How surplus cash has changed the face of charity

Bob Hawk, his grandson, Chase Vaughn, and Dr. Ellis Potter told Iola Rotarians about their spectacle-making journey to Calcutta, India, and environs Thursday. A more detailed review of the Rotary project, teaching volunteers how to make serviceable eye glasses with a wooden jig, stainless steel wire and reading lens, will appear in another issue.
Today, let’s reflect on the motto of the Salt Lake — a suburb of Calcutta — Rotary Club: “We make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give.”
The sentiment is a variation on an observation coined in the United States or some other Western nation and was perhaps picked for that India banner by a member educated in the U.S. This doesn’t make it any less true or, for that matter, any less Asian. Giving is a religious requirement for Muslims. Hindus are just as much accustomed to being charitable.
This observation leads us to realize that the place that organized charity has assumed in middle class cultures around the globe has made it into an industry that ballooned when surplus wealth began to be generated worldwide in relatively recent years.
To jigger Salt Lake’s motto once again: A great many people make a living today helping millions of others make a life.
For example, Bob and Ellis found and were amazed by a factory in Calcutta that makes artificial limbs for poverty-stricken Indians who have lost hands, arms, legs or feet. The factory is subsidized by Rotary International and its foundation. Those who benefit from the prostheses pay little or nothing for them. But, of course, the factory workers and managers earn salaries. So do the thousands employed by the R.I. Foundation to do all of the wonderful things they do around the world every day.
There is an entire category of non-profit businesses called NGOs, non-governmental organizations, which exist only to do good; to provide free services such as food, health care, clothing, shelter, clean water and other emergency assistance to the poor and victims of natural or man-made disasters.
In the not-so-distant past, these kinds of aid were provided almost entirely by churches and by a handful of national and international organizations such as the Red Cross, the Red Crescent and the Salvation Army. And the scale of the giving was much less grand and varied — not because people were less generous or willing to share, but because the level of wealth was so much lower.

SCALE DOWN now from national and international to the average family living in a typical community in granddad’s day, 60 or70 years ago.
Christmas meant an orange, some hard ribbon candy, a handful of nuts in that net stocking hung by the chimney with care. Children could expect one major toy or, if older, a special book, and a gimmick or two, a yo-yo, perhaps, or a police whistle. The important gifts would be clothes. Christmas was a time to replenish the wardrobe, the linen closet and fill in the blanks on kitchen and household appliances and tools. Those gifts didn’t come from surplus money but were a calculated part of the family budget.
Yes, Christmas was also a time to make a gift to the Red Cross, to the church’s blanket fund and foreign missions; dimes were sent to the March of Dimes. A dollar bill or two were stuffed through the wire screen protecting the Salvation Army kettle’s take. Few families, however, could send off a check to buy a calf for a family in central Africa, pay for surgery on a child’s cleft palate or help finance doctors without borders. The will may have been there; the money wasn’t.
And because the surplus wealth was not being generated, the NGOs whose four-color, slick-paper, thoroughly professional appeals that flood every mailbox this time of the year had not yet been born: there was no way to pay for those yet-to-be-imagined missions.

STILL, VERY admirable lives were being lived in granddad’s less-rich days, ennobled by gifts of time, energy, imagination and love, with a tad of sacrifice tossed in for seasoning. Looking back with care can offer moral comfort.

— Emerson Lynn, jr.