Thanksgiving. The start of the season of good cheer: Parties, shortened workweeks, year-end bonuses. For me, though, this season is also one of guilt — over what I actually give to the world. I know that if I flew to Somalia, I could keep a little girl from starving by personally feeding her each day. Likewise, if I spent every afternoon after school with an underprivileged nine-year-old on the brink of joining a gang, he would probably stick to his studies. I can do a lot of good in the world, but instead, I spend my time working at jobs that, let's face it, don’t save anyone.
I once tried to salve my guilt by way of my government surplus business. We planned to expand to a catalogue business, but the cost to organize the data was so astronomical that the idea didn’t make sense. But then someone mentioned India. “Data entry is cheap in India, and everyone speaks English,” he said.
I plugged Indian laborers into my P&L, and even when I accounted for a few U.S. managers, profitability for the catalog business was 85 percent. Too high, actually. I knew my board wouldn’t believe it. They would say my assumptions were wrong. So I spent evenings combing through the details of other catalog P&Ls searching for cost categories that I might have missed.
Then I read an article in Marie Claire magazine about sex slaves. Did you know that Indian cities are full of child sex slaves? They can be bought for $300 apiece. Here was my big chance to save a group of girls from a despicable existence. I added another 20 people to the P&L — they would be young girls — and then I included housing for them (above the rooms used for data-entry) and money for a school next to the cafeteria. I even increased staffing so that each data-entry clerk could spend an hour a day teaching the girls. One-on-one tutoring. Art classes. The Internet. My profit margins were 65 percent, the board's sweet spot.
I felt good going into the next board meeting. We brought up the India idea gingerly, focusing not on the Marie Claire article but on the cost savings and the shrewd worldview of operations. We presented charts and graphs outlining the economics of data entry in India. The board loved the idea. Before I could mention my save-the-world scheme, one board member gave me the name of a friend who had a company in India and and said the friend would do everything for me.
No flying to Mumbai. No rescue mission. No school. Instead I would be giving more business to the data-entry king of Mumbai who probably never thought about the sex trade in India.
So I gave money to AFESIP, the charity the Marie Claire article said rescues the girls. I gave a bunch of money because, at the time, I was earning a bunch of money. I told myself that making a lot of money working in corporate America and giving it to charity was better than actually working for a charity. My money, I reasoned, was worth more than my time would be if I were on the streets rescuing young girls from evildoers. I did some quick math in my head and figured that my earnings could pay for two or three rescuers, as opposed to me going to India myself.
I can't tell you that I gave a huge percentage of my income. I didn't. I kept some money to fund things like private yoga lessons and a new BMW. And I can't tell you that giving to charity made me feel 100% better.
But I live with a person who does, actually, get paid to save lives. (My husband implements programs promoting social justice.) And I can assure you that he never feels like he's doing enough, either. So I have a hunch that very few people walk through their workday guilt free.
But giving to charity does make you feel as though part of your workday, each day, contributes to helping someone who really needs help. Most people will not be able to turn a job selling widgets into a save-the-world gig, but you can feel like your job has more meaning if you give part of each paycheck to someone who needs it far more than you.