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Cautious Generosity
By Aaron Johnston January 13, 2005

I recently saw a homeless man holding a cardboard sign that read, "Need Money for Booze." I'm not joking. Rather than claim to be a Vietnam vet or a disabled person or simply in need of help, this guy chose to be shamelessly candid.

"I'm an alcoholic and I need a drink."

His thinking, I can only suspect, was that the sign would evoke a few chuckles, particularly from people who also enjoy drinking alcohol and who might find his candor a little endearing.

"Booze, you say? Well I can sympathize with you there, buddy. I like slamming back a few cold ones myself. Here take a buck."

I, on the other hand, wasn't amused. One, because I think alcohol can be terribly destructive (aforementioned homeless man is my Exhibit A). And secondly, and more importantly, because this homeless guy was making a joke out of what is a very serious fear in all of us: that the aid we give to the needy is not, in the end, used for the purposes we intended.

I don't give homeless people money. And there are a lot of them in the town I live in. A LOT.

Is it because I'm heartless?

No, it's because I'm a skeptic.

Whenever I see a homeless person asking for money, I immediately assume that they'll use whatever I give them to feed their addiction. Not all of them are alcoholics or drug users, of course. Some are down on their luck for no fault of their own. But how can I tell the difference? Better to be safe and give them nothing at all.

Some people disagree.

Some people give and give and give. And by so doing perpetuate the problem only further.

Other people use different tactics. They give the homeless food. This is one method I highly endorse. People have to eat. What better way to ensure they do so then by putting hot food in their hands?

Other people believe in making the homeless work for their food. So they bring them home and give them a chore.

This has to be the stupidest, most dangerous form of goodwill. Consider Elizabeth Smart. Her parents, I'm sure, will forever regret bringing that man home and offering him work.

But my skepticism doesn't stop at the homeless. I'm wary of many charitable organizations as well.

And for good reason.

Let's face it. There's a lot of dishonest people in this world, people who won't think twice about preying on our kindness and generosity.

And according to the National Consumers League and the Better Business Bureau, charity scams are at their worst immediately following a natural disaster.

You see, crooks know we want to contribute to the relief effort, so they start a phony charity and take us to the cleaners.

Or (and this is more common) legally recognized charities jump into action when disaster strikes, eagerly calling for donations but then giving only a fraction of the overall proceeds to those in need. The rest goes to "overhead."

Browse, the official website of the Better Business Bureau's charity watchdog group, and you'll find so many warnings about charity scams that you'll think twice about giving your money to anyone. Ever.

And that's just sad. Because there are hundreds of honest, legitimate charities that do everything we want them to. They're good people. They truly care. And the money we give them goes directly from their hands into the ones that need it the most.

Again, hundreds. The BBB has a long and thorough list.

I mention all of this because as Latter-day Saints we've been commanded to bless and help the needy; King Benjamin gives a wonderful sermon on the subject; as does Christ. But doing so can be a tricky task in a world so polluted with dishonestly and corruption.

That's why we're so fortunate to have the church welfare system. That's one charity we can trust. No one makes a dime off its proceeds. When we pay a generous fast offering, we can be confident that all of it will go to the person or family with the greatest needs.

Of course, fast offerings isn't the only way we can give. If you're feeling especially generous - and the First Presidency in a recent statement encouraged you to be just that - then you can make a direct donation to the tsunami relief fund by visiting the Humanitarian Services Giving Site, a link from, the church's official website.

The whole process takes about three minutes and you can pay with a credit card, a wire transfer, or by other means. You can even send a check or money order via snail-mail if you're reluctant to use your credit card online.

What's cool about online donations is that the money goes immediately to the relief effort. Planes are loading now. Food is going now. Water is going now. What you give could bolster that effort RIGHT NOW.

Of course, much could be said about other forms of aid as well. Our humanitarian efforts need not start and stop with our checkbooks. We can give time, clothing, talent, love, friendship, cookies, phone calls, house calls, duck calls, anything that will bless and lift those in need.

Because giving shouldn't be what we do, it should be who we are. It should define us.

I heard on the radio that the United States constitutes only 6% of the world population but over 60% of the world's humanitarian aid. We're the most charitable nation in the world. By far.

Latter-day Saints should be leading that charge. We should be the best of the best, the most generous of the most generous.

We certainly have the infrastructure to do it. The church is wonderful in that regard.

And so are many other charitable organizations.

Too bad they all aren't. If only we could wave a magic wand and wipe out all the phony ones. If only we could zap all the crooks and hoodwinkers.

And while we're at it, let's wave a magic wand over that man's sign and change a few letters so instead of "Need Money for Booze" it reads "Need Monkey to Bruise." Twisted, yes, but far more interesting.

Copyright © 2005 by Aaron Johnston

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