What ever happened to charity?

October 27, 2016

Charity is a bit of a social construct. It’s something we do. It’s an outcome of a social driver – altruism. However, as human animals, we are selfish and self-seeking. It’s in our DNA: we go first and we survive. So how does this partner with the urge to help others? How do we balance individualism and collectivism? This is the argument that has driven warring ruling principles for centuries: socialism vs. communism vs. totalitarianism vs. capitalism, etc.

As a driving social force, charity supports a limited collectivism. It’s almost Locke: group before the individual on a limited basis. Noblesse oblige. We give because we agree we must help the greater good, yet we retain our individual lens — our own priorities and unique perspectives. We give because we believe it is right and good to give. We feel good. It makes a difference. It is a historical tradition.

Here’s where all that starts to break down. In the 19th century, Andrew Carnegie began to name public libraries through his charitable giving. This is not the dutiful practice of Tzedakah (“Charity”) in Judaism, or the Christian morality of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (aka “Sound no Trumpet”), or the Buddhist practice of serving others without thought of self. This new practice ushered in the idea of giving for purpose – giving to be seen and to be culturally relevant among one’s peers. For personal legacy. These are not necessarily bad things; on the positive, it often helps spur more giving. Mega-named gifts inspire and help motivate others to join in, to work together for greater impact. But does it?

In the 1990s, there was this realization that despite all the hundreds of millions of dollars given in “charity” each year, our social problems were not really changing. We hadn’t made a dent in poverty rates or childhood hunger. We were still a racially divided country, and access to education had barely changed for the better, if at all.

In 1997, a paper out of Harvard, “Virtuous Capital: What Foundations Can Learn from Venture Capitalists,” changed the philanthropic landscape. It preached good based on outcomes. Modeling business practices for social results. Good by definition of the owner-operator, or more simply, the giver. Gone is social good for good’s sake. Instead, the concept of “doing good” through giving evolved into a will to drive social change through impact investing – focusing on results and accountability. Giving has become prescriptive: directive and transactional.

This begs the question: does giving based on outcomes or conditional agreements have anything to do with altruism?

The act of altruistic giving is a practice in faith, regardless of religion. It is saying, “I believe in humanity and I want to help. Here is my gift, unencumbered.” It is a practice in the faith of humanity.

Contractual giving, by contrast, cannot be seen as an act of faith. An act of faith requires trust. It resembles little of alms, and it has nothing to do with giving freely from the heart. Rather than trust, contractual giving is firmly rooted in reputation. This presumes the donor has the solution and is giving to fulfill their own perception of what that solution can and should be.

Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing. It establishes accountability and sets aggressive change agent agendas. It espouses goals and deliverables and measurable results – and who doesn’t like results? It just might not be “charity” in the spiritual sense of the word.

Charity and philanthropy alone will never bring change.

Money does not end loneliness, heartache, poverty, racism, or hunger. Charitable giving helps fulfill ongoing missions of organizations to address some of these things, of course, but it does not change how we fundamentally see one another. Only we as compassionate beings can do that.

Perhaps the bigger, bolder thought about impact and social change lies not in the act and motivation of giving itself, but rather in looking at how we exist in the world. How we, individually and collectively, take responsibility for acting towards others, being the change agents ourselves, living as an example.

Real change – real and true social change – will never happen unless it happens at the human level. One by one. Inclusively. Decisively. In a demanding fashion.

We can start simply: we can give when and how we can. We can remember what it feels like to really help another human being, without getting anything in return.

We can remember and we can carry it in our heart.

– Jennifer R. Harris, Ph.D., Vice President

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