Last Thursday, my a cappella group was kindly invited to take part in a celebration of Mory’s, held at the Yale Club in New York City. The event was celebrating Mory’s centennial (though given that the club was founded in 1849, I’m shaky on exactly what math they were using); but we realized after getting there the main function of the event was to serve as a fundraiser for the club.
This immediately prompted some questions, the first one being why Mory’s, a very much for-profit organization, was having a fundraiser. I had generally assumed that fundraisers were for nonprofits, which run predominantly on charitable donations. For-profit businesses, on the other hand, support themselves by implementing efficient business models: If a restaurant is struggling to turn a profit, maybe it should find ways to cut its costs or improve the quality of its product. A business’s inability to support itself is usually an indicator that it needs to be driven out of the market — it’s the unflinching law of supply and demand, as any introductory economics class will tell you.
All of which brings us back to last Thursday. The event was grand and beautiful; a dinner of perfectly-cooked fish was served in the sparkling ballroom at the Yale Club. And, as the master of ceremonies proudly announced, after all the profits of the silent auction and ticket sales were tallied, Mory’s had raised $303,000. That’s an incredible sum of money; and while I hold nothing at all against Mory’s as an institution, I couldn’t help but feel a bit of confusion and concern at that sum given to a for-profit business.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the concept of philanthropy — about what causes to give to, and whether or not there’s ever such a thing as money given out of generosity that is misspent. It’s nearly impossible to criticize someone for giving some of their hard-earned money to a cause that has meant something to them, especially since it must always be compared against the alternative of giving nothing at all. And despite the fact that it’s not a charitable organization by any stretch of the imagination, it’s easy to see why Mory’s meant something to the alumni gathered in the room at the Yale Club. It was a place in which they gathered and made their quintessential college memories.
When people decide to donate, it’s only natural that they return to the institutions that made an impact on them. But where does that lead us in the bigger picture? Consider the sad reality that social mobility in the United States is waning, and the people wealthy enough to make large charitable contributions are those who were raised in relative affluence. What are the institutions that affected them? Often they’re elite universities or expensive clubs; and so when these men and women go to give to the places that have touched their lives, they tend to be already-privileged social structures.
Again, there is nothing inherently wrong with giving to a place like Mory’s. But if the goal of giving to charity (if you’re thinking about the recipients of the money, not of the warm fuzzy feelings the giver gets as a result of their altruism) is to try to ameliorate some of society’s existing inequalities, is this system working? If men and women who have always been privileged find themselves in a position to give to the causes that touched their lives, are we lessening structural inequality, or exacerbating it?
Perhaps the important thing is to urge people to take some time to think about the causes that affect the world at large. Don’t stop giving to the places that meant something to you just because they’re affluent; but remember that there are other worthy causes, and give to those as well. People who are lucky enough to have money to spare have, in my opinion, an obligation to take a more sweeping view of the problems that need addressing in the world. And so if they want to bolster a New Haven restaurant, I hope they also give to the scholarship fund, or to malaria-prevention organizations, or to a soup kitchen in their hometown. There’s a lot of good to be done, and if we’re limited by giving only to institutions that have touched us in our sheltered lives, then we won’t even scratch the surface of leveling the playing field.
Victoria Hall-Palerm is a senior in Berkeley College. Her columns run on alternate Fridays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.