Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Of Trumpets and Ice Buckets...

“Be careful not to display your righteousness merely to be seen by people. Otherwise you have no reward with your Father in heaven. Thus whenever you do charitable giving, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in synagogues and on streets so that people will praise them. I tell you the truth, they have their reward. But when you do your giving, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your gift may be in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:1-4 NET)

Now there’s a bucket of ice water. Like a lot of people I have mixed feelings about the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. For me what Jesus says about our giving to charity is a big part of it. Yet that is balanced by the fact that like a lot of Canadian Presbyterians I am quite familiar with this terrible condition that’s also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Back in 1997 a dynamic young Presbyterian minister named Chris Vais was diagnosed with ALS. Chris was the minister of Knox Church in Waterdown, Ontario, from a family of Presbyterian ministers (I’ve written about Chris before). In a little over a year Chris had to retire from congregational ministry, but instead of being defeated by the illness that was slowly paralyzing him, he decided to continue his calling through a self-published journal called For Words.

My parents knew Chris and his family through the church, and subscribed to the journal. There Chris shared his reflections on his illness and his Christian faith. That journal touched a lot of lives and in 2001 Chris received an honorary doctorate from Knox College. My mum was also graduating that night, so I had the chance to meet Chris briefly. He died a little over a year later in 2002, a few months short of his 40th birthday.

On top of this there’s the fact that in just my little congregation there are two families who have been touched by ALS since I started in ministry four years ago. So as much as I have some significant reservations about the showiness and debatable value of this ice bucket challenge, I can’t just write it off either. It is raising additional money for ALS research and raising some greater awareness of the disease (though how much more than just the three letters of its name is debatable).

What this does do is provide an opportunity to think about charity and how and why we give. According to a 2013 article in the Globe and Mail, Canadians give a little less than 1 per cent (0.8) of their annual income to charity. StatisticsCanada produced a detailed study of charitable giving in Canada in 2010 when the average annual amount per donor was $446 and the median amount was $123 (a median means that half of donors gave less than this amount and the other half gave more).

So, as William MacAskill from the University of Cambridge observed on CBC’s The Current this morning, there are a limited amount of charitable dollars to go around. MacAskill referred to a phenomenon known as ‘charity cannibalism,’ which means that when people give to a high profile charity they usually don’t give on top of what they normally would in a year – instead they just give less to their other charities. In short most people set aside a more or less fixed amount for charity in a year and whichever charity gets their attention gets the money – whether it’s a good charity or not.

And the truth is that not all charities are created equal. Many are very effective and make good use of our charitable givings, others do little that’s effective and spend most of our money on administration, advertising and fundraising. So how do you know? A great resource is which provides an annual ranking of most Canadian charities. They give ALS Canada a B+ ranking. You can take a look at the full report here:

So is it worth taking the ice bucket challenge or supporting someone else who is? I can’t answer that for you. ALS is a terrible disease and Tammy Moore the head of ALS Canada argues that it’s an underfunded illness in comparison to the number of Canadians affected by it.

What I can suggest is a few questions before you have someone dump a bucket of ice water over your head. Why am I doing this? Is it to look good before others, or am I really doing this for those paralyzed and slowly dying from ALS? If I give money to this cause, what other causes will I not be giving to? Or will I do something different and give to ALS on top of what I give to other charities and spend a bit less on myself? And will I do this quietly or will I blow a trumpet and post a video?

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