Giving without charity: Why promoting “charitable work” devalues the giving

Charitable works become less charitable when promoted on social media or publicised as a “humble brag”.

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There is a trend these days that on every student CV there should be a line stating the “charity” work they’ve undertaken. Parents love this idea – that their children will have done something “good” or of benefit to others in need. This notion of “giving” can be seen in schools, businesses and in public discourse regarding equity and access. Yet, in my view, most acts of giving, arranged by schools, religious organisations, businesses and others, are acts that lack genuine charity.

This does not mean that they do not do some good, or are of no benefit. All acts of giving can assist people in need. However, this is not enough. In my view, the motivation to do good is generally something rather more selfish than authentic; something more planned and considered than spontaneous; something more extrinsic or compelled than intrinsic.

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How is this the case?

In my view, authentic charity does not seek promotion or a photo opportunity. It does not advertise. It is the charity that walks with a homeless person to buy them a meal instead of giving change and walking on. It is the person who notices the old lady who cannot walk, and carries her bag while helping her across the road, and is ashamed when she says, ‘thank you’. It is the sleep-out without a blanket because the poor on Sydney’s streets do not have blankets and a night in pain is a thousandth of what hundreds of thousands feel all day every day. It is the burning restlessness to remember that nothing distinguishes me from Terry, the man with vacant eyes begging, but for grace that makes me stand here and him stand there. His inquiry is a lie, for so easily any of us could be him.

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Schools are complicit in externalising selflessness

Schools create reciprocal partnerships with orphanages, set up schools in “developing” nations and encourage students to fast for 40 hours per year in order to raise awareness about how others live. Ostensibly, such activities are to round out the education of the privileged by acknowledging that there are many less fortunate. By way of brief, highly controlled contact, there is the thought that the experience is authentic. My interviewing of students who have had such experiences report that they are “life changing”. When asked “how” they might say, “I appreciated that people suffer more than I knew”.

But does it change how they spend money? Almost never.

Does it change their ambitions? Almost never.

Does it create a fearlessness to seek out opportunities to work towards the amelioration of suffering, quietly? Almost never.

Charitable works become less charitable when promoted on social media or publicised as a “humble brag”. They become devalued in school newsletters, on business websites and on CVs when the giving was a once-off opportunity.

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Local and global

Giving without charity is so endemic that I believe it will only be when students, families, schools, businesses and other institutions embrace the local needs of the most vulnerable people that we will begin to truly appreciate the extent of suffering and inequity around us. Spending time with women sheltering from domestic violence, listening to the homeless and those with mental illness on our streets, and giving in non-publicised ways should be the measure of the genuineness of charitable works. Of course, there are others in nations far away who live immeasurably poorer lives than us. However, a combined focus on local as well as those distant, will better remind us that we are not so far away from suffering and we should keep that in mind often.

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Families and educators can begin this process by forgetting the CV and the photo opp, and feeling – not just in occasional once-off moments – the depth of pain felt by people they do not know through meeting and spending ongoing time with them.