A Bachelor’s in Begging

Thanks to my pasty white Irish skin, I’m perceived in this culture to be one of the Haves which is why the beggars in the street, at the station, and in front of the store are drawn to me like a magnet.  My Caucasianness is like a cheap neon sign on the Vegas strip screaming out the possibility of a beggar’s jackpot.  Put on a sad face, send out your rehearsed plea, and roll the dice.  Although more often than not, I have to refuse them, I can’t be offended by their perception of my skin color.  I know that that’s one thing they must learn before they graduate from the Haitian School for Beggars.  Whenever you see a white person, you gotta drop whatever you’re doing and go in for the kill.  Although I have to tell them no, I try to put myself in their shoes and empathize with their situation.  I try not to break their calbas.

And although I can never pretend to understand the hardships they’ve faced in their lives and the struggles that they go through everyday, I feel like I do understand their motives sometimes.  Why?  Because I’m a nonprofit manager.  And nonprofit managers are basically beggars in nice suits.  We’re tax-exempt beggars with powerpoint presentations and pamphlets.  We’re professionals at institutionalized begging.  We understand the same tactics like putting more pressure on certain people, the power of a sad story (See Donate or Siyovle Dies), and the importance of a good prop (crutches or a baby for example).  In fact, although I haven’t passed through either, I assume that the curriculum at the (completely fictional) Haitian School for Beggars is very similar to that of most university degree programs in nonprofit management.

Take a look at the top five reasons I get from beggars for why they need help:

1.  Mwen grangou.  I’m hungry.  What do Food for the Poor, Feed My Starving Children, Kids Against Hunger, and The World Food Programme do but beg for money so that they can feed people?

2.  Mwen malad.  I’m sick.  Doctor Without Borders, Partners in Health, The Red Cross, World Health Organization, all beggars so they can find money to treat sick people.

3.  Timoun mwen pa ka al lekol.  My kids can’t go to school.  Compassion International, World Vision, Plan Interntional, Save the Children, Central Asia Institute, CARE International, begging for money to send kids to school.

4.  Mwen pa gen travay. I don’t have any work.  Kiva, SERRV International, the Grameen Bank, give em money so they can help people find jobs and make an income.

5.  Kay mwen kraze.  My house is broken.  Habitat for Humanity, Builders Without Borders, The Red Cross (again), just needing money so they can build houses for the homeless.

This is not to criticize these organization’s methods but simply to say that I think we need to realize what we call fundraising isn’t that different than the average beggar in the street.  We need to be real about it so that we can see the humanity in those beggars when we encounter them.  We need to be real about so that we can be more effective fundraisers without fooling ourselves about what it is we are really doing.  How have we gotten to a point where asking for money for these same exact reasons on behalf of others as long as we have nice websites and persuasive talking points is considered some sort of great and honorable humanitarian sacrifice, but when some individual decides to do essentially the same thing on their own it’s considered a social nuisance?

I find it especially strange because I think that we in the nonprofit sector tend to have a particularly bad attitude about beggars perhaps because we can see them as the personifications of all the wrong answers to sustainable development.  Perhaps because we see our programs as being such infinitely better solutions to the world’s problems than the path that these beggars have chosen.  Perhaps because we think that they make us look bad, those of us who are working hard to change things while they surrender to following the same old habits.  Or, perhaps, just maybe, it’s possible that we have a bad attitude about them because we see too much of ourselves in them and we don’t want to admit it.

That’s why it’s easier to walk past and pretend we don’t see them.  It keeps us from having to face the truth that they are the source that we have evolved from.  And we like to think that we are a higher form of evolution, but from what I’ve seen in some cases, I’m not so sure that we are.  And maybe if we realized this, and we took the chance, we would discover that we actually have a lot to learn from the beggars that we pass by everyday and give excuses to.  Maybe we’d discover that they’re not reaching out for spare change as much as they are reaching out for the acknowledgement of the kinship we share as two beggars in this world, with different sized calbas, both empty, all the time.

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One comment

  1. I’m thinking if we keep trying to provide the beggars some sustainable life mode that perhaps, we, as fundraisers, need to do the same thing. There are some new models out there that seem to be working…. Muhammad Yunes, founder of the Grameen Bank, has written a couple of books that address the very issue you write about…. “Creating a World without Poverty” specifically talks about social businesses…. perhaps it’s a place to start rather than joining others on the street with our hands out.

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