…It’s That You Give

Posted: December 17, 2009 in Disability Deliberations
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By Mark E. Smith

I recently had the privilege of attending our local fund raising gala benefiting the American Cancer Society. As I mixed and mingled, what struck me was that virtually everyone I spoke with was directly effected by cancer – many had been through cancer, and others were in the midst of treatment. All, however, had gladly paid the ticket fee, and were likewise bidding on items – that is, those effected by cancer were directly financially supporting the organization that helps those with the condition.

What occurred to me was that the cancer benefit was in stark contrast to benefits that I attend relating to physical disabilities, where there’s virtually no presence or support by those with the condition or other physical disabilities. In fact, at the last Muscular Dystrophy Association benefit that I attended, I was one of only three people with a physical disability in attendance among 200 or so individuals supporting the cause.

Interestingly, disability-related charities, like the MDA, have been cutting services in the past year due to dramatic drops in donations, and those with disabilities, ourselves, have been the first to become alarmed. The irony is, disability-related charitable funding is dwindling in large part due to our own blatant neglect as those with disabilities. When it comes to supporting disability-related charities, we, as those with disabilities, truly don’t financially support them – and it’s illogical. After all, our community is the one who benefits from such charities, so for us to allow them to fall by the waste side based on our own financial neglect is entirely self-defeating.

Now, you may be thinking, Mark, you’re stating an oxymoron. If we could afford to support disability-related charities,we wouldn’t need them in the first place. Disability charities exist because we’re a tremendously economically disadvantaged group.

And, such a statement is true – but only about half true. Approximately 33% of us with disabilities are employed, earning equivalent salaries to our able-bodied peers, some earning well into six-figure incomes. Yet, others with disabilities live on sizable monthly disability benefits, while others live on funds from legal settlements. No, not everyone with a disability is fortunate to have a meaningful income, but a segment does.

The question, then, becomes, why aren’t we, as those with disabilities, donating to our own community’s charities, especially those among us with incomes, rather than expecting the mainstream to do it – and worst of all, crying foul when they don’t?

Because we’re back to that I-got-mine attitude again, where it’s every person with a disability looking out for him or herself, with little thought toward our peers. But, that’s not how we make progress as a community. Rather, we make progress by supporting our peers when we’re in a position to do so, where we address our needs as a community, where we understand that when an additional person among us rises – through mobility, education, employment, housing, and recreation – we all rise a bit higher in the eyes of the mainstream. And, so supporting the charities within our own community – which is among our ultimate forms of self-empowerment – truly moves us closer to full social equality.

As those with disabilities, our formula for charitable contributions is a simple one: 10% of our pre-tax income should go to disability-related charities. If one earns $50,000 per year, one’s annual charitable contribution should be $5,000. That $5,000 would by two ultralight manual wheelchairs, dramatically improving the mobility of two individuals in need. That $5,000 could fund three residential access ramps, allowing three individuals freedom from the confines of their homes. That $5,000 could send nine children with muscular dystrophy to summer camp, a social experience that positively effects the rest of their lives. And, $5,000 would fund two communication devices, allowing two individuals to express themselves as never before.

Indeed, $5,000 is a great example because it shows what an enormous impact a middle-class income can make on others. By simply skipping that vacation and cutting back a bit on a few luxury purchases throughout the year, one family can make an immeasurable difference in the lives of many others. And, when one equips an individual with a wheelchair, ramp, or communication device, that individual is then able to better serve others, so an exponential growth of good work occurs, reflecting positively on all of our lives. That $5,000 “investment” in others can eventually build into $500,000 through the recipients’ good works paid forward over the courses of their own lives – that is, when you help someone, and they help someone, your initial investment keeps growing.

Of course, $5,000 is a specific dollar example, but 10% of one’s pre-tax income is the rule to live by. If one’s blessed with a $100,000 annual income, donating $10,000 to disability-related charities is great; but, if one earns $15,000 per year, $1,500 in donations is just as terrific. Even for someone just getting by on SSDI, saving $43 per month for charity sends a camper to MDA summer camp – that’s an enormously empowered, influential feat. And, time is money, too, where volunteering is also of tremendous importance – even if one can’t spare a dime, one certainly should be volunteering at a local center for independent living or MDA office or any disability-related charity.

