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  Comments (0) Total Thursday Apr. 24, 2014
Scrooge’s Perspective
Ebenezer Scrooge | Photo courtesy David Vale
All right, I’ll admit it. I bailed on the chambers of commerce bell-ringing contest sponsored by the Salvation Army. And despite my absence, my Bigfork colleagues managed to quadruple the typical pot with their eight-hour, 18-degree effort. Of course, I was confident that someone would step up to fill my place. In Bigfork, every volunteer slot seems to have at least two people vying to fill it. It’s one of those things I love about Montana. A needy family, a high-school sports team, a nature trail, a clock tower: Folks line up to sign on.

In a town of charity and volunteerism, the holiday season brings both out in spades. The warmth of community is enough to melt the heart of Ebenezer Scrooge. But after the season passes, I’m left to wonder whether Ebenezer, imbued with sound business principles and facing the harsh light of day, might have some insight into charitable giving and the concept of raising money for good causes.

Some causes are so compelling in their nature as to need no fundraising. When a friend is hungry, a child is ill, a country is devastated – only the old Scrooge could turn a blind eye. But the vast majority of charitable causes we encounter are less well defined and do not rise to such an obvious level. We notice them because someone champions them. And in an environment filled with willing champions, it seems that there are always bells ringing nearby. As more bells ring, we are drawn to those rung most effectively.

Two classic approaches to raising money for a cause are fundraisers and benefits. A fundraiser is an event whose primary purpose is to raise funds for a presumably worthy cause while providing at most a token return to the donor. An auction of donated goods is a fundraiser, as is a split-the-pot raffle. A benefit, on the other hand, is an event whose intrinsic value would allow it to stand on its own, but whose proceeds are incidentally directed toward a worthy cause. Fundraisers are easy; benefits are hard. Most fundraising activities are fundraisers.

I’ve been excited, though, by several Bigfork events I’ve attended this holiday season, some of which literally rang bells of a different sort. Some I’ve written about in this column: Touch of Christmas and Home for Christmas. Some I haven’t: the Wai Mizutani violin concert. Some happen at other times of the year; Cowabunga, for example. But all have the character that they provide value first and raise money second.

Why does it matter? I don’t explicitly budget my charitable expenditures (or anything else, for that matter). But were I to do so (and some folks do), expenditures for the two types of events would come from different line items. Change dropped into the Salvation Army bucket, frozen pizzas purchased to benefit the Bocce Ball team, tickets for a community auction or split-the-pot raffle – money for those would all debit my charity account. On the other hand, a ticket to Cowabunga or Touch of Christmas or dollars contributed at the Home for Christmas or Wai Mizutani concerts, those would all come out of my entertainment account. And forgive my flawed character, but my entertainment account would be bigger than my charity account.

It seems that our community, any community, would be better served if more charitable good intentions started with an eye toward creating value – toward events building a positive experience in the community rather than just redirecting community funds toward a cause. I acknowledge that it’s easier to organize an auction or a raffle. I know that benefit events are more difficult to produce and require the voluntary participation of individuals with talent. And I know that, as with all things of value, they involve risk. But a choir ringing bells in the harmony creates value. A bell ringing by a bucket simply transfers it. I, and I believe Ebenezer Scrooge, would be drawn more effectively by the bells of value.

My absence at the bell ringing? It wasn’t a matter of philosophy or sloth. I had a previous engagement to spend the day with my wife in celebration of her birthday. And some things are simply more important than ringing bells.
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