Does Charity Leave You Cold?

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Last month I bought myself an espresso machine, when for the same price I could have instead cured someone’s leprosy.

I was in a position to do either, and the decision wasn’t that hard. Somebody will continue to live with a horrendous disease — however — now I can make my own lattes.

Why did I do that? Why don’t I feel that bad about it? What will stop me from continuing to choose small luxuries for myself when I could be making enormous changes to the quality of life of other people?

Honestly, I have always been a little uncomfortable about giving to charity. I wondered if I was alone here, so I did a bit of poking around on the web and found that a lot of people have a similar ambivalence about it. The most common reasons people cited for not giving much to charity (or feeling weird about what they do give) were:

“Who do I help” syndrome – Why cure one person of leprosy, when I could provide polio vaccines for dozens? Should I help the homeless in my own city before I help the homeless in Pakistan? Who is suffering more? Does it matter? Should I give to the most popular causes (think Katrina, 9/11, Haiti) or avoid them in favor of neglected ones?

“Where do I draw the line” syndrome — Even if I had chosen someone’s leprosy treatment over my private cappuccino party, how could I justify only curing one person, when I make enough in a year to cure over a hundred? I could make some lifestyle changes, and maybe swing ten with some planning and sacrifice. But even then I’m still neglecting people whom I could save if I was willing to eat bulk spaghetti twice a day. There are some established guidelines for giving to charity. The traditional tithe is 10% — though that’s to be given to your church, and historically it hasn’t always been a voluntary contribution. The 10% mark is a real stretch for most people; the typical American household contributes 2.1% of its annual income to charitable causes. But each person’s “line” is ultimately arbitrary.

“Into the void” syndrome – Most of the time, when we donate to charity, we have no way of seeing how our contribution helps. It just disappears into the coffers of a charitable organization, and there’s something unsatisfying about that. I know I shouldn’t need the personal gratification of actually seeing somebody’s life change because of me — that’s not really the “proper” spirit of giving — but maybe I’m kind of vain and that’s what I want.

Distrust of charitable organizations — Some are frauds. Some eat of a lot of donations in administration costs. Some even pay people to collect donations. Some are partial to religious institutions we may not be on board with. (Note: If distrust is your biggest reservation about giving, there is a helpful tool here to learn more about different charities.)

Uncertainty about the helpfulness of handouts — Anyone who’s ever given change to a panhandler has probably wondered whether the donation really was helpful. It’s easy to imagine that in many (most?) cases, a handout just pushes desperation another day forward in time, without solving the problem. There is a currently a movement to cease aid to Africa, under the argument that it perpetuates dependence on handouts and undermines the development of struggling economies. Should you “give a man a fish” when what he really needs is to learn to fish?

Proximity probably has more to do with it than anything. If the leper I could have helped were in my living room rather than a remote village in Sri Lanka, the choice would have been easy. As I said in a recent article, we can’t really know suffering from a distance. We can imagine it, even suffer over the idea of it, but it remains abstract unless it is in our presence. For what it’s worth, my latte is not abstract.

This isn’t necessarily a reason not to give to charity. It’s hard to deny that an hour’s pay for me is enough to drastically improve someone’s quality of life, somewhere, in the form of eyeglasses, medication, food, clothing, or hope.

Yet I continue to feel an ambivalence about charity. For whatever reason or combination of reasons, I am seldom compelled to donate money. Often I feel like I’m only doing it out of guilt or some sort of weird vanity. To use a contemporary term… I’m just not feeling it.

A Wicked Dollar

I always had trouble articulating this ambivalence, but a passage from Emerson took on new meaning when I reread it last week:

There is a class of persons to whom by all spiritual affinity I am bought and sold; for them I will go to prison, if need be; but your miscellaneous popular charities; the education at college of fools; the building of meeting-houses to the vain end to which many now stand; alms to sots; and the thousandfold Relief Societies; — though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb and give the dollar, it is a wicked dollar which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold.

~From “Self-Reliance”

This hit home. The meaning of these remarks is clearer in their full context (available here) but they do hint at the alienation some of us feel toward traditional forms of charity. For a long time, whenever I felt an inclination to give to charity, it seemed to come from some sort of negative or contrived emotion — guilt, sympathy, pity, self-importance, or at best, a vague sense of “should.”

On the other hand, there are times when my heart genuinely overflows for people who need help. In those moments, what I should do is clear and there are no reservations. These instances are usually when we are in each others’ physical presence, but not always. With charity there is normally a distance, either physical or emotional, that seems to inhibit love. Putting a cheque in an envelope is not usually something that feels loving to me.

Whenever I’ve mailed a cheque  in the past, I’ve felt some of the same feelings I get while voting — I feel a little bit of self-congratulation, smugness even. Faint reservations arise in my mind about the usefulness of it, the real reasons behind it — my ulterior motives of personal gratification, conformity, idealism and self-importance, and those of the people asking me to do it.

