Connecting to the Cause

How to Find Charity (Even) When Deciding Not to

By Tim Castle

No matter who they are or what they do, people look for connections and community. After all, it’s not for nothing that we call ourselves “social animals.” right now, it’s “social media” and a digital “social network,” but 10,000 years ago it was a fire, a cave, or just a safe, dry place.

Six hundred years ago, one common social option—especially in parts of what we now know as the middle-east—was an early version of today’s coffee house. Gathering together with one’s community to drink coffee has been encouraged since coffee was first introduced as a beverage. Coffee was not as intoxicating (or forbidden) as alcoholic inebriation (as per the relatively new edicts of mohammed—only a thousand years old then), and the coffee ritual could be enjoyed without risking religious or legal censure.

Over time, the tradition of social interactions over coffee spread throughout the Arab World, Western Europe and then to the Western Hemisphere, both in cafés and in homes. From the time the practice of consuming coffee became popular in the 1400s, it quickly became apparent that coffee helped us make those connections.

A cynic can claim it’s merely the caffeine, while a dietician can claim it’s the amount of antioxidants, but whatever the reason, there’s certainly a sense of sentient well-being that comes with the consumption of coffee; one that behooves us to speak, share, tell stories and connect. Along those lines of connectivity, coffee can also bring out the best in us.

Throughout the ages, coffee has been associated with being generous, from thinking in a benevolent manner to acting with open hands and open hearts. For this reason, those of us who love to be generous are often attracted to the coffee industry, and to those within it.

Furthermore, coffee—either through long years of tradition or simple neuro-chemical stimulation—enhances and nurtures our social-ness and brings us into situations where we are encouraged to give of ourselves, our minds and our hearts. The connections that are nurtured “over coffee” lead us to believe that we matter to others and that what we do make a difference.

Where We Give

On a less complex level, it’s fair to say that overall the coffee industry, per dollar of revenue, has generated support for charitable (and wanting-to-be-charitable) causes that is well above average. If this support cannot be quantified in dollars, it can certainly be measured in the number of projects and donations of time, effort and intention, whether it be digging a well, funding a school, or spearheading such organizations as Coffee Kids, Grounds for Health and Café Femenino. In addition, there are aid and sustainability efforts, including those focusing on mutually equitable trading practices, which put an umbrella over coffees that are certified organic, Fair Trade, Direct Trade, and Rainforest Alliance. Then there are more recent initiatives such as the Global Coffee Quality Research Initiative with its cooperative structure, and one of the newest efforts, AfterTheHarvest.Org.

There are also numerous organizations and foundations that we as an industry feel compelled to help, such as the SCAA itself and its charitable trust, the Coffee Quality Institute.

Separately, there are organizations that seemingly have nothing to do with coffee, but have been adopted by one company or another because their customers appreciate knowing their purchases went toward the support of a particular organization or cause. Additionally (and often simultaneously) the company’s management and employees may decide that a particular charitable organization deserves their support.

Finally, there are organizations that appear on our radar, just because we’re in the coffee business—there are a lot of worthy causes that come to mind when we consider the world’s overall ecology, climate, population, wildlife and political boundaries.

How Do We Give?

With so many generous people—and so many places to put said generosity—it’s hardly a wonder that deciding where to donate our time and energy is a complex and occasionally confusing topic. People want to be sure they’re giving of themselves and of their money in way that will have the largest positive effect.

Thus, it’s natural that questions about the amount and nature of causes sometimes arise. During the 2011 SCAA Symposium, after a presentation of “After the Harvest: Fighting Hunger in the Coffeelands,” a recent video on food security, these queries took the form of, “Why do we have so many causes? Are there too many?” The questions being raised were clearly not designed to impugn a worthy cause—the solutions offered by the establishment of AfterTheHarvest. Org are thoughtfully organized and sincerely presented—but rather to evaluate how many “worthy causes” a relatively small industry can support in a meaningful way. Can there be too many causes that are allowed a forum? When does free speech become a cacophony? Is there a point where having too many organizations can cause the benefits themselves to be spread too thinly among them? It seems the good-faith effort to address the question is the only real answer we may receive.

