Is it possible to give without judgement?

There was a beautiful news story recently about an anonymous donor who went to several K-Mart stores in the U.S. and quietly paid off the layaway accounts of families with young children.  For those of you too young to remember, layaway plans allow customers to choose something they want, have it put aside, and pay for it in weekly installments until it’s paid in full. Although they’re available year-round, they’re most popular at Christmas with parents who want to ensure they can give their kids the toys they ask for, without needing to save up and shop at the last minute.  I recall my parents using layaway plans when I was a kid and I think I even used one to buy a bicycle when I was a teenager.  However, I hadn’t heard the term for a while and had just assumed they no longer existed till I read this story.

I enjoyed this story for many reasons.  I loved that the donor found a simple way to have a direct, positive, impact on the lives of the families she helped.  I appreciated that she did it anonymously, without any need for public glory.  I loved the descriptions of the beneficiaries, one of whom (a man with three small children in tow) burst into tears when told his account was paid off.

The story moved me so much that I took to the comments board ofThe Toronto Star to share my thoughts.  While most comments were positive, I was surprised to find that some posters had reacted negatively to the story.  A few accused K-Mart of staging a “PR stunt” while others expressed sadness and even rage that families who are in financial trouble would spend money they don’t have on junk they don’t need.  Some felt that the dollar amount attached to the layaway accounts was much more than they would spend on their own kids.  And then there was a general railing against the hyper-consumerism of the modern Christmas season.   As someone who has spent two decades in PR, I am fairly confident that, while K-Mart may have shared the news to boost its profile, it’s unlikely they fabricated the whole story out of the ether.  I can also say that in all my years working at and running PR agencies, I have never staged a “PR stunt”, but that’s another story.

That aside, the other negative sentiments got me wondering if it is possible to give to others without considering why they are in their current predicament and what role, if any, they played in it. I can say with all honesty that this is something I have struggled with for years.  I try to be philanthropic in whatever way I can, but, despite my best efforts to be non-judgemental, I tend to draw a line between people who are responsible for their own issues and people who had the problems thrust upon them.  This translates into heartfelt compassion for victims of a tsunami and indifference for able-bodied, able-minded people on social assistance.  I’m not particularly proud of this, I’m just being honest. Through extended family, I know someone who benefits from one of the many toy drives that take place in the city each Christmas.  Having been a recipient for many years, she now expects her annual delivery of toys for her children and therefore, makes no plans to improve her situation. Friends who have volunteered to deliver toys for needy families, have also told me that they were shocked and hurt by the lack of gratitude and the sense of entitlement they encountered at some of the homes they visited. It begs the question, when we give, is any kind of recognition  required?  A “thank you” is nice but is it mandatory?  And should we feel ripped off if we don’t get it?

Getting back to the K-Mart article, I think we can all agree that children are not responsible for the financial situation of their parents, and shouldn’t be punished for it.  The way I see it, more-affluent parents have the luxury of keeping Christmas presents to a minimum because it’s only one of many gifts they will give their kids throughout the year.  Their children will have swimming lessons and ballet and summer camps, not to mention, parents who have the time and resources to encourage them with their homework and their goals.  Thanks to the work of donors like the woman in the story, many underprivileged kids can wake up to presents under the tree on Christmas Day, even if the rest of the year  is bleak.  So, I for one, applaud this anonymous donor and everyone like her who is able to “give without judgement”.

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