Polish charity

I received an email at work yesterday encouraging me to go and support a ‘celebrity’ football match today that involves members of our company (and presumably others) versus some minor notables like fringe politicians and ‘D’ list celebs. The purpose of the event, apparently, is to raise funds for a blind guy who fell from the metro platform and was hit by a train.

Now. Once I got past the “poor guy” reactions I was left wondering yet again about the strange way charity works here in Poland and also with a few questions nobody around me could answer. My initial assumption was that this chap either worked for our company or was a well known ‘nice guy’ but it seems not, he’s just the latest lucky winner of media attention.

I would have thought it was fairly obvious that a metro station is one of the places that for blind people can be incredibly dangerous. A bit like crossing the road only worse. One would assume therefore that this person knew that and should have taken appropriate precautions – stick, dog, helper, whatever. If the design of the metro station was in some way to blame, is not friendly to those who are visually challenged, then the funds should surely be going toward measures of improving this for all blind people. If the design is fine but this person was either reckless or unlucky then why do we make a special case to give him money and not other unlucky or unfortunate folk who might possibly avoid metro stations as a sensible precaution?

This is the same sort of pot-luck charitable giving approach that you see on TV. There are many programmes that focus on one family or person in need, give details of their plight and then provide an account number into which it is expected people will transfer funds. As far as I can tell, the people highlighted definitely do need help but are no different from what I’m sure amounts to many others in the same or similar unfortunate position.

I find this focus on a few lucky individuals very strange. Certainly it helps the few chosen ones but it seems to my mind a very unfair way of dealing with these issues. Perhaps it is my British sense of fairness that is offended by giving to one and not to others? Perhaps I have become too used to ‘institutional’ charities, the Royal this, the National that? Poland does have some widespread organised charities but, with the possible exception of the Polish Wielka Orkiestra Świątecznej, how many people know they exist or how to donate?

Or is this something about the Polish psyche, that money can be given to well defined individual cases but not to organisations?

I’m not supporting this football match because I don’t think it is fair, nor do I think it is going to address the underlying issue of serious injuries in the metro (if there is such an issue). In a rather absurd way, there is even the possibility that picking on only the most newsworthy unfortunates might actually encourage those desperate enough to do silly things themselves. Nevertheless, many other people will turn out today and donate happily to help this poor guy on his way to, hopefully, a full recovery. There’s nowt as queer as folk!


8 thoughts on “Polish charity

  1. I have observed it may have something to do with the Polish-Catholic sense of alms-giving. Organizations are perhaps for some reason untrustworthy. But giving to someone begging, for no other reason than they ask for it, seems to be OK. Doing it in a reverent way, i.e. on knees or with hands in a prayer formation, seems to elicit the most quick responses. The motive seems to be in the giving and is not a question of who is the beneficiary.

    p/s thanks for Polandian!

  2. I kind of see your point, scatts, but on the other hand (and abstracting away the blind guy), is it really ever the case that all people in need will get help, even from an organization? Obviously not. What’s the harm, then, in helping a specific individual or family or what have you? While I’m absolutely ok with giving money to (legit) organizations, I don’t really believe in making the world a better place for everyone. Hence somehow I subconsciously respond better to helping someone in particular. That way you actually do make a difference. I mean, by the same token you could argue against, say, symbolically adopting an African child (to use a cliched example), while millions of other children starve. Or, for instance, helping a specific hospice, while dozens of other hospices have it just as bad. That’s my personal point of view, however, and I don’t in any way consider myself the voice of Polish people. What I’m saying, though, is that I wouldn’t be too quick in making judgments about “better” and “worse” (or maybe “more” and “less fair”) forms of charity.

  3. The Polish have deeply ingrained feel that authorities are bad. If you look at the history classes in primary and secondary education, they’re focused on how Poles were great at resisting various occupants. Drzymała is a classic example: how a Polish guy made fun of Prussian authorities.

    I certainly made sense in the past, when “they really were out there to get us” (Poles) was true. Now that there is no more occupant, Polish people find it difficult to accept that the strategy “fight the occupant” doesn’t apply any more. Some Poles go paranoid and insist that the occupant is still there, but somehow relabeled. Others just go and fervently resist any authority in sight.

