Header Graphic
Big Town
Chapter Ten

Chapter 10: Mass-Production Charity

          Ten or fifteen years ago the city’s charitable activities were carried on by about thirty independent organizations, each complete in itself, and each aiming at the alleviation of a particular communal ill through the collection and disbursement of popular subscriptions of money.
          In some respects it was a happy situation. It provided an outlet for the energies of a considerable number of individuals who might otherwise have been led into evil ways. It gave paying jobs to a large battalion of executive secretaries, plain secretaries, assistant secretaries and ordinary workers. And it afforded pleasant publicity for various citizens who acted as the heads of these several organizations, as well as for matrons of social prominence who enjoyed playing the role of Lady Bountiful.
          Only two segments of the populace found anything wrong with this system of individual charitable activities. These were the contributing public, and the poor and needy.
          The former objected to it on the ground that they were harassed some thirty or forty times a year by a horde of solicitors, each of whom was convinced that while charity in general was a pretty good thing, his or her particular charity was the one that deserved the really generous support of the citizenry. The individual citizen who listened sympathetically to all of these appeals could easily dispense benevolence amounting to a very fair annual income. Indeed if he listened at full length to the rendition of each solicitor’s story he would have comparatively little time left in which to earn the money he was expected to contribute to charitable activity.
          The poor, on the other hand, hearing echoes of the various subscription campaigns, were occasionally disappointed by the surprisingly small amounts of money which filtered through some of the organizations into the provision of actual relief. In some cases the expense of soliciting and collecting subscriptions, the salaries of the secretaries, and the other costs of administering the work, left very little out of each contributed dollar for the purchase of food, fuel, clothing, medicines and the like. As for charity balls and similar sporadic undertakings, the poor were lucky if their share of the gate receipts amounted to fifteen or twenty cents on the dollar.
          Furthermore, since many of the charitable organizations employed volunteer workers innocent of any practical knowledge of social service, real needs were not infrequently overlooked while false ones were met with lavish generosity. On account of the complete independence of the many organizations, numerous indigent families were able to live on the fat of the land by appealing discreetly and simultaneously to several agencies; while others with less initiative and ingenuity were in constant distress.
          All of this was changed by the War. During that period of glory, unnumbered “drives” for the benefit of the Allied heroes, and later for the boys in olive-drab, taught citizens to give freely and often. Even the profiteers had large chunks of money pried loose from their incomes with gratifying regularity.
          It was comparatively easy work because everyone, with the exception of some dependents of absent combatants, was making more money than ever before. Consequently, when the final gong sounded on that fateful eleventh of November, the city found itself with a bulging War Chest and a public well trained in the art of giving.
          The War Chest had taught an invaluable lesson – that of the much greater effectiveness and efficiency of coordinated activity in the administration and distribution of charitable and welfare funds. It was proposed, therefore, by some of the community leaders, that the War Chest be carried on under the title of the Community Chest, and that each year there be a single campaign to collect subscriptions which would be distributed, under a budget system, among all of the charitable and welfare agencies of the city. The Community Chest was to act, like the War Chest, simply as a coordinating and administrative organization, each of the many agencies already existing to continue as before except in the matter of soliciting and collecting subscriptions.
          No sooner was this proposal brought forward than sundry difficulties were encountered.
          It appeared that the spirit of all for one and one for all which had permeated the work of war-time generosity could not be expected to continue unabated once peace was restored. Each of the various charitable organizations was vitally interested in its own work, and quite willing to appeal to public generosity at any time, especially if it could do so before the other thirty got their own campaigns under way. But many of them seemed to entertain a rather pallid interest in the work of the others. Indeed a few of them regarded all other agencies as pirates on the high seas of benevolence.
          The majority of them were not at all anxious to surrender any part of their individuality, their own subscription campaigns, or the privilege of conducting benevolences exactly as they saw fit. The most notable example of this was the Y.M.C.A. which, over a period of a generation or so, had developed the art of collecting contributions to such a high point that the last thing it wanted was to combine with any other institution in the work of harvesting subscriptions.