So often people make charitable giving about finances. However, 99% of the time it has virtually nothing to do with our financial limitations, but everything to do with our priorities. And, as those with disabilities as a whole, we clearly don’t prioritize our finances toward supporting the charities within our community. I’ve mention some amounts that may startle some – as with if one makes $50,000 per year, one should give $5,000 per year to charity – but if one is living a financially-responsible life, and prioritizing serving one’s own community, donating 10% of one’s income is absolutely realistic. What’s more, those living on even the most limited means usually have some disposable income each month, whether it’s $30 spent on a video game, or $2 spent at the doughnut shop. Again, the ability to donate to a charity is rarely based on true financial limitations, but is based on our ability to prioritize how we spend our individual dollars, and it’s our obligation to prioritize our financial lives – skipping the video games or doughnuts, if required – so that we routinely contribute to disability-related charities.

While we should invest in others through charity simply because it’s the right way to live, we also gain in the process. An astounding benefit to charitable giving is that when we invest in others, we ultimately invest in ourselves, where our lives – almost magically and instantaneously – become brighter, more positive. The absolute fact is, the happiest, most content people that you’ll ever meet aren’t the richest, most famous, or most attractive; rather, the happiest, most content people you’ll ever meet are those who are truly dedicated to charitable giving. And, even the rich and famous state that the personal satisfaction of charitable giving trumps all in the end. Bill Gates of Microsoft, consistently among the richest people in the world, stepped down as CEO to focus full time on running his charity, donating $28 billion dollars to date. Gates has publicly stated that this is the happiest time in his life, and his wife, Melinda summarized their charitable vision, saying, “The premise of this foundation is one life on this planet is no more valuable than the next.”

In my household, I’m raising my daughter on a very similar charitable principle to that stated by Melinda Gates: We don’t purchase any luxury unless the exact same amount goes to charity, period. If my daughter wants to fly down to visit her great-grandfather during spring break in West Palm Beach, Florida, for golf lessons, her trip won’t cost $300, but $600 because the $300 cost of her trip has to be matched by an equivalent $300 charitable donation. And, I’m held to the exact same standard. We don’t get any luxury unless we contribute to others in the process – and if we can’t afford to match the luxury with a donation, then we simply don’t get the luxury. Although this means of personal charitable giving may seem over-the-top to some, it makes living an equitable life in consideration of others extremely simple.

I don’t know what your financial capacity is as one with a disability, but I do know that our community’s charities need your help. If you’re fortunate to be gainfully employed or have a meaningful income, a minimum of 10% of your pre-tax income should be going to charity. Or, even if your finances are a challenge, a few dollars or volunteering your time can make a tremendous difference in the lives of others. If you have a lot, give a lot, and if you have a little, give a little. And, in the end, that’s what it’s about: It’s not what we give to others that counts; rather, it’s the mere fact that we give to others that makes the biggest difference within our community.

Comments
  1. Brad says:

    On target and except for diseases getting major exposure (breast cancer, heart disease, etc.) applys to non-disabled but individuals with a disease. When I was diagnosed with a very rare muscle disease in 12/92, an organization representing us was just getting started. This illness is diagnosed at a rate of 1-2 folks per million a year. I joined our first board, appointing myself as the fundraiser. I had my own business (paint store) so I sent letters to all my suppliers, good customers, friends, family members and my previous employeer of 20 years – Pittsburgh Paints. In two years we received about $125,000. Pittsburgh and many suppliers were only too happy to donate through their foundations, I discovered a few friends headed “family trusts” and were elated to learn of a “connection” to a cause they could knew, “was really helping.” Of course our family helped but we always incouraged future donations instead of birthday/Christmas gifts. While attending our national conferences, I would “preach” these fundraising methods to my fellow patients, write articles in our news
    letter, even a fellow board member (former CEO of a huge insurance company)…it made zero impact with a very few exceptions. To say I was “frustrated” was greatly understating my thoughts. I left the board in 2000 but this situation still exists. In 2003, we became covered by MDA…they turned us down after iniating the contact (offer) in 1998, because we “weren’t large enough to help them!” I’ve benefited from MDA, asked a good friend to make their yearly donation to them and in August, I gave them two power chairs.

    The only reason I can come up with the lack of “giving” by our patients…we’re only an adult disease (53+) and more male than female.

  2. Kate says:

    I wish there was an easier way to help others with my particular disease… Part of my problem is that there is no good “national” or “comprehensive” disability rights/support group. This makes it harder for people like me with rare diseases with even rarer complications to help people like myself!

    The national foundation for my condition has no local chapters and does not help individuals at all. We are lucky that we even have a website… If you have any advice for a larger charity which can help many people with disabilities, and not something condition-specific, I would be very interested!

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