    The main (simple, but probably still accurate) distinction seems to be: a (bad) authority vs a (good) Polish guy. If you apply this to your example, you get the answer. (Reasonable it isn’t, I know.)

  4. Scatts, I think this stems from a complete lack of faith in the Polish system. I myself, and probably the majority of Poles wishes that there were efficient, transparent, and effective public/private organizations that addressed problems such as these. A sense of ‘money being thrown away’ comes over the average Pole if she/he were to give a contribution to a major institution. We need to see definitive proof with measurable progress hence, enter: poor blind man.

    But I don’t this is very different than the aforementioned starving African child or the grotesquely televised U.S. style charity shows such as ‘Extreme Home Makeover’ or Oprah’s charity thing.

    Plus there are some notable and highly supported Charity organizations in Poland such as Pajacyk and Caritas. Those are certainly well trusted and seemingly effective. You will be probably notice the airwaves being flooded shortly regarding these before the holidays.

  5. A blind guy fell under a metro train and he’s still alive?!

    Sounds like a pretty amazingly lucky guy, perhaps that explains how he has a entire charity drive devoted to him.

    I just thought I’d add this facile observations to the counterbalance the intelligent and thoughtful comments above.

  6. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with recent studies on some social science (worldwide and not Polish), which state that people respond a lot better to a single person in need rather than a crowd of them.

    I’ve seen at least a few advertising materials from many charitiy organisations from around a world and I don’t think Poland is that different – many prefer to highlight troubles of a one person or a very small group of people, rather than an indefinite number, even if they are not focused with helping only those few.

    As much as distasteful as it sounds, it was Stalin who said “One death is a tragedy – a million is just statistics.”
    As much as a tyrant he was, I think that he’s got a point. The more we hear about people in need, the more helpless or indifferent we may grow.

    Of course, as mentioned a few times above, Poles also have little faith that money they give for an unspecified cause may never get to people or cases they want to help.

  7. On the top of the above a well managed charity organisation with some long term programs to be funded is not appealing to that ‘romantic’ nature of Poles; too dull, too casual. A big gathering, that spirit of being united by a common cause, feeling of doing something great and important will pull the money out of our pockets. We love ‘group fights’ with the big bad world around us. The Wielka Orkiestra Swiatecznej Pomocy is the best example.

  8. There was a short living history of institutional charities in Poland in the 1990s, but it occurred that many of them were created along commercial companies to avoid paying taxes, and the money you paid them went for their presidents’ houses and swimming pools. The swimming pools being an important addition as they became a symbol of “fundacja”.

    Poles got offended and confused. They didn’t know whom to trust. They returned to donating the church rather than others, and only some, Owsiak being a notable example, managed to build their social respect. But look how Owsiak is doing it. Everything is done publicly. You can see how he collects the money, how he counts it, and how he spends it. You can see detailed reports of all his dealings, and he himself doesn’t get any salary. Those people who collect the money are volunteers. Then Poles have a feeling that they collect the money together and spend it together for a good cause, and not give it to some obscure institution with suspicious motives.

    Another reason is mentioned in a comment above. Poles like helping, and they think that giving is good. They don’t care that much how noble the cause is. However, they don’t like to be cheated. In other words if they knew they were paying for swimming pools they’d either not pay or be fine with it, it was the fact that they were cheated that turned them off. As a teenager I had a rule to never give money to students from Kraków, and always give some to people asking for money for beer or vodka. Since I was young myself it was most likely that I’d be asked by people my age. One group were the above mentioned students, who seemed to be in thousands in Warsaw streets, each of them being robbed and needing money for a train ticket. I know that there are pickpockets in Warsaw, but how many Kraków students can fall their victims at once? It was an obvious spoof. On the other hand, someone saying that they needed two more złoty for a bottle of vodka was completely honest with me, and I didn’t mind their having some fun. Well, it’s not exactly charity, rather a friendly help. ;-)

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