Voices from the Field: The Penultimate Word: Overthinking Philanthropy

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Editor’s Note: NPQ noticed this column in The Houghton Star by Elisa Shearer a student at Houghton College. We thought it was an interesting reflection on giving in the midst of a lot of noise about what constitutes good giving.

The reason I didn’t want to talk about donating to charity, especially during the Christmas season, is because it’s so often portrayed and spoken of as a thought-free, morally spotless, warm-fuzzy–inducing act. A no-brainer. Nothing to fret over. It’s also often one of those things we try to exchange for middle-class guilt; we donate $50 to charity in order to feel free to spend hundreds (thousands) on ourselves and our family and friends without qualms.

The act of donating to charity is a pit of postmodern angst: it’s cliché, it breeds self-righteousness, it can make a student go crazy with self-consciousness and infinite reevaluations of his or her “real motivations,” and it can instill in us (alternately) a false sense of optimism or a nihilistic feeling of despair and ultimate uselessness (when the realization of the ratio between our donations and our own frivolous personal expenses sets in). It is not, by any means, a no-brainer.

Another problem with donating is that charities are confusing, and sometimes we don’t agree with how they operate. We can look up budget reports all day and still not ever really know how charities and government organizations decide which families get turkeys. Also, religious NGOs may direct finances towards pro-life or anti-gay-rights legislation; secular charitable organizations might fund birth control distribution, military support, or homosexual rights. Odds are, you’re going to disagree with some practice of whatever organization you choose.

What I’m worried about is when the confusing details and qualms prevent or inhibit action; we discuss donating to charities, argue about different ones, donate less than we could, and then feel guilty about our own prosperity—the whole process becomes so unpleasantly self-conscious that we begin to avoid it. A lot of us went through a period as children when we got excited about giving money to the poor; then we realized that the hole we were trying to fill was bottomless. And, yeah: social service is like that. It’s bottomless. Need is never-ending. Because of this, if we donate to charity with the idea of fixing things permanently, or to assuage some sense of guilt, our worry and shame in this case will only compound themselves. And the poor can’t fill their children’s stockings with middle-class guilt.

But seriously. Yes, it feels stupid to think that your two dollars will “make a difference in someone’s life.” Yes, even the bother of donating something is enough to keep our money in our pockets. Yes, it’s a little paralyzing to think of how much we’re giving versus how much we’re keeping and receiving. But seriously. Seriously—just stop analyzing your intentions and donate something. Suck up your self-conscious selves, do some research, and deposit some money into your community. Something is better than nothing, but nothing will ever be enough, so don’t feel useless for donating a small amount and don’t feel too satisfied for donating a large amount. And don’t think you have to defend your decision not to donate anything, or fear that you donated less than you think other people think you could or should have, or avoid donating because of your qualms about your possibly selfish motivations—either write a check or don’t, and stop fretting about it so much.