The subject of charity—whether it be charitable giving by normal people, by the very wealthy, by the obscenely wealthy, by religious institutions, or by business entities—is something I think about not infrequently. You can blame the timing of this essay on the winter holidays season, if you like, but it’s more or less coincidental. Charity is a topic that I have a somewhat ambivalent relationship with, which is something I want to explore by writing about it. I’ll also preface my thoughts on charity by saying that I am not at all ambivalent on the subject of volunteering (I’m 100% in favor of it).
Like any other topic charity is a complex and nuanced one, so how do I want to approach it? I could divide things up like I did above. I probably will, at that, but there’s another way I want to think about charity, and that’s more along the lines of where the money is going, as opposed to where it’s coming from.
I have a feeling that any idea I have about what this piece is going to look like as I start writing won’t be how it actually comes out. Best just to start!
Who’s doing the giving?
I laid out some broad answers to this question in my opening paragraph. The short answer is that there are people and institutions from every category of society that are in on the charity game. Some of us haven’t got much in the way of means and so we give what we can. Others of us can afford to do much more, and do, more or less. Others of us aren’t even an us but are a we, and we are an organization that has charity as a function of our corporate self. I don’t think “who” is really the question I want to explore.
Why are they giving?
“Why” is potentially a much more interesting question to explore, because motives are much more interesting than a dry examination of facts. So why are different individuals and entities engaging in charitable giving?
ME AND PEOPLE LIKE ME
It’s easiest for me to start with looking at my own motives. Why do I make charitable donations? For the sake of narrowing scopes I’m going to exclude any and all discussion of political giving from this. While it may be related in some ways it’s also not germane to the topic or charity. So what’s up with me? It starts with the organization or cause. I don’t have any kind of guilt that I’m seeking to assuage, I can’t afford to give enough that there is any tax benefit to me doing so, nor to I belong to an income or social group that views charitable giving as being integral to that life. So it’s not about that act of giving, but is, instead, about who I’m giving the money to. Do I believe in what they’re doing? Can my meager contribution help in their overall mission and goals? Do I feel like this cause is otherwise not going to get the attention it deserves?
This is also a worthwhile moment to note that the bulk of my charitable giving comes in the form of the monetary contribution—the “match”—that my employer makes when I volunteer. Lacking the ability to give as much as I would like to out of my own pocket I am fortunate to work for a company that is willing to allow me to direct a portion of its charitable giving. Bringing up volunteering and that match also lets me note that I will sometimes give to an organization or cause because I cannot volunteer for it, and vice versa may not donate to a cause if I can volunteer instead.
I suspect that my reasons and decision process will be very similar for most other folks in my and adjacent income brackets, so let’s move on.
SO HOW ABOUT THEM WEALTHY FOLK?
Yeah, let’s talk about the rich. Here there are two things going on, and I want to poke at both of them a little bit. Before I do, though, I will say that a wealthy person may give to charity for all the same reasons as a less wealthy person. They may be acting entirely out of goodness and generosity. Then again, wealth brings complications and ambiguity.
The first is noblesse oblige, and takes us all the way back to the time when there were nobles and peasants. The idea is that nobility carries with it not just privileges, but also obligations, notably obligations to be generous to those of lesser social status. A jaundiced view of the subject would even say that the whole thing is just a means to justifying the existence of nobility: “’tis meet that we rule, for are we not enjoined by God to sacrifice on behalf of those He has set so far beneath us?” (Do I seem cynical?) I believe that this idea has carried into the modern day, with nobility having been replaced by wealth and social status.
The second is material benefit. Whereas noblesse oblige can garner great social benefit, the sheer act of charity can also result in very real, material benefits, in the form of tax incentives. The reasoning runs something like, in order to coax the wealthy into supporting charity we’ll offer them a break on their taxes.
I’m sure it will surprise you to hear that I have some issues with both of the above reasons.
First there’s the issue of proportionality. I can afford to give $25 to charity a half a dozen times a year. I do this by looking at my bank account, thinking about what bills I have coming do, and figuring out if making the donation is going to impact my ability to meet my financial needs and obligations without kicking me into overdraft territory (and even then I’ve done so sometimes). When he wealthy give to charity how often are they engaging in the same calculus? I can’t know for sure, but I’ll wager it isn’t often. So the oblige element of their noblesse isn’t allowed to inconvenience them. In that I’d say they’re living up to the spirit of the tradition quite nicely.
Second there’s the issue of how society and government have been structured around meeting the needs of the wealthy. Does that seem like too much meat for an essay about charity? Bear with me. The United States is a country which is quite famous for having a tax structure which has grown more and more favorable to the wealthy due to the activities of one of our two, relevant, political parties. Tax breaks for the wealthy when they give a little bit of that wealth away is just one part of this. Let’s turn it around, just for fun. Why does [need for charity] exist? Because government can’t afford to meet [need]. Why can’t government afford to do so? Because the revenue isn’t there, and the will to increase the revenue is untenable. Why isn’t the revenue there? Because we don’t collect an amount of tax from the wealthy proportional to the degree of benefit they derive from society. Now, drilling down, I live in a state with a grossly regressive tax system. Specifically, Washington has zero, state income tax, and high sales taxes. Why don’t we have an income tax? Because we’ve got a lot of millionaires and billionaires who’ve been successful in preventing the amendment of our state constitution to make it happen. But it’s ok because they give to charity and set up foundations!