By sending money I knew intellectually that I was helping people, but it felt distant and inadequate. If my chosen cause was truly worth my love, would I not be be out there donating my time and my presence, rather than only a negligible proportion of my money? I know that my donation facilitates the co-ordination of volunteers and other hands-on contributors. Am I paying others to give their love in the absence of mine?

The arbitrariness of donating to Siloam Mission and not Winnipeg Harvest always got to me too. I felt like I was putting a small, temporary dent in a random corner of some huge, complex problem, wondering if it would have a lasting effect on anyone.

Help, With a Whole Heart

The “class of persons” Emerson refers to is not a socioeconomic class. It is whatever collection of fellow individuals — both friends and strangers — whom, for him, generate no feelings of ambivalence or callousness or pity or alienation. They are people he is able to help with his whole heart, without having to ration his help.

He doesn’t specify who they are or why they have that effect on him, but makes the point that the rest of us — the scrutinous eye of society — do not need to know his motivations, so long as he is honest with himself about who really does capture his heart, because genuine charity doesn’t care about appearances or quotas.

I am convinced that for each of us there are people and causes that will compel us to help with an undivided heart, without regard for appearances, without misgivings about effectiveness or appropriateness, without thoughts about percentages or obligations. But we don’t always know who they are, and so we take our cues from convention, tradition, and television, and it doesn’t feel quite right.

“I know that for myself it makes no difference whether I do or forbear those actions which are reckoned excellent. I cannot consent to pay for a privilege where I have intrinsic right.”

Almost anyone would agree it is better to give than not give, even if they can’t reconcile all of their reservations about it, or know quite how they are helping. But I think it’s important to look at these feelings rather than continue to roll with the status quo, and to look for a place or a means to contribute where we don’t have these misgivings.

In the mean time, how do you feel about charity? Who do you give to? Why them and not someone else? Do you feel any reservations about it?

R

Photo by Wit



wendyrjr December 16, 2010 at 3:03 am

Yes I give to charity, and I have chosen 2 charities that help people who have often got themselves into situations of despair through no fault of their own. I have chosen Prisoners Abroad, who help Britons who are held in jail abroad under conditions that cannot be imagined. As well as financially I also join in with their Christmas task of sending cards to prisoners, and the contact is greatly appreciated. The other organisation is the Salvation Army, and again I do this because I consider that their actions help people through very difficult times in their lives, often when they have no-one else to call on for help or support. I have no reservations about either charity, and will assist asmuch as possible with practical help as well as a regular financial donation. It is the regularity of the donation that helps these charities, and I do re-consider my choices each financial year.

No'Akei December 16, 2010 at 3:05 am

I made a different choice: I am part of a children and teenagers theatre troupe that has every year a different project to contribute to – be it a milk cup for children in Salvador, or help in buying a fit-for-children ambulance for the city hospital. It gives charity to three kinds of people: the children and teenagers who learn to trust themselves while being on the stage, the people who come see the show, and the people to which the money goes to. And I know I made the right choice, because I see happiness in the eyes of my little friends, in the laugh of the spectators, and in the photos and videos brought by the missionaries.

I put the link of our troupe as the website, in case someone wants to see what we do, we are Italian so it’s in our language, but Google Translate should do the trick.

…and sorry for my bad English!

Gerrit December 16, 2010 at 3:54 am

Another great post, David. One day you may very well turn out as the greatest philosopher of our century …

I have similar feelings. I donate some money to charity. A project for HIV-infected children in Thailand, a home for homeless children in Cambodia, MSF, and amnesty international. I could donate more. I could do charity work myself. As a profession, or at least during my free time.

My “excuse” for not donating more or doing more is that I think everyone needs to find their own place in this world and find their individual way to contribute to society. Contributing is essential in my opinion, but this can be done through various ways. It’s in the little things you do every day, for instance how you deal with the people around you.

Eric | Eden Journal December 16, 2010 at 6:29 am

I guess I’ll be the first commenter to cough it up. I rarely donate to charity. Something has just never felt right to me about donating to most of the charities I have come in contact with. I’ll throw some change in the salvation army bell ringers bucket, and I’ll sometimes help with a food drive, but really that’s about it.

I can’t exactly pinpoint the reason I don’t give. I guess it just doesn’t feel complete. I don’t feel compelled to do so.

I have created excuses, for example: Most big charities spend entirely too much on administration costs. But then I found a website that lists those with lower admin costs, and I still haven’t done anything.

Then there are the times when I’ve donated to children’s gift programs to help kids have a better Christmas. For some of those I helped deliver the gifts only to find out that the space under the tree was already jam packed with gifts. This seemed like a farce, giving to needy children that weren’t really needy at all.

So what’s the answer here? I’m not real sure. Maybe I’m selfish. Maybe I have little care for those I don’t know personally. Maybe my place and my path just don’t include helping others through charity. Maybe my path is to help others in a different way, through my blog, through friendships, and through positive interactions with others. Sometimes I think we’d be alot better off if everyone would just try to be nice to each other instead of writing a check to charity.

