Skip to content

Is Giving Money Activism?

The documentary I'm working on about the plight of youth who have aged out of the foster care system and the various ways we can help them was on a bit of a hiatus. Now I know what it means when a project is scrapped because of "artistic differences."

We're back to work, or at least we were this past weekend, and we were talking about how a film is about one thing (the plight of emancipated foster youth and various programs and legislation that help them successfully transition to adulthood), but it's really about something deeper (i.e., it takes only one person, and not even one related to an official "program" to change someone's life, and you can be that person).

This is an activist film, and to many in my town activism means writing a check. And sometimes it's a really big check that, for instance, funds the production of a documentary or starts a new Turtle Nest Village. And as much as I (as the co-chair of several organizations that deal with this issue) enjoy getting–and even writing–big checks (which I enjoy as an individual, as well), I think of writing checks as part of my philanthropy plan, and not as activism. I make a personal distinction between social investing/venture philanthropy/charitable giving, and what I want the audience of the documentary to do: get off their asses and get involved, and essentially change their lives in order to better the lives of others.

Activism, in this context, means if you are moved to care about this issue, do something (or change the way you do something). And if it's inconvenient or annoying or you'd much rather be doing something else, so be it. Do you think I want to be up at 5am blogging every day? Do you think I want to feel compelled to give two abused greyhounds a home and spend tens of thousands of dollars on them and basically change my life so they can have their needs met? Do you think I want to deal with the ridiculousness of the cat-trapping situation (which, thank heavens, has actually begun)? Do you think I want to spend 25 hours/week volunteering and serving on boards and advisory councils when I could be spending that time making money? Do you think I enjoy the reality that shopping, even for the simplest item, first involves a thorough search for potential human rights abuses, environmental impact, and sources of ingredients or materials?

Let me be clear: The answer is No. I'd rather be drinking mimosas for breakfast, training for a triathlon, traveling some more, learning how to paint, and polishing up my voice so I can sing jazz in some smoky club at night (okay, a non-smoking club). Activism is about your daily behavior, from eating to shopping to working to socializing and about how all of the decisions you make about the way you live your life and even the way you think about life, are informed by the changes you'd like to see in the world. It's about being a living editorial on current state of the world and the future you'd like to see.

What do you think?

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Deb #

    I feel like I often question what activism is, and I'm generaly sort of stumped. Sometimes it is obvious – going to a protest – but most of what I do in my life, it isn't obvious. Is volunteering at the sanctuary activism? (It doesn't feel like it is.) Is blogging activism? (certainly for some, but mostly people just look at my pictures; again, it doesn't feel like activism) Is the way I live my life activism? The veganism and the bike commuting? The bike commuting is a bigger time committment, that's for sure.

    And between all that I do (bike commuting = 2.5 hrs/day), I am left with little time for other things. If these are not activism, well, I'm stuck, because I just don't have much time for anything else.

    I'm living my beliefs as close as I'm able right now, I am living that editorial you mentioned.

    I give money as well, and while I don't think it is necessarily activism, I am not certain it isn't, either. Maybe for people who have a lot of extra, it isn't. Does it make a difference if people have to scrimp and save? What about people who don't shop at all, and maybe scrimp on their food bills, so they can send a few dollars to help fund people who are in a position to take that money and turn it into action. Does a tight budget make giving money activism?

    I rarely can come to any definitive conclusion on what activism is.

    November 17, 2008
  2. Deb,
    I've always held this unfair (?) notion that the more inconvenienced you are (and that includes working scrimping to put money towards a cause as opposed to "allocating"), the closer it is to activism.

    I didn't get too involved in the "is it activism or isn't it?" discussion until it appeared that the documentary COULD have gone in the direction of a plea for funds to the organizations and that seemed so in adequate. We need people to DO something to change the situation beyond write a check. In fact, if more people did something, no one would have to write a check. That particular cause is so easily dealt with with action, and action (beyond consumerism) is the last thing that comes to many people's minds.

    November 17, 2008
  3. kim #

    I don't know if it's easily definable. If people are "actively" generating income and then using it to support the groups or individuals doing the actual work, it becomes symbiotic. If I had money, I'd probably pay someone else to do the work!

    But I think you are right that there is a difference between an "activist" and a "donor". Most of us do a little of both – donorvists? activors? – and some of us are more active/bigger donors than others. My personal definition of an activist, BTW, is someone that works directly among humans in some capacity to enact change. Hmmmm, Webster's definition of activism: a doctrine or practice that emphasizes direct vigorous action especially in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue.

    November 17, 2008
  4. Certainly check writing is good and frequently necessary. I don't know if "large" checks qualify any more than the small donations. I think it's all a matter of one giving "all that one can" – which qualifies as true generosity…

    Because activism requires so much behind the scenes dedication – I think it winds up being similar to film editing… The bulk of the work and sometimes the "best stuff" is never seen. Whether you're advocating for the environment, for human rights or for animal concerns. It all requires a great deal of research – learning opposing views, staying current, thinking of new ways to present your position effectively, perfecting strategies and so on… And let's face it – none of it ever seems like "enough".

