I or We

Today’s Sunday Review section of the New York Times included a piece titled Getting the Wealthy to Donate.

I had seen before statistics supporting the conclusion that wealthy people tend to believe they should give a smaller percentage of what they have than people with less wealth.  One explanation offered for this is that “because money allows people to achieve their won goals without depending on others, it cultivates a mind-set of self sufficiency that is at odds with a charitable outlook.”

None of that is what prompted me to sit for a long time staring at the article.  What caused that reaction was the suggestion that wealthy people could be persuaded to give more if requests were pitched differently. Instead of appeals to join with others to support a common goal, experiments showed that appeals that focused on personal achievement would be more successful.  So, in one experiment, the message “You = Lifesaver” generated more giving than “Let’s Save a Life Together.”  In another, higher donations were generated when people were asked to “come forward and take individual action” than when asked to join their community and “support a common goal.”

I suppose one reaction is the pragmatic one: Great, now we can market more effectively.  As the caption in the hard copy of the article suggested, “It’s easy.  Just cater to their sense of being the heroes of their own lives.

But as someone with a deep commitment to a discipleship in Christ that focuses on our being many parts of one body working together to fulfill God’s plan, I can’t help but being a bit saddened by the results.  They shouldn’t really surprise me.  I often speak (particularly when talking about the Two Standards meditation in the Spiritual Exercises of St. ignatius) of the emphasis on individual goals vs. the common good that exists in our society.

Maybe it is a quixotic dream, but I’d be happier to find ways to instill in everyone (wealthy or not) the sense that we are part of a team in pursuit of a common goal, rather than to feed into the promotion of individual achievement and its accompanying illusion of self-sufficiency and autonomy.