David December 16, 2010 at 4:14 pm

I appreciate your honesty Eric. That’s kind of how I’ve felt about it. I seem to be selfish, at least when it comes to people I can’t see. I do think I can help people better in other ways too. I agree with your last sentence. I think there is a lot we can give in face-to-face interactions if we make a point of it. Not that I’m against charity, or that I won’t give money again, but I have to stop and look at what my reasons really are for what I do and don’t do with regard to charity.

Lydia December 16, 2010 at 6:54 am

I recently blogged about this: http://www.on-the-other-hand.com/the-problem-with-food-drives/

I grew up in a family that made very little money for years. I know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of charity. Most of the people who gave were incredible but there were some who made my parents feel like they had failed their kids by accepting help.

I do donate to charity now as an adult but some of the marketing (for lack of a better word) campaigns send out some fairly strange messages about people who need help. It has kept me from donating to them. I talk about this in depth in my blog post but it is something I think about quite a bit when deciding to when or whether to give.

David December 16, 2010 at 4:16 pm

Hi Lydia. That’s another good point: charity tends to make people identify with certain roles, either as the “have” or the “have not.” Who knows what kinds of effects it has on how a person sees themselves. I think this is part of what Emerson was getting at with his “wicked dollar.”

Jay Schryer December 16, 2010 at 7:14 am

I have been involved with this issue from many different perspectives. I have worked in several different charities, and I even helped start one in Chicago. I have also been the recipient of help from many charities at low points in my life. Now, I am in basically the same position that you are in: I am in a position to donate money to charities.

I donate all the time, but only in very small amounts. I go to a fast food restaurant, and I put my change into whatever charity basket they have there. I go to the grocery store, and I put my change in the Salvation Army bucket. I see a Toys for Tots donation box, and I go buy a couple of small toys to put in it. I see a homeless person, and I buy them some food and give it to them, just enough for one meal.

I could do more…I could do a LOT more. But for me, the question is always: Where do I draw the line? Do I give until it hurts, or do I give so little that I don’t even miss it? Usually, I go for something in the middle. I give enough to know that it’s missing, but not so much that it causes any financial hardship.

I’m also a big believer of paying those who provide value. If I see a street musician, I’ll stop and listen for a while, and then I will happily pay him for the entertainment. If I see someone selling something as opposed to just asking for a handout, then I’m more likely to give them money because they are providing value.

Finally, I think we should take care of our own “tribes”. Our friends and family sometimes fall on hard times, and I think we should help lift them up whenever we can. To me, it’s better to help your brother make his house payment than to feed the hungry children in Ethiopia. I know that not everyone agrees with this sentiment, but I feel like if we all take care of our own peeps, then everyone gets cared for in the manner that they most need.

Tracie December 16, 2010 at 8:37 am

As a rule, I’ve only given to charity in the ways that someone does at an office. Food drives, relay walks for this or that cause, that sort of thing. I can think of a lot of reasons why, and some of them are pretty good, but the biggest one is that I hated feeling the “should” and the guilt. Rather than start down what felt like a fairly ugly road, I avoided it entirely.

This year, I was Christmas shopping, and passed by a table with a few men beside and behind it, and something made me stop. All of the men were in military uniform, standing tall. One came over to me and told me about their cause, which is to donate presents to disabled veterans.

There was no question in my mind that I would be giving to these people. I wasn’t sure why. I don’t think disabled vets are any more or less deserving than other people. There were no personal pleas or stories to tug on the heart. The man I talked to stated his cause plainly, and thanked me with that same plainness.

Thinking about it now, that may have had a lot to do with how easy it was for me to give. The “should” wasn’t being shoved at me. The goal was really reachable, and those odd squicky feelings I sometimes get about “Help Someone Survive” aren’t there at all when it comes to “Help Brighten Someone’s Morning”.

I didn’t feel any sense of smug righteousness, or even any great surge of satisfaction or self worth from it. I haven’t told anyone I know about it, and likely won’t. It felt right, in that moment, and so it happened. Having had that experience, I think I’m going to use that as my general measure of when I give.

Dusty December 16, 2010 at 8:44 am

If I gave money to charity, it would be my state’s ferret welfare society.

It’s not feeding starving children in Africa. It’s not teaching the illiterate how to read. It’s not making amazing differences in the lives of people who really need it.

But – sometimes it does. I love ferrets, I adore them. I genuinely, genuinely ache for the ferrets who need homes and vet care and I’ve seen first hand how such a wonderful animal can change someone’s life. After the ten millionth time of hearing the “children are starving in Africa” thing, you stop caring.