    But those concerned with an issue are obligated to do the very minimum to reduce the harm they wish to end. For instance, if one wishes to avoid harm to the environment – the very least they're expected to do is recycle. If they are concerned with human rights – the very least to be done is to avoid supporting countries (or companies) that exploit people. And if the focus is on animal "welfare" – the very least one can do is not eat them. If these "minimum" efforts aren't a full time commitment – they can donate all the riches they possess but it still does not come from an "activist".

    November 17, 2008
  5. Deb #

    Mary, with regards to the "notion that the more inconvenienced you are (and that includes working scrimping to put money towards a cause as opposed to "allocating"), the closer it is to activism." – I struggle with this too. If I enjoy it (like the work at the sanctuary), it doesn't count! And yet that doesn't make sense. We're more effective, not less, when we are doing something that we enjoy, and it makes a lot more sense to devote more time to where we will be most effective! But still…I have a definite bias that inconvenience brings the action close to activism. I don't think it is a fair bias.

    The idea of doing vs donating is what got me finally bike commuting. I took an honest look at what I was saying ("we need to drive less!") versus what I was doing (driving every day), and realized I couldn't actually discuss the issues of oil consumption when I wasn't doing anything to actually change my own. Imagine my surprise to find out that it was actually feasible for me to bike to work (in my defense, I am relatively new to the area and hadn't been biking at all, and didn't honestly think it was possible). And as it turns out, I love my bike commute. So I guess it is automatically disqualified from being activism! (based on my odd logic from above)

    November 17, 2008
  6. Kim,
    The Webster thing is interesting as it speaks to what in my mind is the more traditional definition: protests and the like–direct action of all kinds. Then there was always this philanthropist/donor category that was different and was about check writing. But with veganism and other social justice movements, at least in the past 20 years or so, there's this other category that used to be reserved for "radicals" and would describe many vegans. Maybe the idea of being radical is becoming normalized (slooooowly) and we would have been radical before but now we're just living our lives according to our beliefs. (And the ALF and ELF are the radicals, which adds support to our non-radicalness.) The definition of "activist," from this discussion even, seems to be evolving.

    November 17, 2008
  7. I don't consider veganism activism. That's like saying since I don't eat humans I'm a human rights activist. It's not true. Sure, veganism tends to go hand-in-hand with animal rights activism, but they are not one and the same.

    I think writing a check is a form of activism. It's an act of generosity, of intent, of hope for change.

    And I do partially understand the perspective of people who feel trapped by society and are unwilling/ feel unable to swim against the current themselves. That is, I think our social environment is coercive and I think most humans are herding animals. I can understand the ones who "think veganism is a good idea, but don't do it themselves." I don't respect their choice to eat animals, but in the same way that I can understand and forgive the crimes of a child from an abusive household, I can understand their crimes against animals. So, for them, even if all they can do is write a check, that's a good first step and I see it as a form of activism.

    I think that if you feel inconvenienced or annoyed the majority of the time, then the form of activism you've chosen may not be the right one for you. I think when you're not enjoying yourself, at least a bit, then you're going to burn out and lose your focus and wind up hurting yourself or others.

    November 17, 2008
  8. Mary, I've been waiting for a post like this. I don't mean to plug here, but I built my whole website on this idea. There is so much animal advocacy out there and while I don't admonish donations necessarily, I think that donating time often has more worth than donating money. So I wanted to create a place where grassroots activism and simple methods for anyone to help animals were made available by opening a schedule rather than a wallet.

    Furthermore, any other point is made in your post.

    November 18, 2008
  9. That's for those of you playing at home!

    I think that though some issues can be resolved with no money (the emancipated foster youth situation could actually be done that way, but it would involve landlords donating apartments and schools giving scholarships and work readiness training being done pro bono and it just hasn't ever happened that way–but we do try to facilitate that), but I also think that funds have equal worth in some cases. For instance, the man trapping the cats cannot pay for their sterilization. But I can. And he can't pick them up in the morning. But someone else can and that person is coming my way for work and will pass them to me. And then there's the woman whose car is broken and she can't afford to fix it but she has traps and dog cages and little litter boxes. So each person contributes a necessary piece of this puzzle. Without all of the people's contributions, no cats would be sterilized from this particular area. (Though the story has taken another turn, but still that configuration holds.) I don't want to downplay action, that's for sure, but I also don't want to downplay funds (microloans, anyone?).

    I'm just happy if when a need is identified, that there are people who mobilize to try to meet it in the most effective, efficient way, and they take an inventory of their financial and non-financial assets and say: What do I have–including time and money and energy and expertise and equipment–that might contribute to the solution?

    November 18, 2008

Leave a Reply

You may use basic HTML in your comments. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS