'TIS THE SEASON of dutiful generosity, but let’s be honest: Not all giving is equal.
Tacking on an extra couple of hundies to some massive charity’s end-of-year plea just for the tax return isn’t nearly as magnanimous as quietly handing out coats and socks to the homeless. And not to be judgey, but the selfless benevolence of delivering toys to underprivileged children gets diminished if you’re going to humblebrag about it all over your Facebook page.
To keep our munificent motives in check, we can refer to the great 12th century sage Maimonides, who actually set up an eight-level metric to gauge the honorability of charitable donations. This ladder of good deed degrees supposedly leads all the way to heaven, or at least away from the narcissistic abyss.
The first rung starts with doling out alms, but doing so while complaining about how all these poor people just need to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and if they don’t have boots then they should’ve thought of that before they got poor, OK? Sad!
The next step involves donating with a beneficent smile, but being a cheapskate about it. Oh, you’re hungry, little street ruffian? Here’s a quarter and a slightly chipped Altoid. And my leftovers from Ruth’s Chris for your mangy dog!
On up the elevator of righteousness, there are stipulations about giving only after when asked, offering before being solicited and not revealing one’s identity to the recipient of the contribution. Anonymity for both the giver and the beneficiary holds the second-highest regard (but tossing apple pies at the food bank in a balaclava probably doesn’t count.)
One way to keep it humble is to bequeath in numbers. The lovely folks of the charity collective Joined in Giving definitely aren’t looking for any glory, but I don’t think they’ll be docked points on the virtue scale if I tell you about them.
Their approach to philanthropy also packs more power than individual gifts: Every month, JIG members put in $25 and vote on one of two proposed local non-profits to receive the $700+ windfall. More than 30 afterschool programs, arts and culture organizations and senior services have been awarded grants, including Deep Kids, Savannah Youth City, Georgia Legal Services, King Tisdell Cottage Foundation and the West Broad Street YMCA, and others on the budgetary chopping block. JIG has spread out more than $20,000 since the group began meeting in 2013.
“You’ve heard of investment clubs, where people pool their money together to profit from the stock market?” asks co-founder Mike Freeman.
“It’s like that, except we’re investing in our local community.”
Mike, his wife, Chris Neal, and their partner in social justice Jan Elders conceived the idea after efforts to sustain a small offshoot of the Universalist Unitarian church faltered. Faced with a modest pile of leftover funds, they streamlined their mission into a 501c3 and invited some friends to join.
“We had wanted to focus on being more action-oriented anyway, and we realized that we could do a lot more good with our pledges instead of paying rent,” explains Jan, who grew up in the days of segregation and has been using her superpowers for justice ever since. “This way, nothing goes anywhere but into the pockets of the people that we’re trying to help.”
The monthly meetings start with a potluck hosted at members’ homes, and December brought out a festive crew to Mary Landers’ and Stewart Dohrman’s Parkside bungalow.
“Are you here for JIG?” asked their son Ty, peering out on the porch after my rap on the front door. “You’re the first one here.”
It seems I had misread the email and arrived a half an hour early, which would have been awkward except that Mary and Stewart’s easygoing graciousness extends to refusing to let inadvertently rude guests feel uncomfortable. (Maimonides doesn’t mention good intentions marred by adult-onset farsightedness, but I’m sure it would rank low.)
In spite of my faux pas, the family amiably welcomed me into the kitchen, where Mary was chopping cilantro for a giant udon noodle salad with eggplant and mango. (Among her many skills, Mary’s potluck game is particularly on point.)
I helped with the preparations by opening a bottle of wine, and we raised a toast before the arrival of the rest of the group, which Stewart called “a lot of sharp people with good hearts.”
They’re also polite enough to show up at the correct time. The house soon filled with laughter and covered dishes as the hosts’ older son, Van, played some beautiful tunes on Robin Gunn’s old baby grand piano. Everyone’s favorite children’s librarian Sha Dishong showed up in a festive polka-dot sweater, followed by Suzanne Donovan, bittersweetly spending her last night in town with JIG before moving to Minnesota.
“This group offers a look at our local non-profits in an intimate way,” mused the former Executive Director of Step Up Savannah, which happened to be one of the evening’s contenders. (Normally representatives from potential beneficiaries aren’t present for the debate, but Suzanne put in her notice months ago.)
After marveling over Mary’s salad and angling for seconds on the spanakopita, everyone adjourned to the living room to get down to business.
“It’s gonna be hot competition tonight!” vowed Jan as we cleared our plates. “I get very passionate when I’m presenting.”
Her charge was the Tybee Island MLK Celebration, a fairly new tradition that includes a procession, an essay contest and year-round consortium that she called “the island’s only human rights organization.” Member Liz Juno took up the call of Step Up, laying out the agency’s work in affordable housing, job training and other economic assistance.
Everyone listened intently to both presentations, gauging how their donation would benefit the community. I was truly impressed by the depth of the discussion—not only by the line of questioning around each organization’s operations but the fluency in the factors that contribute to Savannah’s perpetual poverty and its stubborn pockets of cultural homogeny.
“I always learn so much from this group, they’re so interesting and so much fun,” agreed three-year JIGger Rene Patton, who drives from Richmond Hill to attend the potlucks every month. “It helps me understand the world around me.”
In the end, Jan’s fiery advocacy won the hearts and minds of the room, and everyone attacked the dessert table with the satisfaction that $700 would make a significant impact on the January parade’s tiny budget.
The checks are written from one non-profit to the other, no individual identities involved. JIG has also begun an End Poverty fund that will soon offer microloans that can be used to start a business or go back to school—thus achieving Maimonides’ highest level of gift-giving of all: Helping others become self-sufficient so that one day they might become a benefactor.
It’s the true origin of the famous adage about teaching somone to fish instead of giving them one, which I’d always believed was attributed to Jesus up until I just looked it up.
No matter, the spirit is the same, and I suppose that’s the point. Happiest Holidays and a season of kindness, compassion and contentment to all!