Other people can go ahead and donate to their “more important” causes. Meanwhile, I’ll be here with my three beloved rescues and the four other ferrets we rose from kits.

max December 16, 2010 at 10:41 am

Nobody in the USA should be hungry. My charity of choice is the local food bank. I helped start a local Empty Bowl Project. Every penny goes to the charity. Start one in your community.
http://www.emptybowls.net/
“From its humble beginnings as a meal for the staff of one high school, Empty Bowls has spread across the United States and beyond and has raised tens of millions of dollars for anti-hunger organizations.”

Trish Scott December 16, 2010 at 11:23 am

Wow, David! I love that you wrote this. A brave blog for sure! Personally I have never had much of a disposable income. That allows me the relative luxury of not having to grapple with this question much. If something REALLY hits my heart I do give what I can and I have never felt ambivalent about my gifts. But I have imagined winning the lottery and that throws me into exactly the kind of conundrum you speak of here. What WOULD I do with millions of dollars that I don’t actually need. In my imagining there is never enough to make much of a dent in the difficulties that we are presented with. I honestly, naively or not, think sending loving energy is at least as effective as sending millions of dollars. If I did win the lottery and had those millions to give, I think I would start with volunteering everywhere I felt drawn so I could find the best use from the ground.

Ultrabuzz December 16, 2010 at 1:40 pm

Maybe the vague sense of frustration I feel when I usually donate(to UNICEF and the Red Cross for the last few years) is justifed. It does feel like I’m just throwing money to prolong a situation rather than help fix it.

Maybe I should look further into the causes I am donating to, find the source of the problem and donate to an organization I feel is helping fix the problem?

So uh I don’t know how to articulate on it further, but I’m thinking I should switch my donations to Wikileaks and EFF. I think a free flow of information would help the developing world in the long run. Teach a man to fish, sort of thing.

Colleen December 16, 2010 at 2:39 pm

You have written here exactly what has been on my mind for a long time. The two points that gel the most with me are…
1) Distrust of charitable organizations and 2) Uncertainty about the helpfulness of handouts.
People tell me all the time that I should not spoil my own children and give them things – help with their bills or lend them money for this or that – when I can easily afford to do so. That would not be teaching them to stand on their own two fee so to speak. It tears my heart out at time because I know this is true. If I keep stepping in to save the day they will become reliant on that. I fail to see if it is different in the wider world. I was giving money to the same charities working in the same countries when I was a child in the 70’s and these people are still needing our handouts. Clearly it isn’t working. It is sad to think this but the evidence shows the the situation is actually getting worse in some area.
I would rather give my time to people around me. Physical help or words of encouragement. I know there is a lot of self gratification in this type of act but that is fine with me. Like Tracie I would rather give a cash donation to someone with there hand out than put a check in an envelope.

Char (Tutor:Mentor) December 16, 2010 at 5:29 pm

I have a second biz, Reuse Recycle, Cairns~ we give a third of profits to selected local charities and run art workshops to process some of the waste materials.

Have emailed a Cambodian Orphanage coordinated by a young Australian, to provide free tutoring to the older youth who are transitioning into independent life.

In the city, when I see one of the homeless shoplifting I offer to pay for the food, or sometimes when they are wondering the store I pay extra and ask the attendant to ask what they would like.

My lifestyle is minimalist~ though, like you, I do indulge at times~ it is important to look after oneself but one need not go OTT~ I don’t have to have every material desire fulfilled, and nowadays they are so simplified. New tattoo (yesterday), week overseas (next month), usbs to back up pc, extendable pruner to harvest coconuts for myself and share with others…

Henway December 16, 2010 at 9:08 pm

Part of the reason why I dun contribute to charity is selfish. I actually need to see the person benefiting from my money.. whether it be some award, or a smile. That’s why I get more gratification from giving actual gifts to friends and family. I can’t wait to see how they will react.

Nea | Self Improvement Saga December 17, 2010 at 12:50 am

You really touched on an amazing subject with this post. So many of us give up on giving because of the commercialization of charitable organizations. A big chunk of the money often goes into “administrative costs,” which leaves people wondering exactly how much they’ve really helped.

I give to one charity on a regular basis and that is St. Jude. I choose that charity because they have a local hospital in my city and I know that any child with cancer can go there for the treatment without paying a dime. However, the majority of my focus on giving to others is not done by mailing in a check.

I just wrote an article that describes 50 ways anyone can make a difference in the world. Most of them don’t require spending money and they don’t leave you feeling cold. They do, on the other hand, require a true desire to help. Check it out if you get a chance.

Partha December 17, 2010 at 2:36 am

All of those ruminations would certainly be typical of most so-called philanthropists and donors, but given your philosophical and meditative experiences that you’ve talked of, David, I would have expected you at least to not fall into that common fallacy.

There can be one and just one truly valid reason for giving. And that is, what you’re giving isn’t yours at all in the first place. You’re just the custodian of that money, to use to some extent for yourself (without in any way going overboard), and using the rest to give to those who need it.

And one needn’t make too much of a song and dance about it, either. Giving is as natural as eating or breathing.

