A friend of mine, HoCoRising, wrote a blog post earlier this week called “Obligation as Compassionate People.” It starts:

Last week, during the Forum on Ending Homelessness, Norm Sucher from the National Alliance to End Homelessness said something that prompted me to pull out my phone to write it down:

“What is our obligation as compassionate people?”

Let that ring in your head for a minute.  The premise of the question is what interests me most – As compassionate people, we have some obligation that arises out of the very instance of being compassionate.  If we were insulated from sympathy, we are insulated from duty.

I heard the same question at the Forum, and it made me pause. And in considering HoCoRising’s post, I began to draft a response, one that turned into a blog post of my own. I’m not responding to anything in particular, mind you. It just made me think.

Everyone has different motivations for giving, and I am the last to determine which are “valid.” I learned long ago that the very experience of giving can change people once they give it a try. Deciding which reasons are “pure” versus those that aren’t is an exercise in futility, at best. At worst, it can keep people from doing anything at all.

More importantly, who am I to judge?

What I can do, though, is gently suggest that we begin to see things differently. Instead of thinking of compassion as an obligation, maybe we can think of it as an opportunity.

This goes back to several articles and videos I watched a few weeks ago. One was called the Art of Asking. While it wasn’t focused on nonprofits, it made me think long and hard about how we as a society motivate others to give. All too often it’s from fear, or anger, or sadness, or guilt, or shame. Some consider it to be a responsibility, or a duty. Others do it to balance the scales, or to thwart karma. And I’m not going to argue. People are entitled to their opinions and viewpoints.

It can be difficult to ask for help – both personally and professionally. Even when we are speaking on behalf of an organization or a cause in which we believe. And when we ask for help, how often do we do so with our heads held high? More often, it’s almost apologetic. “I’m sorry, I need to ask for your support.” “I promise I won’t bother you again, but…” “This will be the last time I…” “Mumble mumble mumble donate?”

And what happens when someone tells us no? We get upset, or disappointed. We wonder how they can support all of these OTHER wonderful causes and not ours? “Oh, sure. Go ahead and donate to support one-eyed kangaroos that paint in Australia. Don’t even spare a thought for the thousands of homeless dogs RIGHT HERE IN OUR OWN COUNTRY.”

Again, down that path lies madness. People support what they support. We all love choices, right? I know I, for one, don’t want to feel like I have to do something out of guilt. I’m glad that people care so deeply about causes that differ from mine. Personally, I’m just glad that that they care.

One of the beautiful things about life today is this: we have so many choices for giving, whether it’s via a donation (large or small, online or offline), supporting a friend’s cause, fundraising for a cause or agency we believe in, volunteering in our communities or virtually supporting those on the other side of the globe. We can do any of these and more for one or ten or fifty different causes. And to me, that’s where the opportunity piece really shines.

Instead of thinking of compassion as an obligation, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could inspire even more people to care, and from that to give? If we could ask them to support communities and causes and nonprofits out of a sense of hope, or wonder, or pride, or celebration? Out of a belief that what is being done is worthwhile? Out of the knowledge that they are making a real difference?

I’m not suggesting that we all put on our rose-colored glasses and sing Kumbayah. I’m all for professionalizing the nonprofit sector, for photo (2)holding agencies accountable to standards of operation and conduct, and for determining the effectiveness of programs. But instead of focusing on the negative, let’s focus more on the positive, on the opportunity rather than the obligation.

I know it may seem that I am vastly oversimplifying a complex issue. And maybe I am. I also won’t pretend that this is some completely revolutionary idea, although aspects of it are new to me.

But what if it’s possible to weave the value and belief in compassion and giving into the very fabric of society by making it something to anticipate as opposed to something to tolerate? Something to celebrate as opposed to something to fear? Something to make more people throw their arms wide and embrace community as opposed to insulating themselves from the challenges, large and small, that inevitably occur.

I know there are many causes and nonprofits – national as well as local – already doing this. Which are your favorites? How are they doing it? And is it working?

And thank you to those of you who already walk the talk – who live compassion and giving every single day. I salute you.

With thanks to HoCoRising for inspiring me to write.

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