If you give your money to a cause or to someone in need, you have engaged in an act of charity. On the other hand, if I take that same money from you and give it to the same cause or person in need as you would have, I have engaged in an act of theft. The same money is given to the same recipient, but the nobility of the act is severely compromised. Charity is a wonderful thing, but theft is reprehensible, even when the point of the theft is to do good to others. Everyone on the same page? Good, let’s press on.

The ONE Campaign has publicly stated a number of noble goals such as eliminating poverty and global diseases like AIDS, but it is a failure as a charity organization. A recent news report out of England explains the problem:

Bono’s anti-poverty foundation ONE is under pressure to explain its finances after it was revealed that only a small percentage of money it raises reaches the needy.

The non-profit organisation set up by the U2 frontman received almost £9.6million in donations in 2008 but handed out only £118,000 to good causes (1.2 per cent).

The figures published by the New York Post also show that £5.1million went towards paying salaries.

Just over one percent of its money was donated to some charity cause. I guess I now know why it’s called ONE. And if more than half the money paid the salaries of ONE employees, where did the rest go?

ONE spokesman Oliver Buston has now defended the way the organisation is run, insisting the money is used for promoting its campaign and raising awareness rather than being given straight to those who need help.

He said: ‘We don’t provide programmes on the ground. We’re an advocacy and campaigning organisation.’

Ah. Raising awareness. Yeah, that’s certainly helpful. We should all spend a night in a cardboard box to raise awareness about the plight of the homeless. Not that it would actually do anything to help the homeless, but we could feel good about our ineffectual efforts later.

This isn’t the first time ONE has come to my attention. Back in 2007, I noticed ONE’s website and celebrity endorsement, and I wrote about it then. Their tagline back then was “We’re not asking for your money. We’re asking for your voice.” When I visited the ONE website after reading the Daily Mail article, I noticed that little had changed in the past three years. They are still asking for your voice, and they are still not asking for your money. Well, not directly.

But they are asking for your money. They just don’t want to deal with the piddling amounts given out by individuals. Instead, ONE wants to go after the big bucks that can be provided by governments. One of the causes on the ONE website is a petition to be sent to Pres. Obama, urging him to fund the effort to stop the spread of HIV from mother to child. That’s a wonderful goal, and I would applaud anyone willing to voluntarily contribute to such a cause. But ONE doesn’t want your voluntary charitable giving, they want forced charitable giving from all Americans in the form of $5 billion in U.S. government taxation. That works out to about $16.67 from every man, woman and child – taxpayer or not – living here in the States. I’m sure most Americans wouldn’t miss it, since we could provide such funds by going without snacks for a week or two. But the amount of money per capita isn’t the point. Taking money from one person to give to another isn’t charity. It’s theft.

And theft is wrong, even when it goes to a good cause or if the government is doing it.

I think I’ve coined a new phrase: “junk-food activism.” It’s any awareness-raising activity that’s designed to get the participant to feel empathy for or show solidarity for a particular group or cause, without actually doing anything to fix the problem. (Examples: sleeping under a bridge for one night to show solidarity for the homeless, or spending only $7/day on food for a week to understand what it is to be hungry, or wearing a colored ribbon to show support for a cause.)

What’s wrong with these activities? Nothing per se, except that they don’t go far enough. If the activity were always followed up by meaningful action — say, volunteering at a soup kitchen or giving money or in-kind donations to a local food bank — it wouldn’t be such a bad thing. But many of these exercises do not even suggest that such follow-up action be taken. Thus in some cases junk-food activism can be worse than taking no action at all, because the participants walk away feeling as though they’ve done something significant, even noble, to further the cause — yet nothing has been done to improve the situation. It’s like empty-calories compassion.

Imagine if a woman were drowning in a local river, and on the bank there had gathered a throng of well-meaning people stopping random passersby and saying, “Drowning is a terrible way to die. Come join us in raising awareness! We’re going to wade out into the river to feel how cold it is, and maybe put our faces in the water so we can understand what she must be going through!” OK, fine, but in the meantime the victim’s lungs are filling with liquid and her life is slipping away. It only takes one person to push through the throng, ignoring the multitudinous cries of compassionate solidarity in favor of swimming out at personal risk in order to pluck a dying soul from the current.

Don’t get me wrong; I think one ought to take the time to discover the social and spiritual ills that plague humanity in general and one’s community in specific. But I think it’s far more important to do what can be done to ameliorate such ills. It’s not enough to recognize the weak, the weary, the downtrodden all around you, if you’re not willing to strengthen, shelter and lift up — to get up and do. Compassion for others — charity in the classic sense of pure love for one’s fellow man — is an emotion designed to spur one to take action, not merely to be an actor.

And that’s all I hafta say about that.

Once I built a railroad, I made it run,
Made it race against time.
Once I built a railroad, now it’s done –
Brother, can you spare a dime?

Once I built a tower, up to the sun,
Brick and rivet and lime.
Once I built a tower, now it’s done –
Brother, can you spare a dime?

Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?

You’ve seen them, sitting on street corners or hanging out at off-ramps, holding up cardboard signs. “Homeless Vietnam Vet.” “Will work for food.” “Hungry, God bless!” And my favorite, held up by a bearded guy in his forties: “Out of work Supermodel.” I had to give him credit for being funny, but did I stop to give him anything? Or, as so many of us do, did I simply drive on by?

Why are they there? I live in a pretty liberal place. Three co-workers have referred to this town as “the place where hippies go to die.” With all its progressive, leftist leanings, why does this city have so many people begging for food on the side of the road? Aren’t there enough programs to feed and clothe the less fortunate? Could it be that some of these people want to do what they are doing?