          Secondly, most of them were not at all anxious to submit to a system of budgeting or an examination of their financial records. They saw in the budget idea a reduction rather than an increase in their harvest. And they feared that financial supervision might disclose a woeful inefficiency in the ratio between the amounts they collected annually and the amounts reflected by the actual results of their charitable activities.
          Finally, there were a great many ladies to whom prominence in the work of a charitable organization meant either the glory of social distinction already achieved or the promise of such distinction to come. To them the prospect of surrendering any share of the spotlight of publicity was a dismal one.
          Against these manifold objections it was of little effect for some time to argue that the Community Chest would raise more money, distribute it more equitably, reduce duplication of charitable effort, do more good, and do it at a lower cost. Thus it was necessary to do considerable log-rolling before the unification was accomplished.
          The amalgamation was eventually effected, however, and the first campaign was conducted. A corps of five or six hundred workers was organized. Posters, literature and newspaper advertising covered the town. The ballroom of the leading hotel was chartered for a series of daily luncheon meetings. Competing teams of workers were formed. Each worker was presented with a large bundle of cards bearing the names of persons who were alleged to be charitably inclined.
          A high-priced campaign promoter was imported; also a leather-lunged leader of community singing. Each worker was given a piece of noise-making apparatus. As each team reported its total subscriptions for the previous day there was prolonged cheering. The newspapers contributed front-page space daily, and an enormous bulletin-board in front of the courthouse announced the daily totals and the increasing grand total.
          The uproar was seasoned plentifully with complaints from the workers to the effect that some of their cards bore the names of individuals long dead; that trips into the suburbs yielded the information that the prospect sought had long since moved away, no one knew where; and that workers from other teams were sneaking in and garnering the fat subscriptions of their best prospects.
          At the end of the week’s campaign there was a monster dinner meeting in the employees’ dining room in the city’s largest factory. Eminent boosters shouted the city’s praises from a bunting-draped platform. The band blared almost incessantly. The noise of the community singing more than made up in volume whatever it may have lacked in harmony. Final subscriptions were reported, and the grand total went over the top to a figure in the neighborhood of three hundred thousand dollars, a sum far larger than the total collected by the individual campaigns of any preceding year. Everyone slapped everyone else on the back, and went home with the serene consciousness of a good job well done.
          During the early days of Community Chest operation it was discovered that large-scale charity in which the general public was supposed to participate could not be conducted without certain discordant notes creeping into the symphony of benevolence.
          It was the practice at first of some of the czars and czarinas of the individual organizations to attempt to advance the ends of their own agencies at the expense of other groups. It was only through the appointment of an executive secretary to whom selfish interests meant very little, and social ambition even less, that these attempts were frustrated and the early work of the Chest was carried forward with a fair degree of efficiency and success.
          There was also antipathy to some of the agencies on the part of many prospective givers. Outstanding among these was the “Y”. Especially among returning soldiers there was a deplorable lack of enthusiasm over “Y” activities and methods, and a stubborn unwillingness to contribute to the financial support of that institution. This feeling continues up to the present time – and seems to be losing little if any of its fervor. After battling vainly for several years the Chest was forced to provide its contributors with an opportunity to designate which agencies were to receive their contributions, or which they declined to support. This plan seemed to assuage public discontent in some degree, though there are still many who are inclined to doubt the effectiveness of a discrimination marked on subscription cards, in view of the fact that their money apparently goes into the general pot, to be divided in accordance with the various budgets.
          There were also those who declined to give because they knew of a friend or a friend of theirs whose request for charitable aid was brusquely turned down by some agency or other, and who consequently opposed not only to that particular agency but to the Chest as a whole. There was even the case of one property owner who cancelled his five-dollar Chest subscription because the Chest had declined to pay the rent of the tenants in one of the houses he owned.
