Friday, May 29

Quid pro quo

Charity comes with a catch.

Yes, donors intend to improve lives, do good, help others. But the donations serve other purposes. The donors define the "good" that is accomplished. The recipients can be empowered, given some measure of decision-making capacity. But the donors must set conditions, and they use charitable programs to add a glossy humanitarian veneer to their reputations.

In Allure of Deceit, one of the characters - a victim before first page begins - has a reputation for critiquing charity. She points out the origin of the word "forgiving" is "giving" and how charitable practices can imply that recipients are wrongdoers, weak and deserving of no control.

Charities must tread carefully not to insult those they serve, and that requires lowered expectations on compliance or cooperation. As a result, charity is not the most efficient form for delivering needed services.

The description of Petra Nemcova's gala for the Happy Hearts Fund in the New York Times article by Deborah Sontag, "An Award for Bill Clinton Cam With $500,000 for his Foundation," bears eerie resemblance to the first chapter of Allure of Deceit. 

Orange from Songag: "She special-ordered heart-shaped chocolate parfaits, heart-shaped tiramisu and, because orange is the charity's color, an orange carpet rather than a red one. She imported a Swiss auctioneer and handed out orange rulers to serve as auction paddles playfully threatening to use hers to spank the highest bidder for an Ibiza vacation. The gala cost $363, 413."

Green in Allure: "Lime, peacock, moss, sea mist, forest and fern - gowns in every shade of green swirled about the ballroom floor. Aromas of mint and rosemary drifted from all-green centerpieces.... The meal was vegetarian, with ridiculously delicate portion sizes for the salads, fruit, and grilled vegetables.... Such attention to detail did not prevent the wrong people from making decisions or the wrong groups from receiving awards."

Life and art go hand in hand.

Sontag's story focuses on Nemcova offering a $500,000 contribution to the Clinton Foundation, presumably in exchange for his attendance at the gala to accept an award: "Happy Hearts’ former executive director believes the transaction was a 'quid pro quo,' which rerouted donations intended for a small charity with the concrete mission of rebuilding schools after natural disasters to a large foundation with a broader agenda and a budget 100 times bigger." Happy Hearts and Clinton Foundation officials deny that the donation was solicited.

The article echoes the purpose of the gala in Allure of Deceit: The foundation "operated in more than thirty nations and could be counted on to distribute at least $400 million annually for a mix of organizations. GlobalConnect was influential, yet it limited support to some fifty groups per year. Competition was intense."

In Allure of Deceit, Lydia Sendry is powerful, overseeing the world's largest charitable foundation. She wants to change the world, but she also wants to find out who murdered her only son.

The time has come to analyze society's dependence on charitable giving, especially for basic services like health care or education, and perhaps end tax write-offs for all charitable donations.

Note:  On September 1, Charity Navigator has given the Clinton Foundation four stars, its highest rating, after a review of the finances.

Review copies are available. Photo of reception, unrelated to charity, courtesy of  Tracy Hunter and Wikimedia Commons. 

Tuesday, May 12


The shrike may have all the appearance of a sweet songbird, but it's a predator known for catching small birds or rodents, and impaling them on thorns or sticks for later dining. The eating behavior is described early in Allure of Deceit:

Parsaa did not let up swinging the scythe, carving gentle arcs into the field, the wheat falling in line on either side, while keeping his eyes on the shrike. Suddenly, the bir dove into a nearby section of uncut wheat and emerged with a plump mouse. Clamping its beak tight, the shrike returned to the edge area. Once there, the shrike took careful aim and impaled the mouse against a long thorn. Stepping back, the bird leisurely pecked at its writhing meal. 

"With every swing of the blade, Parsaa was a co-conspirator.

Afghanistan has eight of the world's 31 species of shrikes. The one that appears in Allure of Deceit could be the bay-backed version, a bird that can be found in Afghanistan, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka."A strikingly coloured, delicately built and fine-billed shrike, the bay-backed shrike is a beautiful bird of South Asia," notes Wildscreen Arkive. The colors include soft gray, warm chestnut with solid black markings. "The most distinctive feature of this bird is the black facial mask extending from the side of the neck through the eyes to the based of the hooked bill."

The bird's habitat includes cultivated fields and scrubby areas, notes Bird Forum. 

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a leader in the study and conservation of birds,  collects their songs and the bay-backed shrike can be heard here. 

Photo of the bay-backed shrike in India, courtesy of J.M. Garg and Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, May 5


Reducing clutter can keep us calm.

Reducing clutter requires a regular assessment of belongings. But just because an item has not been used for a year or more does not necessarily mean they should be tossed. Place such belongings in storage and label the boxes. Opening the box a few months later can offer a pleasant surprise and new appreciation - or perhaps the realization that the time has come to give the possessions away.

And then there is mental clutter. This requires regular assessment of routines, shedding unwanted priorities, distractions and anxiety.  Ryan Nicodemus explains in an essay for the Minimalists: "...once I decided I’d had enough of the mental clutter, I had no choice but to to change my circumstances - I had no choice but to remove myself from circumstances that added to my mental clutter. I stopped associating with certain people, I changed my spending habits, I downsized my possessions. I started with myself, and I changed my circumstances." Nicodemus co-authored of Live a Meaningful Life with Joshua Fields Millburn.

Farnoosh Brock of Prolific Living urges focusing on just one thought at a time and not letting competing ideas bombard the mind.

Individuals can become more than our circumstances, and this becomes obvious with some streamlining. For example, minimize technology. Cellphones can become a ball and chain, forcing users to be at the beck and call of family members, co-workers and friends.

Warning, though: Pushing others to reduce clutter can make them cling to the oddest of possessions. Individuals must make their own choices, and attempts to control another individual almost always backfires.

Writing the books set in Afghanistan, Fear of Beauty and Allure of Deceit, prompted appreciation for the comforts in my life and the value of simplicity. Before making a purchase or a commitment, Stephanie Vozza, interviewing Scott Eblin, author of Overworked and Overwhelmed: The  Mindfulness Alternative, for Fast Company, suggests asking one's self:  "Is this necessary?"

And the answer is often no.

Photo of Afghan market in 2009, courtesy of Staff Sgt. Russell Lee Klika, US Army National Guard, and Wikimedia Commons.