This is no hifalutin flight of philosophy, either: I’m sure anyone with the slightest bit of sensitivity will, when properly guided, see it for themselves. Enlightenment is a big world, and I don’t know with what spirit the enlightened give: but even humble plodders on the path can easily feel this in their hearts, that by giving they aren’t doing a favour to the needy, but that, on the contrary, it is the receiver who is doing YOU a favour by giving you a chance to give.

Just give. By all means ensure what you give goes to the truly needy, and go do a Bill Gates if you’re of that bent (that is, exactly monitor whom you’re giving to, and how — but then, after all, Bill Gates gives, what, 20 billion [or whatever] to your 20 hundred), but don’t go overboard with the analysis and detailed flow charts on the motivations of giving: who, after all, are you (or I) to decide what is a truly worthy reason for giving, or who is truly deserving?

If my money, given in charity to that seedy looking person in patched clothes, does find its way to a quick drink instead of food for the man’s five-year-old child (as he claimed it would), well, while I wouldn’t go out my way to seek out specifically such people to give to, I needn’t feel distressed either: who the eff am I to decide that that man does not deserve what I’ve given to him? My small act of charity needn’t fill me up so much that I start passing judgement on him or on his need!

Just give. Give out of a feeling of true humility. Thank the person you’re giving to, from the bottom of your heart, for giving you a chance to give. Don’t think you’re doing the receiver a favour: realise that it’s the other way round.

The rest will fall in place without too much hair-splitting.

David December 17, 2010 at 5:29 pm

Here’s where I’m coming from:

I have feelings of ambivalence when I give to charity, and I know others do too. I want to look at them and see where they’re coming from. Society takes for granted that giving is always right, always good, always helpful.

You’re saying just give and don’t think about it. Do what everyone else does. You’re telling me to take for granted the reasons why I give to charity, and what effect it has, as if that’s all unknowable anyway. I don’t want to take those things for granted. I think it does matter why we do things, I think the status quo is worth questioning. I don’t want my giving to stem from condescension, or pop culture, or how it makes me look. Intentions matter to me. Consequences matter. As a decision-making human being I’m a custodian of much more than money.

Partha December 18, 2010 at 5:58 am

Actually that isn’t what I meant at all.

It isn’t a question of being “good”, or doing what others do, or following what society considers good. It’s a question of realising those things I mentioned up there.

Okay, let me put it another way. What giving really does is reduces your sense of ego. (On the other hand, it is a somewhat reduced sense of ego that makes you give in the first place, or at least, makes you give with honest intention. So it’s a bit of a virtuous cycle.) But, to repeat, what giving really does is reduce your sense of ego.

But if you find that by giving your sense of ego is actually increasing (as the kind of giving you’re talking of, which is also the kind that is widely prevalent at this time, often does), then that defeats the very purpose, doesn’t it?

Is Bill Gates doing the right thing by giving away his fortune and by devoting most of his life as well to ensuring it gets done right? The general answer would be, absolutely. However, the ‘higher’ answer would be, that depends. Is his ego thus getting whittled? If it is, then yes it’s good. If there’s no change, if it’s just another set of business transactions for him, then no it isn’t (or perhaps marginally yes, because the money IS doing some good after all). And if this means his ego’s getting nicely gassed up, then he’d be better off not doing this at all!

And this applies to all kinds of giving, giving of money, giving of love, giving of voluntary labour, giving of effort, everything.

By the way, D., I didn’t mean to criticize. That hadn’t been my intention at all. (I’m a firm believer of the point-a-finger-and-three-point-back principle, and God knows I have more than my own share of weaknesses.) It’s like this: With most people, I suppose it’s enough that they give at all, no matter if they give their loose change only to their I-like-these-folk list of groups and people, and feel good and warm about themselves. It’s just that the depth of thinking and experience that your articles generally radiate, and your experience in mediation, had led me to expect that this next level of giving would be something that would come naturally to you; or at least, it’ll jump out at you with the slightest nudge. (I do realise now that walking into a fellow’s house and giving him ‘Gyan’ as we call it — or unsoliticited words of wisdom — is rather rude. On the other hand, you did ask! :-) )

You know that story I’m sure. About when Bodhidharma has his audition with the king of China. And yet, wouldn’t B. give if he had something to give?

It’s easy to talk. Do I myself always live up to these lofty ideals? Absolutely not! But when I’m setting ideals, I might as well set it high, and right! :-)
But provided of course that it doesn’t sound upractical, doesn’t appear not-doable-at-all. And this one, to my mind, doesn’t.

Anonymous December 28, 2010 at 12:25 pm

I find this comment very interesting and for the most part I do agree. Remember David, he is not trying to put you down, because it seems to me that you’re replying quite aggressively ;)

Kyle Forrester December 17, 2010 at 7:12 am

You say that charity leaves you cold.

