Sunday, December 25, 2011

People can and do show they care

Several days ago, stories started appearing about anonymous benefactors who were paying off the balances on layaway purchases that customers had made at Kmart.

An Associated Press article written by Margery Beck suggested that these payoffs took various forms. Some benefactors sought to pay off items that were about to be returned to the shelf because the purchaser had missed several payments. Others wanted only to pay off layaway purchases that consisted chiefly of children's items. Still others decided to pay off most of the layaway, but left a few dollars balance on the account so customers would be surprised when they went to settle up their bills.

No questions asked about whether particular items are appropriate for the children. No judging about whether it's right to have $200 worth of toys and clothes on layaway when they might not be able to pay for more essential items at home. No desire to stick around or be identified as the person paying off the bill. No need for a charitable tax break or the thanks of an adoring recipient.

Just one giant Secret Santa effort seems to have blossomed for whatever motivation the benefactors might have had.

Helping others in need gives people the opportunity to show they care. Every year, a number of prominent newspaper columnists devote a holiday column to listing charities seeking donations. And the Web takes such efforts a step beyond the local Kmart and allows benefactors a much longer reach.

Right around Thanksgiving, for example, my son and daughter-in-lawd gave their nephew (my eldest grandson) a gift certificate to, a microlending organization that allows users to loan money to entrepreneurial projects in impoverished areas of the world. He chose to help fund Luciana, a food vendor in Paraguay, and Caroline, a cereals seller in Kenya.

Opportunities exist throughout the year to do some good act to express care or concern. Such acts might not involve cash, but instead involve assisting a neighbor or giving time to a local school or not-for-profit.

If ethics is how we behave when we decide we belong together, then it seems appropriate to reflect on whether or not that coexistence should involve some effort to help others who might be working hard but finding themselves falling a bit short.

Aside from those who believe tithing is an obligation, there's no set prescription on how or how much to give or when. The right thing is to give thought to whether it's important for you to do so and then find a way, even a small way, to express such care for others in the community, whether neighbors shopping at the local strip mall or those further afield connected through the web.

Tell me your stories of how you've decided to give back or to show care for others in your community. What motivated you? And how did you decide it was the right thing to do?

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal
Responsibility in Today's Business
and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to

(c) 2011 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.

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