“Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.” -Edmund Burke
I first encountered that quotation when I read Bob Geldof’s autobiography Is That It? Geldof had reached the part of his story where his band The Boomtown Rats couldn’t get any of their songs on the radio and he personally was almost broke. One night he saw a news story about the famine occurring in Ethiopia at the time and he decided he needed to do something. He called some other musicians in the hope of recording a song and donating the proceeds (which he expected to be measures in hundreds of dollars) to the famine relief efforts. As some of you know, the group he put together became known as Band-Aid, which spawned USA for Africa, the Live-Aids concerts and many other projects. Literally billions of dollars of charity can be traced to one man who did a little because he thought it was all he could do.
His story, and the quotation he gave from Edmund Burks, came back to me this month when Peace House Community received a $5 donation along with a note. The donors have supported us for years, but only a few dollars at a time. This was perhaps the smallest donation they have ever given, but it was the note that caught my attention. It read in part:
“Excuse the smallness of the check. We are very poor right now and hope to send more later, or bring in some groceries for your pantry. Speaking of that, a relative has a tattoo shop, and my hope is to encourage her to get involved with you financially.”
Knowing that people who “are very poor right now” believe that what PHC does is worth supporting, and that they are willing to sacrifice their own comforts to make PHC’s activities possible, is humbling. It reminds me that I and others who work for non-profits are responsible to our donors as well as our community members for justifying their faith in us. But the note was also energizing. It reminds me that on days when I am tired or cranky or overwhelmed, that I still have something to contribute. No matter how little I feel I have to give, I am surrounded by others who are in the same boat but who give because they can.
I have never met the donors who sent those $5, but I sent them a handwritten note of thanks. I want them to know that their gift, even if it is small compared to what they want to give, still makes a difference, and that I do not want them to give up and do nothing because they could only do a little. I have learned that no one on their own will make much of a difference in this world, but a lot of people doing their little bit can make a huge difference.
This article originally appeared in “The Alley,” the newspaper for the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis.