The impromptu campaign for the New York bus monitor who was bullied has generated a flood of donations, but it makes me wonder: Why has this campaign gone “viral” while other long-term important causes struggle to raise funds?
We pass that homeless person on the street, his or her hand outstretched. We pause, have a moment of inner indecision, then reach into our pockets and dig out a loonie to drop in the open palm. We walk away feeling a small glow for having helped someone, yet also a niggling doubt – did we really make a difference?
Right now in the virtual world, a bullied 68-year-old bus monitor has become the equivalent of that outstretched homeless hand writ large, and it seems a lot of people are grappling with the same sort of question.
We are being inundated by individuals asking, “Should I give?” and “I gave, but did I really make a difference?”
There are a variety of factors at play.
Giving is almost always based on emotion. These personal stories tug our heartstrings. Didn’t we all think of our own mothers and grandmothers as we witnessed Karen Klein’s suffering? We want to feel we’ve made a tangible difference in a real person’s life. By giving to Ms. Klein, we can see the individual we’ve helped.
When we donate to larger charities, the funds are pooled toward a common good. The impact is more abstract, so our personal connection to those we have helped is muted. As well, many people want to cut out the middleman so they know every cent of their donation is going to the person in need.
YouTube and Facebook are the new street corner, placing right in front of our eyes an outstretched hand that is actually thousands of kilometres away. You give because you saw your friend on Facebook do it. Then more of your friends follow you. It becomes something of a herd mentality.
Causes move us. If seeing Ms. Klein’s abuse sparks you to take action against bullying, and make a donation as a statement, terrific. Philanthropy is great and almost all causes are worthy.
However, it’s important to keep in mind that not all impacts are equal.
How much more impact would the dollar you gave that homeless person be in the hands of an initiative that provides low-cost housing or vocational training? If you want to stop bullying, one gift to send Ms. Klein on a vacation isn’t going to do it.
We’re not saying don’t give to the individual. If anything, we’re asking you to give a bit more.
If you feel compelled by Ms. Klein’s story, make an equal or greater donation to programs that address some of the societal issues, such as Roots of Empathy, Boys and Girls Clubs, or the Society for Safe and Caring Schools & Communities that teach empathy and character education in schools to reduce bullying and create compassionate kids.
As a final note, we have also received a lot of questions around the Karen Klein story about how to tell if these online causes are legitimate or whether the website is a charity scam. Next week we’ll address those concerns.
Craig and Marc Kielburger co-founded Free the Children. Follow Craig at facebook.com/craigkielburgerand @craigkielburger on Twitter. Send questions to Livebetter@globeandmail.com.