          Of course there were always those who objected to the campaign workers being given free luncheons out of the Chest funds while the campaign was on – as a result of which campaign workers were finally required to pay for their own luncheons, a change which resulted in only a small falling-off in the attendance at the noon meetings.
          For a while over enthusiasm stirred up its share of trouble. In the industrial division of the campaign activities it became popular to try to make each factory a “hundred per cent” group, which meant, of course, obtaining a subscription from every employee. In order to avoid being outdone in this respect by other manufacturing organizations, some employers adopted the policy of hinting to their employees that if they didn’t want to subscribe they could look for other jobs. The reverberations arising from this practice were eventually so loud that it was discontinued.
          At one time refreshing amusement was afforded by the Klan, which in its mysterious wisdom had divined that a large portion of the Chest funds were being sent directly to the Pope. Twenty-seven preachers who had espoused the Klan cause protested this loudly from their pulpits, and were only silenced when the executive secretary of the Chest lured them into a meeting, confronted them with their own statements, and asked how they aimed to go about substantiating them.
          In spite of the obstacles which it encountered at first, and some of which it still encounters, the Chest flourishes today as never before, and each succeeding year’s campaign yields a larger total.
          The destitute, the diseased, the crippled, the blind and the deaf have found a new and stronger helping hand. And through various character-building activities, thousands of boys and girls in the oncoming generation, to say nothing of their elders, are given a new concept of decent citizenship.
          The carefree financial methods which characterized the operations of many of the agencies in the old days is no more. Two disinterested boards, composed largely of gentlemen who are intimately familiar with figures and the methods of juggling them, pass upon the budget applications of the various organizations. Each year’s allowance is based upon the agency’s performance record for the former year.
           There is also a greater measure of operating efficiency. In spite of the large increase in charitable and character-building work, the total number of workers has not been greatly increased since the beginning of the Chest era. And a far greater percentage of these workers know what they are about.
          The Chest, through a decade of trial and error, and with the guidance of intelligent interest, has become a truly a community affair. More than fifty thousand citizens subscribe annually – a figure which represents approximately seventy per cent of the adult wage-earners. Subscriptions run from one cent to figures far up in the thousands. In the dark autumn of 1930, and in the face of financial depression and the fear which such depression brings, the largest Chest budget in the city’s history – over three quarters of a million dollars – was safely oversubscribed.
          Nor does benevolence overlap so frequently as before. No longer are poor but dishonest families able to support themselves in comparative ease by applying in rotation to the various charitable organizations, and by sending each one of the children to a different Sunday school to invite the ministrations of the congregational Ladies’ Aid Society.
          Not that panhandling has become a lost art.
           Distinctly presentable individuals appear at Chest headquarters and confide the information that while they do not wish to be regarded as objects of charity they are temporarily in desperate straits, and could the Chest please advance them a small loan. Often the Chest does so, but it is of record that in not one case in a hundred is either the borrower or the loan ever heard from again.
          It costs a little more than forty thousand dollars a year to conduct the annual subscription campaigns and administer Chest affairs. Perhaps a quarter of this sum would collect and collect and handle seventy-five per cent of the total fund. Therefore, it might seem the part of wisdom to conduct a smaller campaign appealing only to the large givers. Yet experience does not appear to indicate this.
One Chest worker of long experience put it this way. “I used to get fed up to the ears listening to the grousing of a lot of peanut-size contributors who wanted to see ten or twenty times their small subscriptions spent on a case which our own investigations had shown to be absolutely unworthy. Sometimes I’d think the thing to do was to concentrate once a year on the thousand subscribers who gave the really sizeable amounts and tell the rest of them to go to hell.”
          “But then I guess we’d get less each year – and less from the big givers too. I don’t suppose you can operate any community affair without some inefficiency and a lot of complaints. What the hell? – this is a democracy.”

Return to "Big Town" Contents Page