Susan and Mark are walking for African grandmothers this weekend, David is cycling this summer for – is it heart disease? Tyler hopes to raise amateur sports awareness, Meredith is running for some cure, any cure. (All names have been changed to protect the annoyingly well-intentioned.)
And me? I am going out of my mind with these endless e-mail pitches for money I don't have but nonetheless feel bad about not ponying up. Talk about e-guilt! Every time I turn on my computer, someone – a friend, a colleague, a friend of a colleague, the son of a colleague's friend, the daughter of a man I once dated but haven't seen for 30 years, and of course my entire extended family – is trying to hit me up by hitting send.
Call me a grump, a miser and a woman with no heart, but I've had it with all this digital dunning. This past week finally pushed me over the edge when Susan, a lovely woman in my pilates class, started with me. I received her "I'm walking for African grandmothers" in the annual Stephen Lewis Foundation's Stride to Turn the Tide this weekend, telling me my contribution would make "a real difference" in the lives of grandmothers and the AIDS-orphaned children in their care.
I have gladly donated in the past to the Stephen Lewis Foundation. After hearing Mr. Lewis speak in his heart-wrenchingly eloquent way on the plight of Africans ravaged by AIDS, I felt like running after him on the street and handing him my wallet.
So it's not that I think these causes are unworthy. And as a Canadian who is sadly cognizant that per capita charitable donations should be higher in our affluent country, I understand that even my modest contributions matter.
But I bristle when I get these e-mails, thinking wearily what cause/physical activity/barely-know-them pitch of the day is this? Delete!
When I saw my friend in pilates class, she was too polite to bring up her campaign. And that is one of the problems with personal e-mailing for charitable donations. People who wouldn't dream of asking you verbally to shell out, think nothing of importuning their entire address list. Why not? It's easy peasy and requires no pleading, no human contact. (I am quite sure obliging parents let their kids use their professional e-mail list, which I think is a no-no.)
I told my pilates pal why I am fed up with this form of fund-raising – it's impersonal, too easy and relentless.
There's also the potential for fraud, abuse or outrageous self-interest, from the rare bald-headed charlatans raising money for the cancer they don't have, to rather shameless personal life-enhancing pitches, like one actor e-mailing friends and acquaintances that she wanted to study Shakespeare this summer and could her friends help her out? To that end, I haven't quite paid off all of last year's taxes yet. Or gone on a Mediterranean cruise. Maybe I could start a Boost a Broke Boomer online campaign.
Susan acknowledged my objections and apologized. However, the next day, I received an automatically generated thank-you for the "generous contribution" I had not made! She apologized again, saying she hadn't meant to guilt me out, and even offered to throw her computer out the window.
I called Ilana Landsberg-Lewis, daughter of Stephen Lewis and now executive director of the Stephen Lewis Foundation, who confessed the foundation "obsesses every single day" about online requests and donor fatigue.
But she thinks that while these personalized e-mail campaigns are "momentary irritants," they often turn out to be something "quite wonderful."
"There are many somebodies in your life" deciding that they are going to not only do something deeply personal for a cause, but challenge their friends to help them out, argued Ms. Landsberg-Lewis. As recessions eat into the economy, and governments step back from funding worthy organizations and causes, the e-mailers provide an example "of something you can actually do in this cockeyed world."
What she didn't say is that while we're all money-challenged these days, often there is a calculating or even coercive quid pro quo dynamic that gets you, one you sometimes only think about after you've hit delete. For example, donating to the boss's son's crusade may be an act of self-preservation.
Come to think of it, Susan did loan me an unused exercycle. I thanked her at the time with a bottle of wine, but still, do I now look like a jerk going all tightwad on her cause? And such a good cause! But it's not too late to snatch her request from the trash bin, click on donate, give a few bucks, and expiate my guilt. As for David, Tyler and Meredith, sorry, no clicks for you. I'm done.
Such is the complicated online alchemy of digital dunning, with its underpinnings of relationship, resistance and response. Not to mention results.