Tuesday, October 09, 2007

On Charity

Money is tight--really tight. Every pay check is dedicated to living expenses, debt, mortgage and insurance. There is always a little left over, but not much. I have to remember, however, that I am fairly privileged. I am not rich--not by a long shot--but I have a home, retirement, insurance, and very steady employment. Still money is tight.

Given this reality, I feel torn each time I am presented with a request for charity. There are lots of organizations to which that I like to give money. I get regular requests to do so from those same organizations almost daily. And, given the tight money situation, I am not giving. I couldn't help but really analyze how sincere my wish to be charitable was given my behavior.

There are lots of ways to give, to help others who or more needy, who are in a tough spot, or who want to build an organization to improve conditions for others. But, what I find is that most of us give only when it is convenient for us. So much about charity is about the self. Think about the dreaded pledge drives on NPR. How to the fundraisers motivate us? They tell us we can get a tax break or that we will get a membership or gifts. Or, take another example, fundraising for a college. How do you do it? You appeal to the vanity of those with money. You figure out what they want to give and tell them you will memorialize them by naming a building after them or a endowed chair or a scholarship prize. The point here is to get those with a great deal of money to give, you have to convince them that there is something in it for them.

But it seems that true charity hurts the giver a bit. Maybe it means you give up things you want to give to others--you have less money for entertainment, travel, clothes, or even food. You realize that it is more important to help someone in need or an organization you care about than it is to spend that money on yourself or family. Moreover, it seems that true charity is to give without expectation for a return or glory or even thanks.

In fact, true charity really exposes what the whole point of a gift is or should be. A gift. But how often do we ever really give to others without some expectation of thanks, or reciprocation, or acknowledgment of our greatness. Too much of giving is about power or self interest. This is what is concerning. And yet, let's face it, the only way so many charitable organizations can function is to appeal to vanity and self-interest.

I think a lot about the whole Republican view that we should shrink government and let charitable organizations do the work of a large, inefficient, unwieldy bureaucracy. Why should not be coerced to pay taxes, so the argument goes, but rather we should be free to choose who we want to give to and how. Hell, in theory this sounds great. But that is the whole problem with the "party of ideas"--sounds great on paper, but never works in practice. Why? Because people need incentives to do what is not immediately in their self-interest.

Very few of us are truly capable of charity. In fact, I would argue that charity is almost impossible in such a highly driven consumer culture like ours. For example, I caught a bit of the Extreme Home Makeover television show last Sunday. The purported motivation of the show is to give back--in the form of a luxurious home--to people who have struggled and scarified for others. Again, on paper, a good idea. But, I was haunted by the episode I saw where the gift to a young girl suffering from cancer was to build her a room that was like a shopping spree. They gave her a huge closet filled with clothes and shoes and accessories so "she can finally be a kid who can play." So, charity is giving a shopping spree to a young girl--giving her an addiction to material goods. Maybe I am being too harsh, but it seems to me that with so many people unable to feed their families across the world, we can do better than conceive of charity as giving people luxurious homes with the top of the line consumer goods, right?

In any case, this is my preoccupation today. What do the rest of you think?