Newtown and the Psychology of Giving

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.

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USA and Global Educational Class Divide

student protests in Chile

Mexico City   World news reports on CNN from Mexico City are featuring huge rallies in Chile once again as students push back over increases in costs and other curtailments.  In Quebec several schools have been closed down now in the 12th week of student strikes over the same issues and the provincial government has also enacted extraordinary measures to require 8-day notice for protests permits and is attempting to not authorize any demonstrations of more than 50 people.  Students have declared these actions by the government an “act of war.”

Perhaps more disturbing was the clear statement in The New Yorker by author and academic (and New Orleans native) Nicholas Lemann that the US in essence is now creating a huge educational divide where there are educational institutions for the elite 1% and then there are whatever is available for the 99%.  The divide is defined by economic access.  Lemann argues in fact that Ivy League-type schools are underpriced even at $60,000 per year where they are currently heading, because many of the 1% would be willing to pay far more if that was the price of admission.  The public institutions and second-tier schools are pushing the price points without entering the elite status despite mimicking the business model that is only accessible and achievable by a few other schools.  The efforts of Stanford and others to create on-line opportunities are nods in the direction of equity without even the pretense of equity, either domestically or globally, though arguably offering access to both.

Nicholas Lemann

Lemann makes this argument under the cover of claiming that, thankfully in his view, there is no substantial disagreement between Obama and Romney on the issue of continuing to offer interest support for student loans.  This is a disingenuous way to make the case, since Lemann never bothers to try to make the argument that this interest matter will remotely address the class divide which he, correctly, claims is already embedded in the current educational system.  He makes the throwaway point that there is 50% more unemployment among non-college graduates currently, but that’s hardly a glancing blow when today’s papers also argue that men are queuing up for traditionally female jobs, underemployment, contingent, informal, and intern “employment” are well documented, and there seems to be more weight to the case that a generation is being lost.

Having read Lemann’s The Big Test when it came out a dozen year ago, I know this is a disturbing retreat for him.  That book argued among other points that standardized testing had at least the opportunity to create a funny kind of equity that lowered the class divide.  Now in a new century to read him on a similar theme, it is hard to ignore his analysis that equity is in full retreat with little hope of victory.   Reading that book allowed me to finally understand that it was the V-2 test in WWII that plucked my father and his test scores as a high school grad from Orange County who had worked as a clerk in Los Angeles and in Boeing aircraft plants in Venice before volunteering for the Navy out of the ranks and into an NROTC program that gave him a college experience at Millsaps in Mississippi and a degree from Tulane University in New Orleans and a solid, secure post-war career and life for our family that previously had been beyond even his most remote dreams.

That story, not unlike the human interest tale in today’s Times of a “wise soul” succeeding in school and egg picking to find a possible future otherwise outside his means, are clearly moving towards a place in the United States where we can simply smile and sigh at these exceptions proving the rule that what once we hoped might be a meritocracy has evolved into a financially unforgiving elite class divide.

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