Lavanya Sunkara

fueled by books, inspired by nature

Lavanya Sunkara

Lavanya Sunkara
New York, New York, USA
December 31
Freelance Writer/Editor
I'm a writer covering books, charities, conservation, furry friends and world travels. My work has appeared in the New York Times, Salon, GQ India, MSN, Yahoo! Shine, and Time Out among others. I am a regular contributor to NBC's and Jeff Corwin

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JUNE 1, 2011 11:53AM

Do Gooder Has No Time For Charity On The Streets

Rate: 6 Flag

Chirpy fundraisers with their messenger bags and wide smiles become a constant source of ire for many hustling New Yorkers in the warmer months. As a self-proclaimed do gooder, I join the club of those who cannot stand being asked to donate in public.

"Can you spare a few minutes?" is how they always start. "No, thanks," I muster as I rush through bustling Broadway to my office building on Whitehall Street. As a 30 year old freelance writer/legal professional working in downtown, my life entails a three-hour commute to and from my Long Island home, evening dog walks, weekly writing group meetings and outings with friends on weekends. I also volunteer for causes I believe in - environmental and human rights- thanks to my Hindu upbringing through which I learned that gaining good karma may lead to fruitful future lives. During my visits back home to India, where sadly it is all too common to be chased by begging kids, I always make sure those who approach me get either a piece of bread or at least a twenty rupee note. But back in the Big Apple, other than donating a few dollars to a homeless women or handicapped persons, I refrain from signing up to support charities. I hate being bombarded by 20 somethings with clipboards and aggressive philanthropic pitches on the sidewalk, although eight years ago I myself went door to door soliciting for the Sierra Club. I sometimes wonder if I sold my reincarnated soul to the corporate devil.

In the past few months, two earnest folks from Children International have reclaimed their spot between Exchange Place and Wall Street. They zealously try to melt the hearts of financial district white collars with tales of abandoned children in countries like India and Africa. These paid representatives who chase people at busy crossroads want a yearly commitment. Whenever I encounter them, sometimes near the raging bull or by Union Square or some unsuspecting location, it becomes a hide and seek dance that involves avoiding eye contact and using street carts and other people as barriers. I often pretend to listen to my iPod or pace myself so I pass them when they are already immersed in their spiels with other pedestrians. But the guilt that almost always follows after avoiding these personable idealists is draining. The fact that I was in their well-worn shoes many moons ago and got fired for not collecting enough money doesn't help.

Back in 2002, I was a nomadic utopian who traveled to California to save the trees. I was part of a small army of Sierra Club door-to-door solicitors. Estimated weekly salary was $400. For a fresh out of college newbie, $1600 a month was not a lot of money but was enough to get started. Little did I know that I wouldn’t be making any money if I didn’t bring in the green. I got fired my second day when I raised only $50 after a grueling 10-hour day walking up and down steep hills going from one fancy door to another in a glitzy neighborhood of Marin County. The next day, I applied for a legal position and have never looked back.

A week ago, as I was returning to my desk job from Borders opposite Trinity Church during my lunch break, a young man, much like my former self, finally broke the barriers I put up and succeeded in engaging me with his pitch. All the weeks of ignoring these enthusiastic fellows finally took its toll. I was also curious to hear what he had to say. “Would you like to sponsor a starving child in Chile? It doesn’t cost much per month,” he urged. I could just sense his enthusiasm mixed in with the hope of meeting his daily quota. I kindly refused, saying I recently contributed to Save the Children in their Japan tsunami/earthquake relief effort. He looked dejected, his shoulders slumped and the grin disappeared. Then I noticed the look he shot at the new hardcover I was holding. I knew what he was thinking. She could buy a 30 dollar book, but not give a fraction of that to feed a child. I had the same feeling too when people shut their doors on my face. They had opulent homes but cared little about the outdoors. I refrained from saying anything more, lest I get beguiled into donating against my good judgment. I simply smiled and said I had to get back.

As I walked away fighting guilt, I had to remind myself that like so many other kind hearted New Yorkers, I give back in my own way and in my free time. I spend Saturdays at food pantries and soup kitchens, organize fundraisers, go on service trips, and securely donate online to the non-profits I believe in. Even just helping someone carry a stroller up the subway stairs makes me feel good. But as a busy New Yorker, I still like to take a walk down the block without being harassed, even if it makes me look insensitive to those less fortunate. Sometimes I think I am doing these street fundraisers a favor by not engaging with them. Perhaps one day they too will look back and realize there are better ways to support causes close to their heart. Or maybe that's just another excuse on my part.

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I hear you. I threatened to call the cops on an aggressive Sierra Club kid who wouldn't take no for an answer.
I make an exception for street newspapers. I'll usually buy several copies a month from people who sell them on the street.

I also can't stand it when cashiers at stores ask for donations. I know that they have to but, as you say, most of us give on our own to charities that we believe in. We don't need to be nickled and dimed when we're just out shopping or walking to and from lunch.
I can't leave my house without it costing me money. And if I hole up I'm still paying utilities, taxes etc. Life is one big shakedown. I think I'll watch TV, since I'm paying for it anyway.
Thank you all for reading. Jeanette, I can't stand the cashiers either! It leaves me wondering what they actually do with the money raised. I bet it doesn't all go to the cause. So sad.
There's another way to deal with this. I carry a canister of "bear spray," and on the street, that is known as "Dr. P."

When asked if I would like to make a donation, or if I have any spare change, I simply say, "No, but I've got some “Dr. P” I can let you have," as I reach into my pocket.

Any solicitor who gets too close to my personal comfort zone, will get the Dr. P warning. Once they see the small canister of pepper spray, they always back off, or take off in the other direction.

Even the aggressive panhandlers do not want an encounter with pepper spray. I've never had to spray it yet, but the sight of it is an effective deterrent. Available at most sporting goods stores.
You shouldn't feel guilty at all for turning them down. You've got limited resources, and if you choose to buy a book instead of giving in to their pitch, that's your business. Why feel guilty for making a rational decision, since you're already donating to another organization that feeds kids?

I've volunteered both my time and my money for some worthy causes, but I won't consider giving to someone who is accosting people in a public place and asking them for money. That, to me, is beyond the pale.

You can't donate to every worthy cause that's out there, or even one percent of one percent of them. But you don't have to. Just pick one or more causes that are especially important to you to support. Hold up your little part of the sky and trust that others will do the same thing.
Living in Africa really brings these issues to the forefront. It makes no sense to give to beggars, no sense at all. You could give away every cent you have and it wouldn't make a dent in this country's poverty.

That said, from time to time I do give to beggars. The biggest factor in determining if I give is if I happen to have some change on me (my wife usually carries the cash).

That aside, I can say I am more likely to give to a woman if she has a child, and more likely to give if that child is a bright-eyed, happy child rather than one who looks half-dead. I'm not sure what that says about me.