should certainly vote with your wallet and primarily patronize companies that you agree with, but at the end of the day, you’re eating a chicken sandwich. You don’t get a prize for that, no matter who made the sandwich.
I want to see a responsible ethic of consumption and donation combined with real generosity. Go ahead and pass that Salvation Army bell ringer, but instead, send that dollar to an AIDS awareness program or an anti-bullying campaign. Shop at stores that support your causes, and also support those causes directly with your time and money. Then maybe we’ll make some real change.
*Beaten, perhaps, only by Girl Scout cookies. And no, you don’t get brownie points for buying Girl Scout cookies. You already have cookies.