It's About the Muck (Not the Shit)

Strategic Philanthropy
Friday, September 9, 2011

Nearly two weeks ago my state, Vermont, was devastated by floods – they are calling it the 500 year flood, a (hopefully) once in a lifetime phenomenon.   Gentle brooks and streams turned into raging rivers and rivers overflowed their banks.  Hundreds of bridges were destroyed around the state, making it clear where the old Vermont saying “you can’t get there from here” comes from.  Our house was untouched, but our neighbors, friends, and colleagues were affected – our favorite local restaurant was totally flooded, many people we know had flooded houses, and the local elementary school is closed indefinitely.

   Many of our normal routes are no longer passable, and some nearby towns remain inaccessible.

On the Monday after the storm we went out to survey the damage and quickly realized that we should stop gawking and start helping.  My children and I spent the morning helping to salvage clothes from a flooded store in our town.  We donated our fans to air out another store.  My son and his soccer team spent two days cleaning out muck in a teammate’s basement.

On Friday, there was a clothing drive in our town.  People were asked to bring children’s clothes to the local elementary school.  I live in a relatively affluent community and within the first couple of hours there were traffic jams in front of the school and the site was inundated with children’s clothes, adult clothes, books, blankets, cooking utensils, food, and everything else that people were capable of delivering.  There were shopping bags full of used clothing as well as designer labels just back from the dry cleaners, brand new sets of sheets and towels, beautiful blankets and comforters, children and adult books, dozens of bottles of water and hundreds of cans of people food and animal food.   By noon, it was clear that we had more donations than could be handled and we were turning people and their stuffed cars away.

A couple weeks ago Peter Karoff wrote about the feeling of being overwhelmed by the “shit” in our world and not knowing what to do about it.  Perhaps what is happening here in Vermont demonstrates that people are able to deal at the muck level.  It is clear that my neighbors are desperate to help – to give their time, their material good, their sweat.  In fact, the outpouring that I witnessed at our clothing drive was overwhelming - there was too much largesse.

Why are we willing to pitch in and give so much on this occasion?  If we have so much to give, why do we (most of us) ignore the need that exists in our every day, non-locally-flooded world?  Is it because we identify with the victims of this particular catastrophe, we know we could easily have been in the same situation?  Is it that we believe that flood victims are “deserving,”   they are in this situation through no fault of their own?  Is it a primarily a question of scale – the world’s problems are too overwhelming, but we can understand our own community and we believe that we can have an impact at that level.  Is it a question of trust – we know that these donations will get into the right hands; there are no middle men, no huge bureaucracies or corrupt governments involved?

What I have witnessed here in my state, my Valley, this past week is a can do, positive attitude combined with a generosity of spirit and material largesse.   The question I am left with is how to channel that beyond the short-term muck.