Newtown and the Psychology of Giving

Ideas and Issues
warehouse full of stuffed animals in Newtown

New Orleans   Reading The New Yorker while driving back from Little Rock, I thought I would pass on the lead article by Rachel Aviv about the horrific tragedy of dead and mayhem in Newtown, Connecticut, but instead found it both riveting and a treasure chest of information that was new and different to me about a story I knew well.  I’ll spare the reader most of that, but let me share what it adds to the psychology of giving that fascinates me both for what it teaches about all of us as people within this culture, and professionally what it illustrates about the interactions those of us in the nonprofit world have with donors.

Huge, mega-disasters break hearts and trouble minds, which loosen pocketbooks.  That was hardly news, particularly after our own experience with Katrina, and over the last seven years this phenomena is of the lessons of disasters I have followed as closely as time allows.  In natural disasters people send money, but they also offer critical sweat equity by volunteering and working in whatever way possible in the recovery by wrapping their own arms around an empathetic experience.  What is the response to a mega-tragedy like Newtown?

Aviv details some of the munificence:

“In the weeks after the shooting, fifty thousand stuffed animals were sent to Newtown, a community of twenty-seven thousand.  The town’s parks-and-recreation department received ten thousand tulip bulbs, two hundred bicycles, and twenty-six benches.  More than eight million dollars was donated to the town, with no clearly defined purpose.  The Bee [weekly newspaper] office was inundated, too.  Meetings in the conference room were interrupted by Teddy bears toppling from the TV or from the couch.  Clark [publisher] said that he felt as if he were being ‘hugged repeatedly by an eight-hundred-pound gorilla.  You feel the love, but you end up walking around with cracked ribs.  It hurts.’”

Usually the expression, “give until it hurts,” refers to the donor feeling some discomfort.  Rarely is there such a blunt clarity about the pain felt by those receiving the gifts, as one would find in those simple sentences.

Going deeper, Aviv writes….

“…a resident…set up a large tent near the highway exit, so that out-of-town pilgrims, their hands full of dolls and baked goods, would have somewhere to place their offerings.  The Bee expressed gratitude for the gifts, even as reporters were privately bewildered.  It wasn’t clear why people thought that Newtown, a largely upper-middle-class town, needed such things.”

Reading all of this, it all seems pretty straightforward.  The gift is all about the giver.   Sure, they are generous and they are hoping a bear or a doll or a dollar can find a good home and be put to good use, but mainly the psychology of the gift is to allow the giver to feel better, to feel as if they had done at least something, no matter how small, that made a difference.  Need seems not to have mattered, since few stories were printed that did not picture large houses in a bucolic setting and detail the property values and income ranges of the residents.

These gifts were all donor driven, which does not mean they were not generous or well meant, just that too often we think it is about what is needed or what is important and forget that the gift and the getter may be irrelevant, when it is all about the giver.   We all should  make a note, no matter which end of the gift we find ourselves on, and think about this one for awhile.