Drinking for a Cause? The messy ethics of getting drunk for the greater good

Shanika Gunaratna

For college students, the scene is all too familiar. The hip-hop song of the moment is playing at maximum volume, and everyone seems to know the chorus. In the corner of the dimly lit room are one or two freshly tapped kegs and a few handles. Against the wall, a pair of freshmen are groping each other. As the hours pass, the floor gets more and more slippery with beer foam. It’s a fundraising party for some good cause or another, and the emphasis is definitely on party.

All around the country, college students throw parties and bar nights to raise money for charitable causes and dire humanitarian disasters. The picture of collegiate indulgence, these parties are usually severely detached from the people and causes for which they fundraise. But awareness is not the point. The objective is cold, hard cash, desperately needed in post-earthquake Haiti, post-flood Pakistan and an endless number of places. The fundraising party is a serious moneymaking machine, and one of our generation’s favorite means to connect with the developing world.

The Northwestern student is well versed in drinking for a cause. After the earthquake in Haiti last year, four students organized a bar night at The Keg that racked in $5,811 for the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund; 1,200 people showed up, and bouncers had to turn students away at the door. The same week, an off-campus party, cheekily called (keg) Stand with Haiti, raised $1,400 for the relief efforts of Partners in Health. Year-round, the Northwestern social calendar is chock-full of fundraiser parties and bar nights organized by advocacy and internationally-focused student groups. Publicized through private Facebook events, these are parties the administration will never see, though they bankroll some serious humanitarian causes and play a large role in student culture.

Privilege and poverty

Drinking for a cause: it’s a slippery ethical issue. It’s one that Peter Luckow had to frequently address, as former associate executive director of GlobeMed, a national student-run global health organization founded and based at Northwestern. “Our official stance was to tell the chapters to abide by their school rules,” the Weinberg ’10 alum says, noting that if an underage kid got dangerously drunk at a fundraiser hosted by GlobeMed, the organization could be held legally responsible.

But as someone who sees need in the world, Luckow sees the value to fundraising by any means.

“I don’t think these events are promoting or perpetuating drinking,” he says. “They’re just taking advantage of an existing culture to use it for good.”

For Luckow, conversations about the ethics of these types of fundraising are conversations of privilege, reserved for those living in comfort and peace. Now the Director of Operations for Tiyatien Health, a Liberia-based health organization, Luckow has seen the other end of the equation – the poverty-stricken areas to which donations trickle, where war has ravaged both the national healthcare system and people’s bodies.

“This is such a contrast to living in a refugee camp in Pakistan or Port-au-Prince right now, where people are knocking on the doors of aid distribution centers daily, asking for ways to fend for themselves and their children,” he says. “What those leaders on the ground say is, ‘You guys don’t know what it’s like to have people knocking on your door at four in the morning everyday and have people begging for services we can’t give. Are you f***ing crazy for not raising this money?'”

Winning hearts and livers

The recent floods in Pakistan complicate this issue, bringing in a messy religious dimension. Pakistan is officially Muslim country, the second most populous Muslim-majority country in the world. In the Qur’an, alcoholic consumption is deemed a great sin. Muslims are against the consumption of intoxicants, believing it turns people away from God and prayer. Given these deeply held beliefs, is it ethical to throw a party to raise money when the recipients of this money may not appreciate this means of fundraising and see alcohol as a force that clouds judgment and taints lives? Do the ends justify the means in fundraising even when humanitarian urgency and cultural sensitivity are put against each other?

This September, at the first senior pub crawl of the year, seniors threw approximately $100 worth of singles and spare change into a collection bin for Pakistani flood victims. In the same breath, they bought shots and pitchers of beer and inched closer and closer to blacking out. The collection was organized by NU Stands with Pakistan, a student-run campaign that leveraged the NU community to support the 20 million Pakistanis affected by the floods. The campaign’s final tally was $17,072, raised with lightning speed in just three weeks.

Though NU Stands with Pakistan did not host a drinking fundraiser, they did accept proceeds from a house party that another student group organized, campaign coordinator Salil Mehta says.

“We asked, what do you guys do best?” he says. “And [the student group] did it. I’m not going to say no to that.”