There are, of course, other questions in terms of giving. Occasionally, I’ve heard certain buyers exclaim “Where are the ‘starving farmers?’” Some would even say that the small farmers, while not rich, are managing well by their own standards and are not starving. In fact, many seem to be doing well, especially now that the market has doubled.

Another discussion addressed the implications of paying the lowest possible price for coffee, then turning around and giving an amount back as charitable food aid, while taking credit for the “good works” being done.

Which brought up another risk: by enrobing our relatively tiny specialty coffee industry in a thick aura of charity we identify our product with negative circumstances. Is it possible that in the future, every time a coffee drinker sees a picture of a coffee cup, they will instantly find themselves identifying its contents with poverty, starvation and inequity? Is it enough to make them reach instead for something less guilt-provoking (as many consumers are already doing) and just enjoy a caffeinated soft drink in the morning?

Furthermore, another justifiable gripe was addressed: That some companies might be tempted to use their own charitable causes as cudgels against their less well-defended competitors. There are currently no laws to stop them, but one would hope the companies think about the purpose of the charities they support, as well as the word “charity” itself, before they let such a practice become the norm.

How Can We Give Well Now?

While there are a lot of specific issues raised by the multifaceted and important discussion touched upon above, they are long-term issues, one that the industry as a whole will need to explore more deeply and find ever-changing answers.

In the meantime, the question for most of us in the industry is how can we give well now? How do we decide what causes to support, if any, and do we even have the resources to consider all available options. Do we need to decide? (As always, though, even not deciding to support a cause really is a decision, and usually the worst of all available options, because it doesn’t free us to move on and support something else).

It is the theoretical responsibility of every donor to become engaged with the causes that he or she supports, and to learn as much as they can about what a charity does and how they operate.

Choosing a cause that you feel a personal connection with is often a good place to start. What causes do you believe in and, just as importantly, what ways of helping ring the most true for you? Do you want to donate your money, your time or both? Do you believe more in preventative education or disaster relief? Every organization works differently, and it’s not just their cause, but also their process, that matters in the end.

“There is always the risk of dilution when you have a number of causes to look at,” says Mireya Jones, who was born into Finca Dos Marias in Guatemala and has long been involved with charitable causes both in the US as well as in Guatemala. “But people need a connection at the ‘community’ level to have ownership in it, whether that community is local to one’s roasting business, or one that’s closer to the source of supply. That particular connection is unique to everyone.

Quite simply, it’s our community and that’s where we find a connection. It’s part of a dynamic process that involves us, our customers, the local community and the communities where the coffees we sell are produced.”

Jones also underlined that the scope of one’s involvement needn’t be geographically limited, “I am [also] involved with Women in Coffee both in Central America and Africa. It is really heartening to feel the strengthening of our fellow producers around the world.”

More broadly, Jones continued, “As an industry and a trade organization I believe that those of us in the specialty coffee business can lead the way, but we don•t have the resources to push every coffee-related cause forward. We can help with the visibility and promotion but there has to be a partnership between us and more deeply funded organizations/businesses to move causes forward.”

Another thing to look at would be how invested you feel a charity is in itself. After all, at the end of the day, it is a charity’s responsibility to ensure its own viability—it would be irresponsible for charities to do anything less than pursue every avenue of possible support. This means that they need to “sell” their cause to every possible supporter, whether that supporter yet knows about or will ever really care about what the organization actually does.

While any charitable organization would prefer to have donors that are committed and engaged, they must come to terms with the idea that many donors don’t have the attention span or the resources to devote to their individual mission statement or consistent interaction. Most small charities must rely on the uncommitted donor to provide most of their operating funds throughout each year.

When considering charities, another important question should be, “What percentage of funds donated goes to actually fulfilling the stated goals of the organization, and how much is spent on administration and fund-raising?” In fact, there are reasonable percentages of annual revenue that successful organizations do spend on such things, and every organization has its own parameters. New organizations are likely to burn up much of their donations on administration or, ironically, not spend enough on it.

