Tuesday, April 16, 2013


Within this past week or two, along with the insane events of Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and general holiday sales fliers, I've gotten a number of letters from charities of various sorts. Some are the standards; the local food bank, the Salvation Army, and the Red Cross. Others are from missions organizations, child sponsorship charities, and cancer-related organizations. There are a ton of people in need.

I think it was when I got a letter from the MD Anderson Cancer Research Center alongside some of the other requests for aid that a thought process got triggered. Should I donate more to an organization that hopefully has saved my life or should I donate to organizations that assist other needs? How in the world do we prioritize and choose between all the worthy needs out there? Is it ok that I dropped thousands of dollars (thankfully many more were covered by insurance) to save my suburban behind when that amount of money could have helped save numerous lives in an entire village in some place in Haiti or Africa? I don't feel qualified to make those kinds of decisions. There are 80 million photographers out there with a new soccer mom or college dropout (me) adding to the number of semi-pro or start-ups every day. Maybe that money that went to rooting out my cancer could have helped a group of people in mortal need and my eventual demise would help diminish the unemployment crises slightly. I don't know.

But who am I, or anyone else for that matter, to judge?

Having just wrapped up Movember which focuses on men's health (with a cancer-prevention focus), this subject was definitely starting to brew in my mind. I know plenty of people affected by cancer, some have won the battle, some lost it. I can see that there is a need to fight for both prevention and the cure; there are families that are dependent on those that pass and they have needs there, emotional and physical. It's just difficult to discern the value system, at least through the financial lens.

I had an emergency room visit a number of years back that was not much more than some scans and blood work. The bill from that non-life-threatening visit could have sponsored 3 kids for an entire year. It's kind of amazing really. (There was an article in Time about just that which really explores the craziness there.) One one hand it seems like a no-brainer that funding an organization that  could save 3 or more lives would be better than just blowing it on one life's healthcare. It's easy to start thinking that all these kids, or those labeled "third-world" people, should be our number one priority.

On the other hand, they're human too, flawed as we are. We are equal aren't we? Aren't some destitute because they choose defeatism, succumb to foolish practices, and bend to corruption? Why not take advantage of the available care? We're in a situation where our income is higher but so are our costs. Is it better to be making $60,000 a year but have debt and yearly expenses that eclipse that or to be making $3,000 a year but have no debt and live off the land? To me it seems hard to say, and although there are certainly perks to "making it" within the higher income society, the odds of doing so seem to be sinking these days. But that is beside the point, what determines the value of a life, and how should we be going about making those determinations?

Of course some of those in need aren't there by choice or decision. They may have just been caught up in the mess of their society, don't know anything else, or just don't have the energy to fight. Ultimately they need help and we're in position to do something, to some degree. So how does helping ourselves fit in? Should we be more concerned one way or another? How can we be impartial and fair?

So it's difficult to discern things both through the financial lens and the moral one. The globalization of our lives has opened up possibilities to help far and wide but also deeply complicated our perceived responsibilities for ourselves and others. Before the amazing ease of communication across mountains and oceans, we didn't know of most other's problems and couldn't do much about it most of the time anyway. Now we hear and see needs worldwide and have means to actually address them...if there weren't so many...

Knowing about needs, and providing for them, has opened up the floodgates of aid requests in three shades; the real, the questionable, and the fraudulent. Unfortunate as it is, it is only human nature to digress to gaming the system. There have been scammers that take donations for real causes, there have been organizations that exist as much to fund themselves as serve those they raise funds for, and there have been many recipients of aid that decide to rely solely on that aid as a permanent crutch.

So while there is much good that has come and does come from charitable donations and focusing on helping those we deem "in need," there is also downside to overemphasis and poor execution of that aid.

So where does that leave the decisions about the valuation of lives? Where does that leave us in the decisions about where to give and spend for our selves or others? How are we to prioritize when the ideal is to love one another like we love ourself?

Perhaps it's about recognizing that throwing money at a problem isn't the answer. Money is needed; but more than that, it is human interaction, knowledge, and the passing on of wisdom that really makes a difference. Even so, the money comes back into the mix, although it ideally wouldn't be the factor that it is.

Donation requests fill a filing box in our home. Some are responded to, and others not. Where can we direct our resources to do the most good? Is there cause more worthy than others, a place? Should I donate money to the hospital that treated my Sarcoma? Is the money spent on that care enough? Is it our burden or another's? Does cancer treatment and prevention deserve a higher priority than feeding starving kids or freeing abused women?

As I write this, having started this post over a year ago, I'm sitting in an MRI waiting area at MD Anderson.  What is the next step in this journey? The questions are still there with all the possibilities still looming. There is so much potential laying unrealized in a variety of paths. What if...

The following is a list of charitable organizations in no particular order. They all have merits and really it's just a matter of showing just a small spattering of charities that help others in a variety of ways and levels of efficiency. Click a link or two, see where it takes you...