Giving & Morality – Part 2

Photo from the O Project

Is this how you see things?

Read Part 1

The holiday season is a good time for giving. In my family, Christmas presents between adults (it would be somewhat cruel for little kids) tend to be Send A Cow gifts or other charity based gifts. We don’t really need much extra stuff so we tend to our egos and our sense of first world shame instead, it’s a delightful exchange.

For us, I suspect, we feel that not to give is heartless: how can we sit by and enjoy our standard and living if we can possibly help some less fortunate people? In short, the act of giving is largely wrapped up in guilt and issues of conscience. We also tend to give to young women because, as Christopher Hitchens said: the cure for poverty is “… colloquially called ‘the empowerment of women’. If you allow women control over their cycle of reproduction… then the whole floor – culturally, medically, socially – of that village will rise.” This comes from the broadly feminist politics my family has. So, why do we give to charity? Guilt, conscience, gender.

That Hitchens quote is from his much blogged about debate with Tony Blair on the motion, ‘Be it resolved, religion is a force for good in the world.’ Hitchens, obviously, opposed the motion and was largely seen to have won the debate in most of the world although, notably, not in the USA. The other countries that voted that Blair had won the debate were largely religious, so were likely to vote with the non-secular argument, and, generally, were developing nations. The USA, with its ‘silent majority’ and anti-Communist, Christian pledge of allegiance, fits one of those parameters which seemed enough to overcome the developed/developing divide. Within America, as stated in a 2007 book by Arthur C Brooks,

Religious conservatives donate far more money than secular liberals to all sorts of charitable activities, irrespective of income.

Religion, then, might well be an important reason for many to give to charity. In fact, one of the oldest in-depth examinations of giving and charity comes from Rabbinic scholarship – the ‘eight degrees of charity’ written in 1180. The highest degree is one which eliminates the need for more aid – something remarkably similar to the sustainability movement that has become such an important part of global development over the last twenty years or so. Perhaps, then, the outcomes of giving are an important part of why people continuously give so generously to ‘noble’ causes while columnists endlessly warn us about the moral decline of the nation.

Promising to ‘make poverty history’, then, is the sort of thing people want to commit to: the end of anything bad – smallpox, malaria, AIDS – is something pretty much all sane people would want to be involved with. The danger, of course, is that if you try to appeal to people with such ‘outcomes’  and they don’t get fulfilled you’ve probably made quite a lot of people lose faith in charity – whether or not this loss of faith is significant enough to make people actually stop donating is a study I’d be interested in doing (or reading, if anyone can find one).

For me, this ,again, comes back to sustainability. If the actual reasons why people give are varied and, in all likelihood, very much dependent on personality, then the way in which charities seek to extract funds for their particular cause needs to be broad and largely inoffensive. Unless you happen to know there are a bunch of multi-millionaires who are particularly fuelled by, say, images of badly ploughed fields, it’s pretty unlikely to be a useful campaign, certainly in terms of mass market appeal (enter celebrity activists). The ability for different charities to gain traction with the wider public is down to how charities treat that public – if they all use ‘flies in the eyes’ children when making appeals about Africa, that’s what people are going to expect and, probably, respond to. However,  I suspect that the longer we use those images, the more dominant an image they become, the less things seem to be changing and, ultimately, the more ‘compassion fatigue’ becomes a genuine problem.

At the moment, people are fantastically generous. If they cease to be, charities will most likely have themselves to blame.

So how should we be getting people’s attention? Send me your thoughts.


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