COLUMN: Season of living generously

As the book reveals, giving to good causes is not always straightforward. There are political and ethical questions.

When journalist Lawrence Scanlan took his “radical sabbatical”—jumping into volunteerism with both feet—he hoped to do good, learn more, tackle some questions, and write a book about it.

A Year of Living Generously: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Philanthropy, published in 2010, is the result.

As the book reveals, giving to good causes is not always straightforward. There are political and ethical questions; there are the sharp distinctions of have and have-not; there is charitable tourism, slacktivism, agenda-driven activism, and the ever-present question of whether well-meaning volunteers are unburdening governments who should themselves be sitting up and saying “wait a minute.”

And there is goodwill.

Scanlan’s journey took him into prisons, soup kitchens, and homeless shelters. It took him to an HIV/AIDS centre in Costa Rica, a First Nations reserve in Ontario, and a women’s radio station in Senegal.

It took him more places than it takes most of us, who drop a 20 in the Salvation Army kettle, donate a coat at Valhalla Pure, call in our donation to CBC Food Bank Day (today!), serve up the soup at Our Daily Bread, or help a senior shovel her driveway.

Which is not to say that these small things are not important. Few of us could take a year off work, and almost all of us find time in our lives to contribute in our communities and in the world. And that’s great.

“What does one do in the face of suffering and need?” asks Scanlan. “All I know is this: what one should not do, is nothing.” And so we are all fervently and to the best of our abilities not doing nothing — and the good thing is, it all adds up.

To that end, the library is holding its third annual Fines for Food day on Monday, December 8. All proceeds from overdue fines paid that day (feel free to round it up!) will benefit the Nelson Food Cupboard. Who knew you could feel warm and fuzzy while paying up for The Tale of Mrs. Tiggywinkle, lost for 107 days down the side of the couch?

In partnership with Columbia Basin Alliance for Literacy and the Nelson Star, the Library is also collecting books for kids for the Nelson Food Cupboard’s Holiday Hampers. “A Book Under Every Tree” seeks new or new-looking books for kids (new born to age 15) to be dropped off at the Library, The Learning Centre on the lower level of City Hall, or the Nelson Star office by Thursday, December 11. Feeding bellies and feeding minds seem like good causes to me.

The Nelson Food Cupboard feeds hundreds of individuals and families every month who have trouble making ends meet — more than 13,000 visits last year. A quarter of the people who access the Food Cupboard are children, and 38 per cent  have a disability. Almost all live in Nelson, and close to half have lived here for more than a decade.

It’s interesting to me that the first Canadian food bank was established as recently as 1981. It’s too easy to think they have been with us forever. It brings to mind Scanlan’s questions about philanthropy and responsibility, and yet people must be fed.

The questions raised in A Year of Living Dangerously are thoughtful, and sometimes uncomfortable, and that’s good. We should be thoughtful as we move through the world.

I don’t have all the answers, but I’ll do my best to do my part—in this season, and all year long — which is the best any of us can do. In the end, it comes down to goodwill, and if we have that we are rich indeed.


— Anne DeGrace is the Adult Services Coordinator at the Nelson Public Library. Check This Out runs every other week. For more information go to

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