Guilt is a poor motivator when it comes to charitable giving. I learned that lesson in 1962 when I was in my 20s, a passenger on the Blue Train, traveling from Cape Town to today’s Zimbabwe. The engine chugged across the dessert for several hours and so slowly that if a person was bored, he could jump from the platform and walk along the sand for a while before jumping on again. When we arrived at our first stop, no town was visible, only a ramshackle building that served as the ticket station for the train. Still the place was teeming with people, most of them vendors selling fly ridden food to the hungry. Along with the vendors were beggars, most of them disfigured by diseases not seen in western culture. I won’t describe the images. I will only say the sight turned my stomach. Moved to pity, I tossed some money to the beggars below my compartment window. That was a mistake, I soon discovered. My charity threw these people into frenzy and I watched in dismay as they scrambled and fought one another for the few coins on the ground. As the engine pulled from the station, I realized my emotions had led to more harm than good. 

The train made other stops and having learned my lesson, each time, I dropped my dwindling pile of coins directly into the uplifted fingers that poked through my window. I never succeeded in reaching all the hands as the number of beggars seemed endless. Eventually, I stopped peering from my window and when the train pulled into a station, I drew down the shade, overwhelmed by the endless need on the opposite side of the glass. Others might have responded more heroically than I did that day. I admit grief had exhausted me. But I learned a lesson of great importance back then: that good deeds require more than good intentions. I raise this point because December is the time of year when most of us receive numerous letters that tug at our hearts. But for me a good solicitation letter does more than that. It tells me the facts. What is the administrative overhead? How many people or animals are served? What is the history of outcomes? As David Rockefeller once remarked: Successful charitable fund-raising has much in common with managing a business.

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