Ramadan just passed, and we're coming up on Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and Christmas, all holidays that provide occasions for platitudinous discussions of giving, but Halloween and its mass disbursement of sugary wealth doesn't provoke similar discussion. Given the overwhelming sense of gratitude that is supposed to buoy Thanksgiving and the religious underpinnings of the other holidays, it's easy to see why the sector gravitates toward them to wax poetic about what it is that we do here. Amidst all the hustle and bustle of contemporary life, amid the sad commercialism of the holiday season, we are called to pause and remember how fortunate many of us truly are, to think of others who may not be as fortunate, and to give to others without expecting in return.
But all that goes out the window at Halloween. And while we'd like to think that Ramadan, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and Christmas best exemplify what it is we do around here, Halloween, too, is a metaphor for the philanthropic sector.
Consider the plight of the trick-or-treater. What makes for a truly successful trick-or-treater? A male teen (stronger, possible access to personal transportation) without much of a costume (expensive and can impair movement) who targets several wealthy neighborhoods (more and better candy) is easily the better trick-or-treater than the six-year-old waddling around the block in a pumpkin costume with a pair of doting parents. Which nonprofit are you?
Consider the plight of the candy distributors. How do you juggle the expectations of the trick-or-treaters showing up now with those of future trick-or-treaters who might show up later that night? Give all the good candy out now or save it until later? Buy the same candy for the entirety of the night? How much do you want left over to enjoy for yourself? Do you give candy to the teens who aren't supposed to be trick-or-treating but are nonetheless out there? Do you decorate? How much? Do you build a haunted house on your porch or a graveyard on your front lawn or do you just carve a pumpkin? Will you dress up? As what? How much will you spend? Do you leave a bowl outside full of candy and, when it's gone, you're done for the night? Do you check out what the neighbors are doing? Do you compete? How well do you measure up? Do you just turn off the porch light and pretend no one's home? What kind of donor are you?
Now consider the relationship. The desired mark when trick-or-treaters ring the doorbell is someone who comes to the door, gives you great candy (no Tootsie rolls), and lets you go on your way. The undesirable mark is the elderly gentleman or lady who takes forever to get to the door, has a costume on and tries to scare you, and comments on your costume, before finally insisting on giving you candied apples, which your paranoid parents are just going to make you throw away. The desired trick-or-treater is a young person accompanied by a chaperone to prevent mischief that politely asks for candy out of the depths of a costume that demonstrates their enthusiasm for the holiday and accepts whatever they're given with sincere gratitude. The undesirables are the older kids who ring the doorbell several times, demand good candy, complain if given something other than what they want, and egg your house in retaliation. Naturally, expectations are all over the place. What kind of relationship do you have with your fellow donors or grantees?
There's your sector right there. We can decorate over it, dress it up in fancy costumes, and declare a holiday, but there it is, all too human. We stare out the window at the costumed freaks demanding our hard-earned wealth. We ring the doorbell and hope the guy behind it isn't the cheapskate the other guy was. We are eager costumed people running about, looking for bits of sugar to brighten our night. We are weary people doing what we can and looking for a little gratitude in a world of desperation and greed. Pause between Hershey bars tonight and give it a bit of thought.
We're going to spend $4.96 billion this year on Halloween. Will we be better people for it?
Foundations gave almost $32 billion in 2004. Will we be better people for it?
Trick or treat?
Give it some thought and have a safe and happy Halloween!