I know what leaves me, by contrast, warm, but I won’t pretend that I know you or your background well enough to posit that what leaves me warm will do the same for you. This is from my own limited perspective and short personal experience. For me, satisfaction comes from within; looking for happiness in something external like charity is futile. Charity is an extension of certain personal convictions:

1. Gratitude: to be happy is to rejoice in one’s portion
(“When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.” –Lao Tzu)
…and this satisfaction with what one has been given in life is made manifest by
A) not wanting or buying more
B) after making downward comparisons to those less fortunate, in order to appreciate the relevant good-fortune of one’s life, actually doing something about it:

2. Attempting to relieve the pain: this involves empathy and compassion, two personal convictions that are the root of satisfaction with life in society (there are other people around us, and we won’t get along unless we forgive them, feel their troubles and want to assuage them).

3. Optimism for Change:
Focus on the best potential outcome is crucial for an attitude that will facilitate happiness, because we won’t be happy if we don’t think it’s possible. That same optimism must extend to other human beings and the good nature that we want to believe they possess. Donation to charity is a demonstration of our belief that people are good if you give them a chance, by giving them a chance with (time, money, attention). It also shows that we believe that change is possible even though we are but individuals with little effect on the system, but that with our initiative our aggregate efforts will take us closer to the better world we want to live in. Think about Gandhi!

”How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment to improve the world. “ – Anne Frank

To “who do I help” and “where do I draw the line”:
This is more difficult to answer without a better grasp of ethical theory, but what it sounds like is a bright-line standard argument: looking for a logical boundary by which moral decisions can be made. No logical boundary exists as to which human beings deserve help most because we’re all essentially equal; we came to this world of someone else’s volition and with nothing, and as such we must sustain equal moral interest. That being said, we are doomed to run into that dilemma even if we only keep enough of what we earn to keep us alive, because there will always be starving people. Therefore it is just as logically valid to give a reasonable portion (10%) away as it is to keep it all like a miser.

There’s also no way to determine who NEEDS help the most, because the urgency of our needs are based largely on our perceptions and there’s no way to assess the situation objectively based on data. However it is possible to determine what YOU need (that’s all we really can do) and that you need less than your neighbor, which is enough to justify giving it to him.

In terms of how much one is obligated to give, I believe Kant said something about “imperfect duty” that a better debater could probably wield to illuminate what we are obligated to do, but as to how much one is able to give it is largely up to our own perceptions, again. How high-maintenance are you? Are you someone who can get along without much (vacation time, therapy, expensive subscriptions and tastes in food, fashion, etc.) Only YOU can answer this, because nobody knows you better than YOU do. Can you afford to forgo the espresso machine without impact to your ability to enjoy life, and donate it to people who don’t know where their next meal is coming from?

A thought: “A bone to the dog is not charity. Charity is the bone shared with the dog, when you are just as hungry as the dog.”
Jack London
With the conviction that we will never be happy alone, only when we can share it with others, it is easy to see past the illusion of our separate existences to the interconnected reality that we share. Charity, giving not just of what we don’t need but even a little bit more, is simply a manifestation of that principle.

G December 20, 2010 at 11:06 am

This guy took the logic of charity to its conclusion:

http://www.givingwhatwecan.org/

There’s a fallacy somewhere in this line of thinking. Logically, a faraway or unknown person may benefit more from $5 than you, your skint friend or the person rattling a jar for cancer research. So it makes a kind of dry, utilitarian sense to seek out and give to the cause with the maixmal benefit per $.

Does this logic apply to a dog? Should a fat dog seek out the hungriest dog in town to offer half its food to? We have no such expectations of a dog because we acknowledge that a dog behaves like a dog. A human behaves like a human. It is not an entirely rational creature. Trying to force it to be entirely rational is like trying to make nature grow in an orderly grid pattern when it naturally wants to be fractal. Generosity naturally flows along the vectors of relationship; logic is an important but secondary consideration. Organised charity thrives in an atomised society as the fraught affirmation of a half-impotent kindness. Our ancient ancestors worshipped animals and now we stare at them in zoos – this is a similar degrading effect of civilisation on our natural awe and virtue. No amount of organisation, propaganda or logical argument can restore true generosity to people any more than it can restore our awe of nature.

Relationships can be a part of organised charity. The best charity however is neither organised nor sporadic: it is the charitable society, or as a Christian might put it, The Kingdom of God. A society of selfless people who all look after their neighbours so that there is no far-off needy person who can be cured by a tenner.

But then, everyone still must ‘take up his cross’ and eventually die, no matter how nurturing society becomes. And any utopia could collapse. So the spirit comes first and is the only thing left when all the cherished conditions fall away. Sort of like Partha was saying about setting the highest ideals while acknowledging one’s weaknesses, we should aim towards social justice while acknowledging that it can never be perfect, easy or eternal.

Joe December 24, 2010 at 4:32 am

Charity? Bah humbug? Which is right? Hard to tell at nearly all times.

