By Tony Samson

THERE IS NO shortage of worthy causes asking for help. Even in small communities like the office, alumni classmates, chat groups, there are always those in need of financial help, ostensibly not to pay off credit card debts. The practice of “passing the hat” seems prevalent in our culture. There is no real hat to throw in coins and bills in nowadays, just a bank account number (please send photo of the deposit slip).

Is fund-raising for even such elevated causes as building homes for the poor and raising scholarship funds really an alternative form of begging? Ouch, is that too strong a word?

Aren’t the holidays a free pass for the spirit of receiving? Isn’t Uncle Scrooge in Dickens’s “Christmas Carol” vilified for being a tight-fisted miser by not giving away money? Even when he doesn’t seem to spend on himself either.

Begging proposes to get something for nothing. In a material world, money or influence is given in exchange for goods and services. So, the appeal for getting money just like that counts on generosity, and the spirit of sharing.

Powerful people surround themselves with a phalanx of retainers to ward off all types of petitioners. They may be knocking on the car window for a few coins or accosting them at parties, looking for jobs or business opportunities for which they are unqualified. When cornered coming out of the washroom, the embattled VIP has a ready answer — call my secretary. (She has her instructions.)

Not all cultures scorn beggars. Buddhists show detachment from the world by begging daily for a living as a form of humility and trust in divine kindness. Other religions too, including ours, express this dependence on the divine with a second collection. Thus begging and the generosity it requires is couched in spiritual terms — it’s good for your soul.

Begging is not always considered servile. The supplicant does not necessarily see himself inferior to the targeted donor. He can even be more powerful than the one he is requesting alms from. (Chairs of committees for fund-raising are usually the prime givers or powerful authority figures.) Such unequal exchange of something for nothing takes on the more aggressive form of taxation. “Nothing” in this case refers not to absence of gain but elimination of threat.

Conferences, concerts, funerals (instead of flowers please give a sum 20 times larger for the deceased’s favorite cause), and celebrity weddings transform fund-raising into a corporate venture. The benefits in exchange for “presenter status” is expressed in terms of “media values.” This payment for exposure, which a company does not usually care to pay for, may include tickets for prime seats, mention on posters, souvenir programs, news releases, and logos on T-shirts of usherettes for the event. The exposure values are intended to make the donor (or sponsor, in this case) more willing to part with his money and charge it as a business expense.

Companies, especially family corporations, have managed their donations under the cloak of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and put up foundations to handle the giving end. This provides some tax efficiency as well as a rationale for advocacies that are close to the owners’ hearts as well as commercial interests. Donations of computers and Wi-Fi connections to public schools make business sense for providers of these services. It’s a soft form of advertising and PR.

Still, fund-raisers of all types are proliferating.

Is our politicized society creating a climate for asking for money? Does our political process, especially in an election year (even if two years away), require a candidate to dole out money for emergencies, jobs, and T-shirts to gain support end up promoting begging? Is the pattern of getting something for nothing the root of cronyism and corruption?

The informal taxation of small businesses by agents of the mayor, local police, military, and armed gangs is a more aggressive form of begging. Like Buddhists, we, too, tolerate beggars. Ours don’t wear saffron, live a life of deprivation, and hold out begging bowls for their daily meals as a form of prayer. They simply phone prospects to have their cash ration delivered… or they text.

Those who complain about being on the receiving end of solicitors are told (by the same group) that it is a blessing to be on the giving end of the seesaw. It is not clear which side of this ride is up or down… or whether being on a moving seat is even desirable.


Tony Samson is Chairman and CEO, TOUCH xda.