The Charitable Impulse: Part 2

Begging HandsDue to my line of work, people will often approach me informally or in social settings to talk about experiences of poverty.  They will ask questions or share anecdotes that they find meaningful.  Over the recent holiday season an acquaintance shared the following story:

They were part of a gift-giving program where families in poverty could register to receive a holiday package.  They then had a chance to meet the family, delivering the gift directly to their residence. On dropping off their gift, the visit elicited no response from the recipient. The recipient gruffly told my acquaintance to leave it by the door.  There was no “thank you”, and no interest to engage in conversation.  They presented the experience to me as a frustration, and a clear justification to question all charitable work in general.

What drives the charitable impulse? Although motivations are complex and likely often blended, in some cases the drive is more internal than external.  There is a song by a comedian, too crass to name or link here, but which states, “I’ll give you fifty bucks to take away my guilt.”  The comedian proclaims that he doesn’t really care about poor children in different countries, but is always happy to give to take away his guilt of living so luxuriously in a world full of poverty.

But does motivation really matter?  If it’s just about donations, then who cares why people give?  The thing is that it’s not just about donations, it has more to do with the type of programs we design to actually create change in the community.  I would suggest that a program designed to elicit the most compassion and most donations may not necessarily look the same as one designed to create the greatest, lasting impact.  The charitable impulse to help may be driven by the desire to feel like I am helping, whereas a desire to facilitate change does not hinge so lightly on whether recipients of change have demonstrated an ‘appropriate’ degree of gratitude.

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