Give to feel good? Doesn’t seem quite balanced.

Money is not yours even when you earn it, so pass it along? Hmmm!

Where do these grand human beings live? On another planet, or has the mush in their heads not congealed into real brain cells.

The best possible “charity” we can offer to the world at large is the forging of the best possible individual human being we can make of ourself. All the rest of this hubris falls away. No excuses necessary.

David December 24, 2010 at 9:34 am

The best possible “charity” we can offer to the world at large is the forging of the best possible individual human being we can make of ourself. All the rest of this hubris falls away. No excuses necessary.

Couldn’t agree more Joe.

Serenity April 10, 2011 at 9:45 am

Oh Joe, so perfectly said.

seela December 24, 2010 at 12:50 pm

i think you are well fit. Love all your posts that i have read so far.
This charity bit is me..i do not like giving to out there in space somewhere, but i like to give my time and practical gifts to who i feel needs at the precise moment.
Charity begins at home.

my mum gives to charities out there somewhere, i did try to explain..but seeing she is so happy doing it, well, to have a haappy mum is charity itself.

denise December 25, 2010 at 5:07 pm

Just had to add this:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mcdtVD8X1-A&feature=fvw
I’ve recently found your blog and am very happy I did.

Lucy December 26, 2010 at 1:58 pm

What a well written post. I recently wrote some posts about charities (animal) on my blog, but it wasn’t as nicely done as this one.
I do give to a charity that I like and help out, and I’m comfortable about giving to this charity. However, I don’t think someone is a bad person for not giving to charity. It’s a personal choice.

Samantha Dermot January 12, 2011 at 3:20 pm

When I started my work, I was able to help a charity for cancer patients. Though my earnings then is just that small, I didn’t have any second thought of helping others. Maybe one of my main concerns before is if I can really trust the management of this charity. Nothing more than that…

Helen January 27, 2011 at 5:16 pm

This is really interesting to me; reading the blog and the comments has helped me understand why charity fundraising works. The kind of fundraising I mean is something I did for nine months, sometimes door to door, sometimes on the streets or in shopping centres, and yes I was paid for it, which you seem to disapprove of. Particularly when working on street teams, I gave up 54 hours a week on average to the job; our teams were put up in accommodation week by week and could be anywhere in the UK. It’s a very intense lifestyle and there’s no way you could do it without pay – and if you didn’t do it in this intense fashion you wouldn’t have the professional attitude and experience to get the results the charities need. Also, charities always have a fundraising budget, part of their admin budget, and face to face fundraising is a more cost effective method of fundraising than media campaigns.
So, that clarified: street team and D2D fundraisers, ime, are trying to get you to sign up to donate by direct debit ie on a montly basis, to give usually £8+ a month for a minimum period of a year, two years if it’s a good quality company they work for (the longer you support, the more the charity benefits, and because they have something coming in regularly, they can plan around that, as opposed to getting lots of one-offs in summer, not so many before Christmas/holiday season). Fundraisers are chosen for their vibrancy, their approachable nature, their sincerity; it is partly their personality (I sometimes think of it as my power, maybe a chi-like concept) which persuades people to donate, as in, this person is wonderful and seems so committed to the cause, it must be worth supporting. The people who sign up for this reason are usually in a strong financial position and have often been thinking about donating to a charity, but haven’t found one which takes their fancy (or maybe they don’t trust the admin costs etc) yet. A face to face fundraiser will always explain enough about the charity for their potential donor to grasp the basic concept; ideally they will expand on subjects which particularly interest their potential donor, and they should answer clearly any questions about admin costs, or indeed how fundraising costs work*. The nice thing, from my pov, about face to face, is that you don’t have to bring out a sob story. Fundraising can be an incredibly uplifting, positive experience, because you don’t want your donors to leave feeling miserable. They are more likely to continue donating if they are happy, and excited about the good they are now doing in the world.
*Not every f2f fundraiser is ideal. Fundraisers are also human, and have as much learning to do as anyone.

Back to my original point. Charities work because people support them. People support charities for a lot of reasons, and yes, sometimes it is to alleviate their general sense of guilt that the world isn’t a better place… but then some, like me, realise that they do not have the strength and understanding and resources to go out and help people in Haiti or Pakistan directly, that they are not cut out to teach children in Zimbabwe, that they are too busy with their own lives and too emotionally self-involved to volunteer for the Samaritans helpline. But giving the equivalent of £2 a week? It makes little enough to be no difference to my finances, even now when I don’t work. It makes a big difference to the charity I support.

Thankyou for helping me clarify my feelings on this. It is difficult to be a face to face fundraiser and be told outright by members of the public that I’m Doing It Wrong for whatever badly-thought-out reason they provide. It is good to get it straight in my own head.
x

David January 28, 2011 at 5:58 pm

Hi Helen. Thanks for the inside look into f2f fundraising. I don’t think I condemned fundraising in the post, that certainly wasn’t my intention.