Older organizations can be expected to be more efficient unless they have certain intractable challenges they must deal with every year. In other words, to be an engaged patron, you need to give of your time and your thinking, arriving at a decision that makes meaningful sense for you. That decision may be to tear open an envelope at random and give $15 to a particular organization because a) that’s all you can afford or, b) you happen to like the organization’s return-address stickers. Whichever path one takes, the wisest course of action is to research the organization before making a donation of any amount, lest your efforts are wasted on an ineffective charity, or one you may not, on closer inspection, be well-aligned with.

On the other hand, you could look into an organization and determine that it makes sense for you and the business you’re working with to become deeply involved, and further, that your customers might even want to support your efforts as well. If you’re going to do that, then you darn well better be sure that you know that organization inside out and that your efforts won’t be wasted or worse, discredited, due to bad management or false claims down the line. What is striking with regard to the chief and most successful proponents of any cause is their clear understanding of what the cause is, why they support it and, if it involves their businesses too, why that cause’s mission is important to their business.

This logic leads to the conclusion that one is safe supporting organizations that are successful and well-established. If you like the concept that a new organization is promoting, then make an effort to learn more about how they are organized, and if their cause and proposed solutions are viable. If you send some group $10, it’s not the end of the world if they waste it on beer and comic books. On the other hand, a million dollars mis-directed to beer and comics would be nothing short of tragic, both for the patron and the intended beneficiaries.

There is an unstated partnership between the donor and the charity, as well as many variables, including the amount for envisioned giving, the track record of the charitable organization and the essential fit between the donor and the charity.

The next question we face is, “How many causes and issues of need deserve our attention?” Whether or not that can be addressed depends upon whether the organization’s management and board believe it necessary to limit the field of eligibility to a certain type of group.

Frank Dennis, CEO of the Swiss Water Decaffeinated Coffee Company, Inc., presently serves as board of directors chair for Grounds for Health board, a cause to which he is passionately committed—however, his support of his preferred cause is not exclusionary. “Who is to say that the next idea, someone will come up with tomorrow, or next year, isn’t the ‘best’ in terms of giving and supporting?” he asks. “While I feel that Grounds for Health has a positive and cost-effective impact on the communities that supply us with the coffees that maintain our businesses, it would seem that there really should be no limit on the charities that may have the opportunity to present themselves to any constituency. The next charity, whatever that may be, could present the most compelling and effective program. The SCAA does a great job of providing platforms for the voice of various charities, but their responsibility ends there. The members, individually, must act, voting with their funds and hard work. Those of us supporting Grounds for Health are doing just that, but I would not want to exclude any new or evolving area of concern from being addressed.”

The best path might be the one that, as Jones and Dennis both propose, allows all voices in as open a forum as possible to tell their story, and to let the most appealing and interesting of those to be heard and supported.

Fundamental to this conversation, though, is the belief that the actions each of us takes have an impact for better or worse. If they didn’t, it wouldn’t matter if anyone, much less too many, were asking for help. To even address the question of how many just causes should be considered by our industry members asserts that an answer will make a difference, whether that reply comes in the form of a simple check, a more complicated financial plan or support or a few hours of hard work each month.

Even the careful consideration of an appeal and the thoughtful denial to support it is, in fact, a gift. That denial provides information and feedback to the cause’s supporters that they would not have gotten if their question had not been listened to or answered in the first place. Part of being social creatures and living in a social network is engaging: interacting (communicating) and thoughtfully, carefully deciding upon one’s subsequent actions based on those communications. Or maybe that’s all that being a social creature truly is; believing that what we think, say and do matters to others and ourselves. Certainly, without that belief, there can be no charity at all.

Timothy J. Castle has been selling green coffee and writ•ing about coffee in general for 30+ years. Castle penned The Great Coffee Book (Ten Speed Press, December 1999) with co-author Joan Nielsen. He also wrote The Perfect Cup, (Perseus Books, 1991). In 2003 Castle received the Distinguished Author Award 2003 from the SCAA and was its president in 1991.