How I Reclaimed my Sense of Charity

The other day, my friend Janet told me about Your Big Year, a website from a company called Smaller Earth that offered an intriguing experience. 24 people get flown to Liverpool to participate in “a week of fun and engaging tasks, challenges and events,” as the site says. My friend described it as “The Amazing Race” meets “The Apprentice,” only it’s not for a TV show. Two people get chosen from the group in England to go on a round-the-world trip, apparently to work with NGOs in various locations. It was an interesting opportunity, and could provide me with some financial backing for my pet project of saving the world.

There were a few ways to secure a spot in this thing, all contests of a sort. The last remaining one open was fundraising for charity. You sign up, select up to three charities to raise for, and get people to donate, listing you as the beneficiary. The top 6 fundraisers get the last available seats. When Janet told me about it, she had already raised a considerable sum, and was in 2nd place with around £100 to her name. There wasn’t much activity in the past few updates, and she had found a way to track the activity on the tragically designed donation site, ammado. It seemed like if we could raise some petty cash for charity, we could at least get a week in England, right around the time my visa in Japan expires. At first it was just passing fancy, but then I thought hey, this might be doable.

I called up Hiro and asked if I could get the company’s support for this. After all, charitable donations are a tax write-off. And like that, I was on the board. Out of the list of available charities, I picked three that I thought would do the most good in ways I support: Oxfam, Gifted Hands, and International Peace Parks Expedition. I put out feelers on Facebook and asked people to donate, linking to the contest in the spirit of full disclosure.

Not long after my first donation, I began to get a vague sense of deja-vu. The next update on their facebook page showed a bit more activity–things were heating up. People were starting to pay attention to the fast-approaching deadline. Checking the donation site for peoples’ totals, I couldn’t see the individual donation amounts, but I could see that people were donating to themselves. That’s when I realized where the deja vu was coming from. This was the same feeling I used to get bidding on eBay auctions. Religiously checking for updates, scoping out the competition, wondering what their motives were and what tricks they hid up their sleeves… just how much did they want to win the prize for themselves. The only difference was that on eBay, you only pay if you win. This was more than bidding on an opportunity, this was gambling.

The beauty of the dangling carrot, the promise of potential gain. Nothing sparks an interest in philanthropy like personal profit, and this competition had pooled a group of “young entrepreneurs” who knew how to work the game. Some were better than others. I watched with great interest, unsure of what to do, whether to actively solicit or to settle back and watch the race unfold. I sent e-mails to a few family members but didn’t really expect that or the Facebook status to pan out. To my surprise, I was wrong. I received messages from friends who saw my status update, and even donations. The subject of charity doesn’t often come up in conversation, but I was really impressed with my friends who, despite not being terribly well off, still budget for charity. Another reminder of the quality of  people I am surrounded by. Both of my parents also donated on my behalf (my dad’s donation didn’t go through for some reason, but it’s the thought that counts). Though they both donate time and money to charities, their motive was much more clear-cut here, to help me out.

I talked to Janet about it online. She was in the middle of a walk around an island in the Philippines, and would be back on the road for the last day of the contest. It would be really cool if we could both make it, but we were both on the same page, wondering whether to gamble on the chance, to go all in or fold. She got in a final donation before she hit the road again, preserving her place in 3rd place with £264. There was a healthy margin on either side of her. I had been lapped at that point, and was still waiting for my dad’s donation to decide whether to keep pushing. The top 6 was still within reach, but there was a whole day left. I felt indebted to those who donated for me, like I owed it to them to win, but at what cost? This “charity” fundraiser felt like one of the most selfish things I had done; this isn’t what charity is supposed to feel like. It made me feel uneasy.

The final moments of the contest were very busy, exactly like an ebay auction. Lots of people had been sitting, waiting to see how much it would cost them to buy a seat. I made those calculations myself. It would take about $200 or so–still not bad for a week in England. Several people came from nowhere, donating large lump sums to themselves, trying to buy their way in. The totals were getting pushed ever higher, and even Janet’s margin was withering. I still hadn’t gotten my dad’s donation, but I could still buy my way in like so many others were trying to do. I filled out the donation form and entered my credit card information, my finger lingering over the submit button until the last moment. eBay strategies. I exhaled and released the mouse button, submitting my donation. For my friend.

I wasn’t going to England, but I thought maybe I could send her there.

It briefly put her in 5th place, but I underestimated the “young entrepreneurs” who were all too familiar with eBay tactics. The snipers snatched up the remaining slots. Janet won’t be going to England either.

Combined, we raised over £400 for our charities, and I felt good about myself again. For when I made my final donation, I was actually doing it for someone else, and not out of self-interest. All the winners, enterprising as they are, are going to bed satisfied with what the did for themselves, their victory. Tonight, I went to bed satisfied with what I did for the sake of others, my loss. I couldn’t imagine getting on too well with these “future leaders” anyways.

Besides, can you imagine me on “The Apprentice?”