Of de Tocqueville and Exercise Philanthropy

on in Nonprofit
Alexis de Tocqueville is well-known for his observations, while traveling America in the 1830s, on the countless voluntary associations – from musical societies to political parties – that Americans form to accomplish a variety of social purposes.

So, too, under this umbrella, come the myriad -thons (walk-a-thons, bowl-a-thons, dance-a-thons, dress-a-thons) of fundraising infamy.

In an op ed in last Sunday’s New York Times, Ted Gup marvels at the success, and the absurdity, of the walkers against hunger striding across his neighborhood. What better use could their volunteer hours be put to building houses or volunteering in direct service, he wonders?

But ah, this is America – where we love to band together, and to urge others to join the fray – and how we take responsibility for social change. Gup reconciles the appeal of the walks to the accomplishment of public good:
“Where abstract appeals on behalf of the faceless needy may fall on deaf ears, appeals from family and neighbors do not…It personalizes the issue, quite literally turning the abstract into the concrete, converting perspiration into philanthropy.”
Now as a fundraising professional, you might expect that I come down firmly on the pro-thon side. Or even that I shudder at the thought, knowing the work involved (I was part of the initial birthing of Transportation Alternatives’ NYC Century – a 100-mile route bike ride through NYC streets, to mention only one logistical nightmare I was unafraid to tackle in my youth.) But neither of these professional positions inform my take on this phenomenon.

I do applaud the generosity of spirit that leads people to solve problems together. Walking, bowling, dancing, dressing (yes I’ve heard of that one somewhere).

But I also understand how individual effort takes the place of collective, governmental responsibility for realigning the distribution of resources and opportunity.

We can walk all we want, but people will still go hungry, until there is a collective will to shape public policy to change that.

There, now I’ve said it.

Now I have to go back to sending emails soliciting volunteers for the local school’s “Run for Health…

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