November 12, 2019

NGUYEN | Down With Fake Philanthropy!

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I wiped graham cracker crumbs from my lips and gulped down one last gooey mouthful of marshmallow and chocolate as I traipsed down the Slope. It didn’t taste very good.

I continued to distance myself from the Arts Quad on my descent to West Campus — and yet, I still couldn’t shake the saccharine aftertaste that the s’more left behind. Supposedly, I had consumed the s’more in the name of service. Realistically, my only takeaways were sticky fingers glued together by melted marshmallows and a $6 charge on my Venmo account. I didn’t know what the cause was, who I was supporting, why I should donate or how my donation was helping anyone.

But this wasn’t a rarity; I’ve noticed that this is a common theme at Cornell. Many on-campus organizations, claiming to support “philanthropic” causes, don’t actually seem to care about the service they claim to be supporting.

My friend and I were walking out of Zeus last month when we were hit by a full-blown wave of autumn. The cozy season of scarves and beanies was in full bloom: Rust-tinted leaves pranced above us while the cloudy sky cast a soothing clarity on campus. And the smell! There was something in the Arts Quad that made my every inhale feel extremely like fall. I breathed it all in, discerning the aroma as a woodsy campfire and tracking the perfumed body of smoke to its source: a herd of Greek life huddled around a fire pit.

“Would you like some s’mores? Only $6 to support [insert random philanthropy that I can’t recall anymore, possibly because there wasn’t an emphasis on the service aspect of the fundraiser, here],” advertised a scripted sorority sister.

Like the rest of her sisters, she was clad in a light blue crewneck that bore the name of the event and a cute clip art image of s’mores. My friend and I, at first reluctant to respond, ended up forking over the six bucks. We began roasting our marshmallows as the girl moved on to her next victim. The environment of the fundraiser was slightly hectic: Frat brothers tossed a football to one another, skirting around the chatty, collective mass of sorority sisters. No one really bothered interacting with us — it seemed like a forced chore for everyone there.

Questions ran through my head as I dipped my marshmallow into the flames. Custom crewneck sweaters cost at least $25 each — how much more money could have been raised if the 30 or so sisters directly donated this money to their philanthropy? If these Greek life members spent their time actually engaging in active service, as opposed to lounging around a fire pit for a few hours, couldn’t they accomplish more for the cause? Did anyone here actually care about the philanthropy they were “supporting”?

Cornell’s campus runs rampant with “philanthropy-driven” organizations. Though many of them act out of pure intentions, a large number of these organizations tragically overlook their roots in service. Several fraternities and sororities participate in events to support their philanthropy; however, oftentimes, they fail to realize the true meaning of why they’re doing what they’re doing. If the clique of brothers and sisters around the fire pit genuinely cared about their cause, they would have engaged in proactive service, or more hands-on action, or community outreach. Or they would have at least focused more on selling s’mores instead of crewnecks, football and socializing.

But it’s not just traditional Greek life at fault. As a member of Cornell’s largest on-campus service organization, Alpha Phi Omega, I’ve witnessed and I’ve been complicit in the “fake philanthropy” that the organization has engaged in. Granted, most APO events truly aim to fundraise money, raise awareness or support charitable causes. However, APO is also host to a culture of attending service events to merely fulfill the membership requirements. One of the most popular service events in APO is a finger-knitting event, where members sit in a room for an hour and finger knit long strands of yarn. Eventually (we’re told) the strands are woven together into scarves for Ithaca’s homeless population — but I’ve never seen any advertising for the scarf distribution or seen pictures of those we’ve helped. With the complete attention of a roomful of individuals for an hour, there are undoubtedly stronger ways that we can serve Ithaca’s homeless population than simply offering knitted strands of yarn. It’s a matter of understanding the issues we’re attempting to redress, reevaluating these events and moving toward sustainable, efficient solutions.

It’s hard to not sound like an asshole when you criticize the way that people try to help others. To be fair, I appreciate the efforts of anyone on this campus who attempts to use their privilege to serve the greater community: It takes dedication and passion to set aside time, resources and energy to engage in philanthropic causes. But at the same time, Cornell organizations have become so adjusted to tradition and routine that we’ve lost sight of what we’re trying to accomplish. Rather than simply following the mold that’s been constructed in the past, it’s important to ask focused questions to maximize the way we serve. Why are you holding an event? How will it help people? Is this the best use of your time and resources?

Cornell students carry the profound privilege of attending an Ivy League university; it’s our duty to use the innumerable resources at our disposal to serve those around us. So when it comes to philanthropy, we shouldn’t be settling for just good enough. We should be striving to do all we can to make our service meaningful, engaging and impactful.

Niko Nguyen is a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at nnguyen@cornellsun.com. Unfiltered runs every other Wednesday this semester.