It was meant to be an examination of ambivalent feelings that I (and evidently others too) have about charity. For instance, it seems to be a foregone conclusion in society that giving to charity is necessarily always good, and that it always comes from kindness. I don’t think the ethics of charity are so simple. I don’t doubt your determination or that you have helped people by fundraising, but I would bet that a proportion of the people who contributed did so because they were afraid to say no, or because they wanted you to go away. I think there is room to discuss this other side of charity: that we don’t always do it for good reasons, and that we don’t always know what we are donating to.

Don’t get me wrong, I think giving — parting voluntarily with something of value for the benefit of someone else — is usually good. It’s usually healthy and empowering. But I think often it is done out of fear or guilt, and we are usually ignorant of the consequences of our donation, because very few people ever suggest that it charity is anything but a 100% virtuous act. The point of the post was to look a little bit deeper at why we give, not to discourage people from giving.

Crank April 24, 2013 at 3:31 am

Charity is dead with out the help of other people or perhaps the help of the government and most charity need also a support of other people in other to help the needy and the homeless one.

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David December 28, 2010 at 3:54 pm

Aggressive? Reading my comment again I’m not sure why you’d think that. I was trying to be clear with my viewpoint, because to be honest I don’t understand what argument he’s trying to make.

Partha December 29, 2010 at 10:24 am

Hey, I hope I amn’t beating this to death …

What you’ve said is just fine. And that MFI you wrote about sounds good too. I absolutely have no “arguments” to make, I’m cool.

I’m piping up again here because you’re saying you don’t understand what I’m trying to say here. That rather surprised me. So, if you’ll let me, I’d like to briefly recount an old, old story. With that story, I’ll sign off and be on my humble way.

Right. So there was this monk, Bodhidharma, whom the king of China invited over to his land to teach the Dharma, the Way. Long, long ago. So this monk reaches China, and the king eagerly goes up to Bodhidharma and tells him:

Look, I’ve built so many monasteries and am now funding them, and my men are helping with the administration there, we’re enabling seven hundred and thirty two monks to lead a life of contemplation. I’ve also built seventy two hostels for pilgrims and travellers to rest in. I’ve built so fifty two hospitals (or whatever they had of that nature back then there) for the sick. I’ve also donated so much money to so many poor and needy people; and I’ve also given so much money at zero interest to so many small entrepreneurs and helped them stand on their own two feet.

I have done all of this, donated so much, in so many different ways: What do you think, Holy Man? How have I done? Have I earned “merit”?

Bodhidharma, who was a gruff sort of fellow, growled: “No merit at all!”

“What!” says the king. “I have spent so much time, so much money, so much energy. Instead of building fifteen more palaces and twenty more pleasure gardens, I have made do with a measly ten of each, and used the money for others’ good; I turned away twenty lovely and willing virgins and got them married off instead to worthy husbands, while I myself made do with my seven wives and seventeen concubines, and used this energy and time for others’ good; et cetera yadda blah, blah yadda et cetera. Hasn’t this brought me any closer to the Goal? Am I not a better person for it?”

The gruff monk scowls and growls back: “Absolutely not!”

At this point the king, for all his daily meditation practice, begins to lose his temper.

My story ends here.
The actual story goes on a bit more.
It’s a very well known story. In case you don’t know it, and are interested in finding out ‘how it all ended’, well, I’m sure a quick Google search will easily give you many links to the full story.
Of course, I’ve made up all the details in the story, including (and especially) the bit about lending to entrepreneurs! ;-)

That was my point. The bit of the story that I recounted just now.

If you’ve still not got it, forget it. I’m just a very small man talking of very big things, the half of which I myself don’t understand anywhere near fully.

What you’ve done for those entrepeneurs is terrific (I mean it with all my heart, I’m not being sarcastic or anything, not at all): I’m sure more people joining in will help many deserving people stand up on thier own two feet, and lead meaningful, difnified lives.

A very happy New Year to you and the readers of this blog!

Brad December 30, 2010 at 9:54 am

I think that if you were entirely clear on your own viewpoint, you could state it more directly and succinctly. In so many words, you seem to maintain that analyzing and scrutinizing a cause runs contrary to an expression of true generosity.

Why?

Can we not use our intelligence to help as well as our money? Giving to just anyone on a whim may feel good, but what is the use if it is not what they really need?

Maybe “John” asks for money to build a house, but he has a record of shoddy workmanship, leaving buildings that cost more to fix up or tear down than anyone wants to invest. Why not buy him some carpentry lessons instead? Knowing John’s history, would you not feel better about getting him training than helping him build a house that will collapse on someone?

Preaching the virtue of “just ” giving for the gesture of giving is to me, backwards. It might feel better when you don’t learn too much about the actual problem, but it is probably less effective. When you willfully neglect to use your powers of discernment and critical thinking in how you help, that is just irresponsible.

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