Every so often, when dealing with Church projects and non-profit work in general, one hears someone who does a lot of volunteer work toss off a disparaging remark alone the lines of, “Oh, those people. They only give money. You’d never see them down here working.”
Sometimes this is used to support a claim as to “who really cares” about an issue, along the lines of:
“Sure, you’ll find lots of [members of group X] a pro-life fundraising banquets, but you’ll never see them working at a crisis pregnancy center.”
“[Members of group X] may give money to ‘charity’, but you’ll never find them filling boxes down at the foodbank or working with at-risk kids.”
This has always struck me as a somewhat unfair criticism, for reasons I will get into in a minute, but I was particularly reminded of this last week when I had to go down to the diocesan offices to be trained to count and report the collections for the diocesan Catholic Services Appeal. The annual appeal provides a about the third of the operating expenses for the diocese — and since I deal with financial-ish stuff at work and I’m going to be rotating off the pastoral council in a couple months, I half volunteered, half was dragooned, into helping out with the processing of the collection this year at the parish. At the training session, I was particularly struck by the numbers of where the money in the appeal comes from:
There are 108,000 Catholic families registered in the diocese. Of those, 19,000 contribute to the CSA in a typical year. Of those, 2,500 provide 50% of the total money collected. So 2% of the families in the diocese provide 50% of the money collected. Now you might think that this 2% are some pretty rich folks, writing fat checks to the diocese from their vacation cottages. Perhaps a few are, but it’s hardly a rarefied group. To end up in that top 2%, you have to donate $50/mo for ten months to the CSA — $500 for the year. That’s certainly not something that every family can afford, but it’s an amount that most families can afford. And yet only 2% do.
Now certainly, it’s not as if the majority of people go down and spend significant amounts of time volunteering on important charities either. If you provide significant financial support to charities or significant volunteer time, you’re already in a small group. So that brings us back to the question of whether personally volunteering time is somehow worth more in some moral sense than donating money.
In examining that question, I think it’s important to remember what money is: Money is a tool for exchange which represents the ability to obtain goods or services which, in the end, represent the ability to command the work of some other person. How much time you can command with that money depends on the person but, in the end, time is essentially a fungible form of work, and work is essentially time spent doing something which others consider to be desirable or productive.
So in a sense, donating time and donating money are actually exchangeable. This is further complicated by the fact that although all people have roughly the same amount of total time, their amounts of free time and the amount they’re paid for their working time vary. A professional who makes $90k/yr and spends 10-12 hours a day on work and work related activities has fairly little time for volunteering, and if he donates the money he makes for a few hours a week worth of his work to a charity, that money goes a long way. Someone who works part time for $8 a hour, on the other hand, has a lot of free time, but very little money. The amount of money that person could donate based on the same number of hours of working time would do a charitable organization comparatively little good (while taking away a lot of that person’s money.) Given these variances, it may well be that the professional giving a charity the pay he received for five hours worth of his work does the charity much more good (in regards to actually getting their charitable work done) than if he showed up and spent five yours helping out physically.
I don’t want to get overly economistic in all this. Someone whose only charitable activity is writing checks will usually have a more distant experience of charitable action than someone who volunteers in a food pantry or crisis pregnancy center on a weekly basis. It’s going to be hard for someone who _only_ gives money to experience at a human level the fact that the money he’s making for a couple hours during his workday is going to help a particular cause.
At the same time, however, I think it’s important to recognize that donating time is not the only legitimate form of charity, and indeed that for those who make large amounts of money (although at a human level they will benefit from doing charitable work in person themselves at times) it will do a charitable cause more overall good if they donate the product of their labors than if they come and donate the same number of hours in labor onsite instead.