What’s the difference between fundraising and begging?

There are a lot of conventional ways to ask each other for money: sell cookies or popcorn, fund-raise for a school trip (i.e., pay for my vacation). Especially if I get a trinket in return or am contributing to a good cause. All of these approaches have at least a slice of genuinity and a slice of indecency. Somebody needs money for a goal that is at least partially self-serving. Regardless of the merit, these exchanges fundamentally exist on the need for your money. And we’re used to giving in at least a little.

What’s different about the guy on the street with his music, his sign, his crying daughter, his liquor breath? He wants gas money, bus money, booze money. Is it that he’s not packaging it in a greater cause? Would you give instead if he defended a cardboard sign reading “Help fight poverty”?

It’s a lot harder to get yourself to ask whether the teen, adult, or other showered, aspiring artist deserves the money if the request comes in a form that meets your social conventions. It’s a lot harder not to judge the unkempt, obviously homeless. What makes this so?

I’m not trying to guilt you (or myself for that matter). The guilt card is uninteresting to me. Instead, I genuinely find it enigmatic how judgment operates on a very clean on-off switch. I remain perplexed about what Mr. Paulson asked my classmates and me in 10th grade English: “Why are we so uncomfortable talking about the poor?”

From where I’m sitting, the two types of solicitors don’t seem terribly different, except one is humbler and wears his evidence for need. Did I really need checks for that trip to Italy more than the man on the street needed bus fare to get to Chicago? Even if he wasn’t going, the money was probably in better hands.

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