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March 28, 2006

Slipping Into Complacency

About a month ago, I had this idea to get all the local school kids to sell Mardi Gras beads door to door, to raise money for the unrelenting frustrations of Katrina survivors. I imagined color-coded giving levels -- red beads cost $10, blue beads cost $50, gold beads cost $100. I found a place online to buy 1,000 beads for $112. I pictured those beads hanging around every neck in town on February 28. I thought it’d be so gratifying for all those kids to look outward together, beyond their Girl Scout troop, beyond their class fund, to make something big and satisfying happen. But I failed to convert the good intention into action. I mentioned it to a few people and then let just enough days pass so that I could say to myself, “You know, to do this right, you’d really need more lead time.” So, you can imagine, when Katie Couric and Jim Lehrer sent their crews back to New Orleans last week, I felt a little disappointed in myself.

As it happened, the day after Mardi Gras, I spent thirty minutes organizing all the cancelled checks, W2s and receipts from 2005 for our tax return. In so doing, I was forced to consider the sum total of our charitable giving, which worked out to be a little more than 1% of our income. We could have given more, I admitted to myself, as I dug my toes deeper into my new Pottery Barn rug, sitting on my new Evolution sofa, tallying up purchases I could see around me and wondering what percentage of our income they amounted to. Maybe, I thought, our annual contributions should equal the total cost of our most indulgent purchases, like the giant TV for the family room and the high-end gas grill for the deck.

Curious about how we compared to others, I read over the first-ever IRS based report on charitable giving. Over a quarter of a million individual tax returns were analyzed and guess what, I was right, we were below average (which, for the Middle and Upper Middle class, was over 1.5% for people age 36-50 and jumped to close to 2% for those over 50.)

Not long after I had put a rubber band around the Tax 05 file and vowed to double our donations in 2006, a woman rang the doorbell. When I saw her clipboard, I rolled my eyes indignantly. In fact, if the girls hadn’t screamed straight for the door, I might have pretended we weren’t home. After all, this was precisely the kind of unwelcome nagging that stopped me from the Mardi Gras bead sale.

Her name was Jesse and as she articulated her cause, I found myself hoping she was making an impression on my girls, who are not exposed to enough Jesses. She explained that her group was lobbying congress to pass a bill that would force carmakers to increase fuel efficiency. After I wrote her a check and wished her luck with the bill, I closed the door. The girls didn’t quite understand the interaction until I explained, “Jesse is a person whose found a problem she wants to fix.” “But Mom, it’s raining,” Georgia noted. “Yeah, but it’s a pretty bad problem and she really wants to fix it.”

It was the perfect storm – Mardi Gras, tax returns, Jesse. And like a good storm, it had a clarifying effect. I want my family to be above average, philanthropically speaking. I want us to live up to my cocktail party bluster. I want to be a family that makes things better. Even if it means ringing doorbells. So darken the front stoop. We're coming.