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Charity Extraction

This article appeared in the Tuesday 28th September 2010 edition of MIT’s “The Tech” Newspaper available at the following address:

Half an hour waiting in a long snaking queue, or a “line,” according to the jargon over here. There’s room inside and no hold up for checking identification. It’s close to eleven at night and not cold outside, so we’re not complaining, but we’re thinking we should already be on the dance-floor. “What’s the hold up?” I ask a doorman walking outside along the queue, thanking us for our patience. “They’re collecting donations from people as they go in, individually. I’m not so sure… They want privacy for donations, so you don’t feel like you’ve to match the person before you… something like that.” It wasn’t so clear in the door-man’s mind, or in my own either. Only a few more steps to the door.

By now, we’d seen the long line, decided to try our luck at another pub, then, having had no such luck, returned and queued our way through the line again. “One by one, please,” a guy in front and his girlfriend were told. He took his turn in walking over towards a trio of doormen, then she her turn, before it came to me. I got a handshake. “So, the last few donations were ten dollars, how much would you like to donate?” “I wouldn’t like to donate anything. I find it ridiculous to have a half an hour of a queue outside.” “Well, the minimum donation is $5 dollars to get in.” I fumbled in my pockets and pulled out four dollars and a ten dollar note. “D’you have change for a tenner? I don’t feel like I should have to pay anything.” The argument didn’t go on much longer. “We’re at MIT”, I said, “there are loads of ways to make this work more efficiently.” I’d made my point; I wasn’t going to give out further to three lads who were giving up their free time to collect money for a charity. Being told in the line that “We appreciate your patience” when there were three at a desk to take donations off students on a one by one basis — that is irony. More donation desks, a standard cover charge; just two ways to avoid a visibly frustrated queue. You might think that individual donation negotiation would yield a better return, and it might, but you have to trade that off against the sour taste in student mouths. Well, maybe that’s just me.

So there’s the story; a short story with many layers to it, not at all on a personal level but more on a general, social and organizational level. Why should I resent giving in my $5 to a charitable cause, when the charity is blameless when it comes to event management? First, charity for me is less about extracting money and more about generating interest in a cause — campaigns such as those at the graduate volunteer day from a few weeks ago. “Aggressive” is too strong a word, but my style wouldn’t be so “forthcoming” when it comes to lining students up individually to maximize donations. I like to make my donations with a sense of awareness and based on careful consideration of claimed benefits, not when I’m in an unexpected and pressurized situation. Second, and on a minor note, it was the profit from this MIT-BU event that was to go to the charity in question, not the entire donation from a student, or a defined percentage or amount. Personally, I would prefer to pay for a good student event and then make a contribution to a charity who can account for 100 percent of my donation. I never favor the approach of giving what’s left over to charity, although I recognize its advantages from an event management point of view. This was a BU-MIT event designed to serve the needs of such students. In my opinion, graduate students attended the event primarily for the night out rather than for the charity aspect. Having to stand in an unnecessarily slow line and go through donation negotiation when my own college was running the event is not what I expected.

I’ve been in the States now for just over five weeks and little has surprised me. Little, because over here, there is a lot in common with back home — home for me being that little island off the east coast of Boston, Ireland. I’ve done the Graduate Student Council (GSC) orientation events, from the campus walking tours, the residence BBQs, the reception under the dome and the presidential address, to the harbour cruise, the orientation Olympics and an excellent hiking trip. Had such events been organized by a university administrative body, I would have deemed orientation to have been a great success. But for such a plan of action to have been put in place by a mass of voluntary students and dedicated student leaders! I have no words other than “Fair Play!” In the grand scale of things, my ranting about “Charity Extraction” is of small significance. As an opinion writer, with the rightful lack of authority I should have, I salute the success of the GSC orientation. I’m naive, with lots to learn, but lots to change and also to have changed in me.

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