Miss Conduct

Keeping score

Reciprocating with charitable donations, plus something rotten in an old friendship

By Robin Abrahams
January 23, 2011

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I ran the Boston Marathon five years ago for a cancer charity, and even virtual strangers were very generous with their donations. Since then, I have received requests for donations for all kinds of charity fund-raisers. I try to give to everyone, but should the distance of the event factor into my contribution? If someone gave me $100 to run the Marathon, do I need to reciprocate by giving them $100 for a 5K walk? P.F./Winchester

What a blessing to have the health and strength to finish the Marathon, and how wonderful that so many people helped make your achievement something more than a personal best.

Because that’s the point of giving for a charity run (or walk, or swim, or crawl-on-your-belly-like-a-reptile-athon). It’s a show of support for the athlete’s effort and the worthiness of the cause. People aren’t really “running a 5K for charity,” you know: They’re asking their friends to donate money, and then they are running in a race. It’s not a factory where you get paid for piecework, even if those little pledge forms make it look like that.

So, please, don’t take the term “Your mileage may vary” so literally. Give based on your budget, your closeness to the individual, and your passion for the cause – not the miles of ground pounded.

I have a longtime friend whose birthday gifts to me border on the mean-spirited. Last year, I received a gift from Goodwill, and not a very nice one at that. Yet she has no family to support and is blessed with a generous salary. Her birthday is coming up soon and, in all honesty, there is no joy in selecting something heartfelt when I’ve been slapped in the face time and time again. Each year I think, this will be the year she grows a heart, but she never does. Is it time to let go of the friendship or just stop the gift exchanges? D.C./Melrose

I’m a little confused, D.C. It sounds as though you must end the gift exchanges if you want to continue the friendship, because they are causing you far too much pain. But if what you are asking for is permission to end the whole friendship, then you have it. Stay classy, of course. No dredging up all the Goodwill insults of birthdays past. But there is nothing obliging you to stay friends with someone who hurts you.

Still, why has this woman been a friend for so long? What does she offer you? Is she the kind of friend who knows when you need a shoulder to cry on and when you need to be taken out for a drink and a laugh? You use strong words – face-slapping, heart-growing – to describe your feelings about her gifts to you, but you don’t give information about the rest of the relationship. Is her lackadaisical gift-giving a symptom of a larger pattern of hurtful behavior? Or is it, instead, hurtful precisely because it seems so out of the norm? Is she just not gifted at giving? (Good gift-giving requires not only generosity and imagination but also a knack for navigating consumer culture. Some folks can no more go into a shop and pick out a tasteful bibelot than I could go into the woods and pick out a mushroom that wouldn’t kill me.) You’ve got the Miss Conduct Seal of Approval to do whatever you like, but you’ll be more at ease with the results if you first figure out what’s really going on.

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a Cambridge-based writer with a PhD in psychology. Got a question or a comment? Write to BLOG Read more at CHAT Get advice live this Wednesday, noon to 1 p.m., at

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