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Lawrence Scanlan

Is it good to be good? Add to ...

I shared a meal recently with an undercover forensic accountant. He described a couple who had created a lucrative renovation business, which they passed on to their sons before retiring to Florida. Once a year, by mail, came a fat annuity. When it mysteriously stopped, the spy was hired - posing as a carpenter's apprentice. Turns out one son was entertaining clients on his new yacht and running up $8,000 a month in booze bills.

From his life's work, the accountant/spy drew two conclusions: The one you trust is the one who will betray you; the perpetrator feels no guilt, only entitlement.

Which brings me to two recent articles in The Globe and Mail: The Rich Really Are Getting Richer; and Charities See Alarming Trends As Donors Become Fewer, Older. Are these stories connected?

Charities are scrambling to hit fundraising targets that are often tied to ever stingier government aid. Miss the target, lose the grant. But if median donors are bailing, and government likewise, what's to become of charities? And why haven't the rich stepped up to the plate?

Bill Gates and Warren Buffett issued the sharing challenge to their fellow billionaires and some, such as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg responded; many did not. Andrew Carnegie started all this a century ago when he wrote: "The man . . . who dies rich, dies disgraced."

Still, this is charity, nothing more. José Saramago, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, wrote: "Charity is what is left when there is neither kindness nor justice."

In the main, I agree. Last fall, I spoke on these issues at literary festivals, universities, libraries and fundraisers across Canada. I would hold aloft a bag of butterscotch candies and ask my audience to imagine that each candy represented a piece of gold bullion - enough to enable decent clothing, food and shelter for a year. I then tossed candies willy-nilly.

"That," I told them, "is charity. Observe: Some got candy; most didn't." If every Canadian who needed a candy got one (as in, say, a generous guaranteed annual income), that would be social justice, a sharing of wealth. But wealth isn't shared - just the opposite.

New York Times columnist Frank Rich, in a piece titled Who Will Stand Up to the Superrich?, noted: The top 1 per cent of American income earners now enjoy tax rates that are one-third lower than they were in 1970. A hedge fund manager earning billions can pay a lower tax rate than his secretary. The rich bankroll the campaigns of Democratic and Republican candidates alike, who, once elected, don't dare bite the hand that feeds.

In Canada, the ratio of CEO income to average worker income has gone from 45 to 1 in 1960 to more than 500 to 1 today. This is greed and entitlement on a toxic scale.

Passivity is the great enabler. At least in Ireland and Greece, the avarice and recklessness of banks stirred protest. Here, governments watch and citizens watch as the poor get creamed, the middle class eviscerated, and the rich richer.

Still, part of me wants to celebrate charity - that "poor cousin" to social justice. Two years ago, my wife and I spent four weeks in Senegal teaching at a women's radio station supported by Canadian Crossroads International. That experience and others were chronicled in a book I wrote trying to fathom the charity/kindness/justice conundrum. We chose West Africa on the advice of Lawrence Hill, a veteran CCI volunteer. The author of The Book of Negroes admires CCI's commitment to advancing the rights of girls and women in the South. For all he gave, Mr. Hill says, he got back more.

We, too, felt that in Senegal - and in Costa Rica when we worked in an HIV/AIDS shelter backed by another Canadian NGO, Horizons of Friendship.

I'm convinced that engaged service (in time or money) to one's community (down the street or an ocean away) is key to feeling valued and connected. It is good to be good. And a gift to the right charity can actually contribute to social justice by giving voice to the voiceless.

Meantime, resist. Resist the urge to buy. Instead, give - ethically and year-round, not just now. Finally, decry gross inequality and elected officials who ignore it.

The Dalai Lama was once approached by a young man before a weekend retreat. "What should I focus on?" the man asked. The Dalai Lama urged him to spend the first third of the time thinking about compassion, the middle third pondering compassion, and the last third dwelling on compassion.

Lawrence Scanlan is the author of A Year of Living Generously: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Philanthropy. He lives in Kingston, Ont.

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