A friend of mine has received a lot of calls in the wake of the Southern California wildfires from people who wanted to help. She's a coordinator for a family services clinic in San Diego. One call in particular stood out: A woman wanted to help the wildfire victims by having her girls' cheerleading squad hold a food drive, but she added a confusing caveat to the offer.
The mom said she wanted to make sure that, "None of the donations were abused."
"... How exactly could we abuse food donations?" my friend asked.
"I want to make sure all of the food we donate only goes to the wildfire victims."
In other words, if my friend got sneaky and tried to slip a tin of Spam to a homeless person or domestic violence victim, there would be hell to pay.
Never mind that there isn't a food shortage for the fire victims in San Diego County. They need money to help rebuild, yes, but food distributions and stamps are being made widely available.
Charity is rarely about logic, though. Food is love and people are willing to part with it so much easier than cash. Therefore canned goods continue to come the fire victim's way in abundance, even though they're sleeping in hotels and shelters without private kitchens. And according to some, they can't share.
The "giver's greed" phenomenon of sabotaging an otherwise gracious gesture by putting illogical and constrictive earmarks on donations is all too common. Both small charities and large -- like Doctors Without Borders and UNICEF -- often run into fundraising frustrations when they receive more money than they can spend for one particular program or emergency but can't beg two nickels for another.
A lack of unrestricted funding can cripple attempts to help a cause that has received little media attention. This has prompted many international NGOs to set aside "forgotten emergency funds" to mobilize funds where they are most needed.
Misguided giving has also caused its share of unfortunate scenes in recent years. One of the most depressing images ever conjured for me came from an Indonesian official after the tsunami of 2004. He was pleading on television for the world to stop sending teddy bears, because the climate of the region is so humid they become diseased and must be burned.
What the tsunami victims needed, again, was money. But writing a check for medical supplies is so cold and businesslike, while teddy bears are both literally and figuratively warm and fuzzy. They make the giver feel good, which is precisely the problem: It's not supposed to be about the giver.
As Stephen Tomlin of the International Medical Corps said to Newsday during the relief phase of the tsunami, "When Maria donates her favorite teddy bear, she feels good about it and her parents feel good about it. But the logistics systems get really clogged up with nonessential things. When it comes time to find the penicillin, we have to search through too many teddy bears, shoes and clothes."
The way we give may be largely dictated by our brain's capacity to understand and relate to disaster or suffering. When University of Oregon researcher Paul Slovic released the findings of his study on human compassion at the American Association for the Advancement of Science this February, he offered evidence that there is a trend of diminishing returns with charity as the population in need grows.
People are most willing to help a single individual with whom they can identify, Slovic's study found. The problem begins when that one individual turns into two. Faced with a larger pool of need, the degree to which the study group was willing to help decreased. By the time larger numbers of needy people were presented, the diminishing returns on voluntary contributions were so evident that there wasn't much difference in what people were willing to give to help one starving village or 10.
There very well could be some hardwired, tribal instinct that drives humans to help what they recognize at the exclusion of others, and thus naturally they would want their charity to go to their family, their friends, neighbors, community, race, or countrymen.
This could explain why the woman who called my friend would step over a homeless Vietnam veteran to help feed a newly homeless suburbanite. She herself is probably a suburbanite, and in the suffering of the fire victims she recognizes the same could happen to her. It could explain why some African American church groups saw no irony in their fighting to ban gay marriage in 2004.
But disasters rarely strike along neat demographics, and trying to address them as such only creates greater division and inequality. In the end it isn't strong feelings that motivate meaningful change but cold facts.
Some have suggested this is why nerds such as Bill Gates are of the best minds to deal with problems on the scale of African malaria. Theirs is a brain more comfortable with numbers than feelings anyway.
But playing on heartstrings is what loosens purse strings, not numbers, not logic. Let's just hope the next time our favorite charity trots out an adorable child to melt our hearts, she shares with the rest.
Follow Justin Hudnall on Twitter: www.twitter.com/mrjustinhudnall