Inner City Diary
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Giving is more a relationship than a transaction...
November 23, 2003
"You can do better than that! Now, everyone get up and we’ll try that again.”

The preacher stood in front of the church between several elders. In his hands he held two large offering plates. He continued, “I want everyone to walk by slowly and consider how much more you should put in these plates. Look at it this way: I’m giving you a second chance to do what you should have done the first time.”

It was 1980. I was a student, visiting a church on the South Side of Chicago. Conspicuously white in the black congregation, I wondered if this was a cultural thing and perhaps I should follow their lead. We got up and dutifully filed down the center aisle. As I reached the front of the church, I looked into the plate and saw a collection of small bills.

All eyes were on me. The sound of dropping coins would make me even more conspicuous. I decided to donate the only bill I had in my pocket – a five dollar bill. I kept my coins for the bus trip home.

My deposit received a look of interest from the pastor. I wondered if he assumed I should give more. Overall, he must have been satisfied with our second effort, because we were eventually released back into the community.

I’ve never been passive with bullies or muggers. To me, this felt more like a street mugging than a church offering. My gift didn’t break me, and that church probably needed every penny, but before leaving the building, I determined never to return there again.

Back in Winnipeg, you can tell December’s coming soon from the amount of requests for donations, appealing to your charitable Christmas spirit. Winnipeggers are a gracious lot.

But there are some folk who regularly abuse that generosity.

Several years ago I got a call from a woman in Charleswood. Someone had come to her door, claiming to be collecting money on behalf of our church. While she felt the person was a bit odd, she nevertheless made a small donation.

I couldn’t believe my ears! I told her to call the cops right away with a description of the scammer.

We’ve never done door-to-door or telephone solicitation of donations. I think it had something to do with being scarred by my experience on the South Side of Chicago. I figure if people like what you’re doing, they’ll find different ways to help without being pressured or guilted into a donation.

This week, the Consumer’s Bureau encouraged people to exercise caution when approached for donations.

Rule number one: Resist high pressure appeals. Whether at the door or over the phone, ask for a mailing address so you can check out the charity before sending your donation.

Rule number two: Don’t send cash in the mail. And never give credit card or bank information to people you don’t know.

Rule number three: Know who’s getting your money. Just because someone uses the name of a charity doesn’t mean that’s where your donation is going. Some charities use fundraising companies which keep a percentage of the donations they solicit. You can give to them or you can give directly to the organization.

And then there’s the scammers.

One guy in Winnipeg ran several different charities over the years, purporting to help people. But he had many personal problems. It seemed every time he had enough criminal charges or convictions under one name, he somehow weaseled a legal name change. Under one of his names he had charges for assault, procuring, soliciting, fraud and attempted murder.

No problem. With a new personal name and a new name for his “charity” he engaged new donations and continued to work kind-hearted Winnipeggers. His “headquarters” changed so frequently, he listed his ministry headquarters as a mailbox at a cheque-cashing joint. Eventually he was busted for defrauding several fund-raising companies.

I’m not writing to discourage generosity, but rather to encourage caution. Don’t just blindly throw money at causes. There are many charitable groups doing amazing work in Winnipeg. Get to know them. You can contribute directly to the charity, or donate through groups like the United Way. And give freely.

Guilted givers may have parted with their cash, but they hold onto their resentments. A thoughtful gift is as much a blessing to the giver as to the recipient.

Sometimes the personal contact with a donor is even more encouraging than the numbers on their cheque. Giving is more than a financial transaction.

Back in Chicago, I wonder if that guy is still holding his parishioners hostage…
Copyright 2003
Rev. Harry Lehotsky
Rev. Harry Lehotsky is Director of New Life Ministries, a community ministry in the inner-city of Winnipeg, Manitoba.
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New Life Ministries
514 Maryland Street
Winnipeg, Mb R3G 1M5
(204) 775-4929