The Charity Crisis: Rethinking Service in America

By Michaela O’Driscoll

There are roughly 1.5 million nonprofit organizations currently in the United States of America, 350 thousand of which are dedicated to “human services”—feeding the hungry, assisting crime victims and offenders, providing job training, housing the homeless, helping people prepare for and recover from disasters, maintaining playgrounds and athletic fields, acting as advocates for children, offering programs to help youth mature into adults who contribute to society, and so on. That equals one nonprofit dedicated to “human services” for every 350 people in this country, and yet in the year 2014, 1.2 million public school students were identified as homeless in this country, there were 46.7 million people living in poverty, and there were approximately 2.4 million people in prison. These statistics beg the question—what is the problem here? Why aren’t these people being taken care of? Why does child poverty and homelessness still exist in this country, especially considering the amount of wealth we have? There are thousands of nonprofits doing incredible work with amazing people who have devoted their lives to the cause of others, but the truth is—as is reflected in this data—this work and passion is not enough.

We’re constantly being bombarded by the atrocities that exist in this country; the injustice is overwhelming, seemingly unending, and not getting better. Even compassionate people can become fatigued and discouraged by the relentless media coverage of poverty, homelessness, and crime.

This being said, the general attitude of Americans, particularly young Americans, toward charity is positive. Young people more than other demographic groups invest time and energy into volunteerism and social work. But the reality is that although most people would agree in theory that charity is important, necessary, and helpful, few actually live their lives in a way that reflects this sentiment. This is understandable. Living in this fast-paced world is exhausting. We’re constantly being bombarded by the atrocities that exist in this country; the injustice is overwhelming, seemingly unending, and not getting better. Even compassionate people can become fatigued and discouraged by the relentless media coverage of poverty, homelessness, and crime.

Unfortunately, even within nonprofit organizations, there can be apathy toward the vision for change. Talk is good, but it’s cheap. Roxanne Spillett, president of Boys and Girls Club of America paid herself $1.8 million in 2014. As the visionary for an organization meant to broaden the opportunity of disadvantaged children, there is really no way to reconcile such a salary with a true desire to carry out that mission. In recent years, CEOs at 78 of the top US charities were paid between $500,000 and $1 million salaries. Is it really possible to keep perspective on your mission when you live a life of excess? These kinds of funds could change lives; instead, they sit in the pockets of the higher-ups. There is something wrong with how we’re going about charity and our overall perspective toward it in our society.

I have been involved in a local 501c3 children’s nonprofit for the past twelve years, where I have gained a lot of perspective on how people serve and how effective nonprofits really are in creating change. This organization works to provide resources to underserved children all over greater Orlando. Every Saturday morning, the organization buses in around 400 kids ranging from 4-18 years old for breakfast, games, crafts, and mentorship. Most of these kids live at or below the poverty line, a lot of them in trailer parks, extended stay hotels, and section 8 housing. For 13 years, this organization has tried to pull these kids up out of their circumstances and give them equal opportunity to succeed. It’s been a struggle. I’ve learned that breaking the cycle of poverty is complicated and the barriers to escaping it are seemingly endless and compound each other. A lot of these barriers exist for these kids just as a byproduct of where they live and the circumstances of their parents. These children did nothing to dictate their socioeconomic status. Growing up working at this nonprofit, constantly confronted with this reality, I realized the extent of my own advantage in life at a fairly young age. Every week I hung out with kids my age who hadn’t eaten since their school-provided lunch the day before, who didn’t know how to read at ten years old, who sometimes smelled like cigarettes and urine, who had no shoes on their feet, who watched out for their younger siblings as if they had to protect them from something. I had to deal with none of these things, but I watched as these kids did.

With this realization came guilt and resentment. Why was I the one given these things while others did without? Why was I born into a loving, financially stable family while others live in poverty and environments of hostility? I felt guilty because I didn’t know how to make it right, and I felt resentful of the system that allowed for this kind of inequality.

