Please go read Daniel Gross’s “Fifteen Dollars’ Worth of Smug” at Slate right now if you haven’t already. The short of it: “Under the Chow for Charity program, now in its fifth year, summer associates at the giant law firm Simpson Thacher can elect not to enjoy a $60 per person lunch with a firm lawyer. Instead, if they choose to eat with the lawyer at a more down-scale joint and spend $15 or less each, the firm will donate the difference ($45 per person) to a nonprofit legal group like Legal Aid.” After reading about it in the Sunday New York Times business section, Gross writes a great four-pointer about just how utterly ridiculous this is. (Frankly, I’m amazed at his restraint; he probably could have gotten to seven easily.)
Especially appalling is the fact that this “socially conscious behavior” is meant to impress those Gen Y recruits — “well-educated proto-yuppies,” Gross calls them (i.e., us) — targeted by these firms. Now there are those of us who might appreciate this — we’ll call them the self-congratulatory, lip-service crowd — but I just have to believe that the majority won’t buy this tomfoolery. Not that we’re going to turn down offers on account of it, loan debt and housing costs being what they are, but what sort of people would we be if a few $15 lunches satisfied our social consciences? That sort of thing isn’t going to convince me or any other sentient being that his or her company should be up for any humanitarian awards. (And for the self-congratulators, it won’t matter, as they likely hope one day to be on the other side of that $15 lunch. )
But this isn’t limited to law firms or recruiters. And I don’t think Gen Yers are the cause or even the main practitioners of this pop philanthropy. (I’m reminded of a recent Washington Post op-ed, “Stop Trying to ‘Save’ Africa.” Or of Vanity Fair‘s Africa issue, which, while obviously well intentioned, began for me with a cover image of 5’11” Brad Pitt with a loving arm around 6’2″ Djimon Hounsou, big-brother-style. Condescending much?) This isn’t a new phenomenon. It just seems to be so ubiquitous and so celebrated that even those people — and yes, entire professions — who wouldn’t have lifted a finger for their next-door neighbor, never mind Africans, suddenly feel enormous pressure to demonstrate their own civic-mindedness. Not to mention that it makes them feel so darn good about themselves, whatever the actual impact. It’s a little embarrassing, but I suppose it can’t hurt. And since in a lot of cases, it’s being done in the name of attracting us, let’s hope that, as we gain a voice in our companies, we find some ways to act on those ideals we keep talking about and do some real good work.