An industrial engineering major, Mehta has a hyper-efficiency mindset when it comes to fundraising.

“At the end of the day, it’s what makes money,” he says.

Medill senior Noreen Nasir views alcohol fundraising as a necessary evil.

“There’s some things you have to do to get people involved,” Nasir, another coordinator of NU Stands with Pakistan, says. A Pakistani-American, Nasir was in Lahore, Pakistan interning at an English news station when the disaster hit. She watched as the floods went from a simple news story of “flash flooding in some province” to a national emergency that destroyed much of Pakistan’s infrastructure and suddenly demanded global attention. When Nasir got back to campus in September, she threw herself into fundraising for flood victims.

Though Nasir doesn’t drink on the grounds of her Muslim faith, she says throwing a booze fundraiser is sometimes the only way for a college campaign to expand its reach beyond its usual circle supporters to the majority of the student body.

“You can host as many educational events [as you want], but sometimes the only way to reach people is to do this,” she says. “People don’t always donate out of the goodness of their hearts; they’ll expect something in return.”

Saturday night giving

Professor Richard Kraut, who specializes in moral philosophy, notes that morality is extremely culture-specific. In most Western cultures, alcohol does not have “the sting” it carries in other parts of the world, he says, which complicates the practice of transnational fundraising. The idea of an alcohol fundraiser is distinctly Utilitarian, Kraut says, referring to a school of philosophy in which a person’s basis for decisions hinges on whatever produces a net positive result, with less of the traditional emphasis on moral rules or limits.

“There’s always a tension in ethical theory between these views,” he says. But he notes that in fundraising, there can be a danger to following the “ends justify the means” logic. “This phrase can slide from innocent meaning to pernicious,” he says.

Mehta, too, acknowledges that there’s a dark side to getting students drunk for a cause without instilling an awareness of the issue at hand, so that the next generation will understand the deeper context behind a breaking news story of an earthquake, tsunami or flood.

“I don’t want someone to just give a buck,” he says. “I want them to be engaged.”

But in the end, Mehta argues that to engage college students, you need to engage them at their level. And that level just happens to be Saturday-night alcohol consumption.

“We don’t live in Pakistan,” he says. “We live in a different country. Over here, the norms are different. We have to engage people according to the norms of their society at the end of the day. When the need is so dire, why not raise money do
ing what people are already doing?”

Maybe the idea of a simultaneously culturally sensitive and lucrative fundraiser resides only in Utopia. Outside of a college context, people get drunk for causes across the board. The $100-a-plate benefit dinner with an open bar is a mainstay of political fundraising, racking in millions of dollars a year for campaigns.

Last June, a community center in California held a beer fest, “a super festive microbrew and food tasting extravaganza,” for local AIDS research. Later in the year, following President Obama’s announcement that the military was deploying 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, a California winery nudged consumers to buy its wine by promising to donate 50 percent of the profit to troops and their families. Drinking for peace is a dramatic departure from the mass sacrifice asked of civilians during World War II and Vietnam.

Kraut believes that you often have to work within light-hearted channels to get first-world citizens engaged in third-world issues.

“You can’t expect people to never have fun,” he says. “People can’t be constantly grieving for the people in different parts of the world.”

And is money raised for alcohol consumption necessarily tainted, relative to other forms of revenue?

“More and more, I find myself thinking that there is no clean money,” Luckow says. “If you dig hard enough, and trace individuals’ wealth and corporations’ wealth, you’re going to find family history of owning slaves. You’ll find corporations who pay off illegal immigrants or hire sub-paid contractors. Who’s to say we shouldn’t take money for earthquake relief in Haiti fundraised through a drinking party in college, and go take money through a wealthy Evanston woman who’s inherited money generation to generation, [that originally came] from a plantation in North Carolina?”

For Luckow, the discomfort of seeing the disconnect between party and cause should serve as a lesson.

“How do we get so caught up on that moment [of discomfort] while we’re able to walk through campus and live our normal lives and buy our $3 lattes and not have any discomfort for the daily reality of Haiti, or Pakistan?” he asks. “If we were to really pour our hearts into these communities, we’d be living our lives in discomfort.”