So, I’ve pretty much always known about my privilege. I was born with more than a lot of other people. I’m white, middle-class, have two loving parents, and grew up in a stable home environment. My intelligence was cultivated with the help of good teachers, supportive parents, and private school. All of these things got me where I am today. I’ve worked hard, but there is no way I would be here without the head start I was given. I wonder how many people would say that their current success is based solely on their own hard work and initiative. All of us who can afford to live comfortably have been given some advantage, but the hard truth is that not everyone is given the same opportunity to succeed. We cannot live our lives ignoring this fact, although some people do.

For me, with this realization came guilt and resentment. Why was I the one given these things while others did without? Why was I born into a loving, financially stable family while others live in poverty and environments of hostility? I felt guilty because I didn’t know how to make it right, and I felt resentful of the system that allowed for this kind of inequality. So, at a pretty young age, I started out on a quest to reconcile my privilege, to use it for the good of others, and a lot of the hard work I did in high school was with this in the back of my head: I had better work hard, because not everyone has the same ability to succeed as I do. I believed it was my duty to get to a place in life where I could really give back.

I can’t speak for everyone, but I think that a lot of us are aware of what we’ve been given, and we plan to live lives that reflect our commitment to serving others in some capacity. But for some reason, we tend to start to feel entitled to what we have as we progress through our lives. Our mindset of service shifts from something that is our duty to something that is “nice to do.” We do it to make ourselves feel good; it’s not really an obligation anymore, and so a lot of times it falls by the wayside. It’s just some extra nice thing we do for those poor people, who really, let’s be honest “have brought it on themselves.” I mean, “we don’t really owe anyone anything, do we?” We’ve worked hard for what we have and where we are. Wrong. And don’t forget it. This perspective on service is what’s keeping kids homeless and filling our prisons. When it’s not our duty, it doesn’t get done.

I believe that your privilege doesn’t have to be a burden you bear. It can be a tool that empowers you to become the best human you can be. It can be what motivates you to create a life reflective of your deep-seeded belief that you have been given more, and so you must give more. I truly believe that what our society needs is a perspective change. Our current perspective, the one that drives how we think about our nonprofit sector and volunteerism in general is one that views service as an addition to our already busy lives, something extra we do once or twice a month that makes us feel warm and fuzzy inside. I’m not preaching specific political reform or new legislation, although I do think those things can be used to combat our societal problems as well. I’m simply pleading for a perspective shift, which I am certain will go a distance much greater to decrease poverty and inequality in America and the world. Our perspective should be that our privilege means we have a duty. If we truly change our thinking, we also change our behavior. Even just a few individuals changing their behavior can be what changes the perspective and the circumstances of those around them. We can leverage our talent, our time, our privilege, and ourselves. This can take so many different forms—a physician who provides care for the uninsured, an artist who does workshops for kids in her community, a business owner who hires ex-felons. Service is not just a weekend activity; it’s a way of living. It’s engaging with people and entering into relationships. It’s not compartmentalizing service into a corner of your life, but letting it consume your being and identity. It can do so much more for others and for you if it is seen this way.

Most of all, it means taking a step in—living outside of yourself with the people around you. This is counter to our individualistic society, where the ultimate concern is often personal success. We need to take responsibility for the wellbeing of other people, refuse to give up on them, and make it our mission to see them succeed. That’s not three hours on a Saturday morning, which is what I personally have treated it as for years; that’s every minute of every day.

I was listening to a sermon on relationship and community a couple months ago, and the speaker told an anecdote about two trees they had growing in their yard side-by-side when he was a kid. One started to die, so they called the arborist to take a look at it. His diagnosis was that the tree had contracted some sort of disease and was on its last leg. He told them though that unfortunately, even though only one of the trees was diseased, both would end up dying in the next year or so. The roots of the trees had grown together over years of close proximity, and each root system had become completely dependent on the other. Because the one tree was dying, the other would as well. I argue that this also applies to our human relationships—the hurt of the one leads to the hurt of the other, but also, perhaps not with the trees but definitely with people, the success and health of the one can elevate the success of the other—and it should. If we live our lives aware of the reality of our connectedness and our duty to one another, we can make this world a better place to live in. No one gets left behind, and everyone has a chance. So, while I began this article by identifying the need to rethink service in America, what I am finally calling for is a rethinking of our humanity, how we relate to those around us, and how a change in that thinking will affect the state of the world.