Having talked about people—normal and wealthy—that just leaves the motives of organizations. In some ways organizations are no more and no less complicated than the people who make them up, and all of the same reasons I looked at above will apply. What does come into play is how some of those motives get magnified. The benefit to an organization’s reputation is even bigger than it would be for a single person. A business can get even more favorable treatment on its taxes than a wealthy individual. Stuff like that.
How is the charity being accomplished?
For most people we give to charity by giving to a nonprofit organization that focuses on a cause or causes that we want to support. Why we do this makes complete sense. $25 from me mayn’t do much, but $25 collected from one hundred people and directed by a single entity can accomplish something. How efficiently any given nonprofit can do this, and the amount of integrity they go about the work with, can vary greatly. This is why it’s important to always vet the organizations you’re planning to give money to. Organizations will often do the same thing. Or they may set up their own, charitable arm. This is especially common with religious organizations.
Some businesses will offer to match the charitable giving and/or volunteering done by their employees. As someone who has been able to take advantage of this over the last six years I’m very grateful that it exists. I’m glad that my employer not only believes in giving away a portion of their wealth, but that they choose to do so in a way that allows me to direct its destination. My employer also happens to offer this match at a higher level than is common, at least according to the anecdotal evidence I’ve collected over the years. For as long as this benefit is offered I will continue to use it to the greatest extent that I can. At the same time, my employer has not always acted with the level of integrity that I would like on the subject of taxes. I don’t believe they have acted illegally, but they’ve certain leveraged their size and legal department to make use of every possible loophole. It’s the dichotomy of having bosses who generally believe in making the world a better place, while at the same time those bosses are part of a publicly traded company looking to make every ounce of profit that they can. Such is capitalism.
There’s a third kind of charity that I really want to dig into, largely because thinking about it is what drove me to start writing this. In fact, that I’m getting to this topic, 1,700 words in, shows remarkable discipline compared to how I usually write.
CHARITY AS TIT FOR TAT
I’m sure you know the kind of thing I’m talking about. A company pledges to donate a pair of shoes for every pair you buy. Or a company says for every time you use our service between these dates we’ll donate $1 to such and such. Or a company raises money to leverage a high-tech building process to install homes in a poor community.
Of those three examples the middle one bothers me the least. It’s really just an extension of any number of the previous ways of looking at charity. Would I rather that the company simply saw a need and made the donation, or committed to a minimum donation even if their conditions were not met? Absolutely. The other two examples—and they are real world examples—are things that I really, really dislike.
Why do I think it’s incredibly bad for a shoe company to offer to donate a pair of shoes in the third world every time they sell a pair in the first world? Why do I see nothing but harm in a wealthy company donating money to a charity that uses high-tech manufacturing to build houses for a poor community in Mexico? Why will I have no part in those kinds of activities?
On the one hand it’s because these kind of things are all wrapped up in the white savior and white savior industrial complex. A related concept is voluntourism. If you’re unfamiliar with these terms get out there and do some research. I’m not going to do a deep dive into them.
Another element in why I dislike tit for tat charity is because it often focuses on parts of the world suffering from a history of imperialism and from the earliest and most profound impacts of climate change. Not that we shouldn’t be trying to fix the problems we’ve caused. We should! But we’re not addressing the root causes, we’re treating the symptoms, and we’re doing so while continuing to benefit from the damage we’ve caused.
Stemming from this is that the form of the charity may actually be making things worse.
Think about the shoes. So an American buys a pair of shoes for themself and then another pair is donated to a poor child in Argentina. Perhaps that pair of shoes is made in the U.S., perhaps it’s made somewhere else. That pair of shoes then gets shipped to its ultimate destination, wracking up a larger carbon footprint as it goes. So now a child has a pair of shoes when they didn’t before, which is nice, but that child’s neighbor, who is a cobbler, has watched another chip broken from their income. Oh, and that pair of shoes? It was made from materials that won’t degrade gracefully when the shoes have reached the end of their life, and that end will come more quickly because they weren’t made with a process that makes them reparable locally.
What about the house? Same thing. So we can build all the components for a house here, for $3,000, but then it has to be shipped to its destination, and everything wrong with the shoes is wrong with the house but on an even larger scale.
Honestly I do believe that we owe a debt for the way our predecessors built the world we now enjoy at the expense of other people and parts of the world. I just think there’s a better way to go about it than shoes and houses which only cause other problems.
What to do? What to do?
In spite of the critical positions I take throughout this essay please don’t mistake my commitment to the idea that each and every person can and should contribute to their community and larger society. While I believe that there are many ways in which some of us are perpetuating systems that cause the harm that we claim to be trying to end, I do not doubt for a moment that every one of us can have a positive impact. One of the most frequent things that I look to learn about each, new person I get to know, is what causes are most important to them and how they work to support those causes.
The world isn’t always a great place, and there are forces working to make it worse (hello 2020!), so it’s on each of us to help out. It’s this, communitarian mindset, that will be what saves us, if anything can. So what are you going to do?
P.S. Don’t even think about dropping money in one of those Salvation Army buckets.