While I was living in Washington state, a radio talk show host mentioned a woman he often saw at a particular intersection, asking for money with the standard “Homeless — Will work for food” sign. He had someone bring her a cell phone, got her on the show, and began to ask his listeners if someone would be willing to give her a job. Several people called to offer her a position in their businesses. She accepted a job from one of the listeners, but as the host later reported, she never showed up. When the show went to check on her, they found her at the same intersection, again begging for money. In this case, the woman preferred to beg because she got more money for less work than she would have done holding down a $15/hour job.

I recall a news story explaining how some college students dress in their rattiest clothes and head to another town to beg. A convincing student on a good street corner can easily pull in enough money from begging to pay for room and board. The students reported that they would much rather beg than take a part-time job that requires heavy lifting, cleaning, or memorizing the phrase “Would you like fries with that?” No wonder some people would rather slouch with an outstretched hand than hold down a normal job.

“Sparky” Anderson of sparked.stormloader.com once wrote about his run-in with a beggar:

I was in a rush to get to my night class one particular day, but also extremely hungry and extremely broke. I ordered my two hamburgers, forked over the $2 for them, and sat down and started unwrapping one of the burgers. A bum sitting across from me, somewhat obscured by some foliage, asked me if he could ask me a question before I started eating. Now, at this point, you have to realize that I have literally minutes to make it to class where I have to take a quiz, it’s bitterly cold outside, and I’m in a generally grumpy mood. I knew pretty much where this conversation would lead to, and I was in no mood for it. As predicted, he asked if I would go up to the counter and buy him a hot cup of soup. Generally I just give an unemotional “No” without making eye contact and ignore beggars in situations such as this. He was a particularly persistent one, however, and I’d had enough. What I proceeded to tell him was that I paid for my meal with money that I made with the job that I have and that he should consider doing the same, as he surely has enough time to wander down to the nearest employment agency to find employment. When asked if I believe in helping others out — which obviously only meant him — I curtly replied no. He shut up after that.

Sparky continues by declaring that beggars are pathetic creatures on the level of dogs, and we should not enable them to lead such a worthless existence. While his attitude has mellowed a bit since he wrote this article, there are times when you just don’t want to deal with a beggar. You could try this: the next time you see someone holding up a “Will work for food” sign, offer him a hot meal and two bags of groceries if he will do some painting at your house. If he truly wants the opportunity to work, he will jump at the chance to earn the food. But if he is there because begging is easier than working, or to support an addiction, he will turn you down. Try it. I have yet to get anyone to take me up on the offer, despite the piteous slogan on his sign. What does that tell you about the nature of those beggars?

Yet I have given money to beggars. I’m sure you have, too. One of the reasons why I believe I am obligated to help these people comes from a discourse from a man of God. King Benjamin said the following to his people over two thousand years ago:

And also, ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish.

Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just—

But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God.

For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind? Mosiah 4:16-19

Since we are all beggars before God, how can I be quick to judge the people who are begging before me? I can’t. I know that some are fakes, some are addicts, and some are truly mentally disturbed and need a doctor much more than they need my spare change. Even so, I believe I have a duty to assist them.

But there are a lot of beggars out there. I could go to the bank, cash out my paycheck, and hand out $100 bills to every beggar I see, but by the time I got home I would have no money left over for my own rent, food, and (more importantly) internet connection until the next paycheck. I could toss every dime I earn to every brother I meet, and the result would be a bunch of beggars rubbing their heads where I hit them with my dimes. Would it change the number of beggars on the street corner the next day? Nope. The need is never-ending. So what is a good God-fearing Christian supposed to do?

King Benjamin also sheds light on this challenge: “And see that all these things are done in wisdom and order; for it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength. And again, it is expedient that he should be diligent, that thereby he might win the prize; therefore, all things must be done in order.” (Mosiah 4:27)

My primary responsibility is to care and provide for my family. After that, I am my brother’s keeper. Many Christians, Jews and other people of faith have dedicated a portion of every dollar they make as a charitable donation, to help people specifically like those who stand on street corners. And yet, in our abundance, it’s still possible to help those who are standing to the side asking, “Brother, can you spare a dime?”

Here’s the response to that request, in the words of an old hymn:

Because I have been given much, I too must give.
Because of Thy great bounty, Lord, each day I live.
I shall divide my gifts from Thee with every brother that I see
Who has the need of help from me.

Millions of people are suffering in Asia, so I’ll be brief.

Captain Ed over at the Captain’s Quarters blog has come up with a great idea — dedicate your entire earnings from this upcoming January 12 to helping those people who have been devastated by the recent earthquakes and tsunami in Southeast Asia. Sure, I could use this money for myself and my family, but it would just go to buy us some more stuff. Giving this money to aid people in desperate need is a better, and far nobler, use of my money.

Captain Ed is urging his readers to contribute to World Vision, and many people have done just that. Here is how I choose to participate: I have written out a check for the cash equivalent of a day’s earnings to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Humanitarian Services. World Vision is a great organization, but as a man with limited means, I want to make sure my donation will make as much of a difference as possible. I am giving my day’s wages to the LDS Church’s Humanitarian Services because I know 100% of the money donated will go directly to those in need.

I also intend to make full use of the matching charitable donation program at my company. I will bring my check in on Tuesday, and my company will match my donation dollar for dollar. If your company has a similar donation matching program in place, I urge you to participate to maximize the money sent to those in need.

Let me add my small voice to the clarion call issued by Captain Ed: Give. And give generously.