Why Do We Give?

Posted by Gretchen Blake on December 16, 2014

It’s the holiday season, and I’m made to think about a certain social trend. No, I’m not talking about toddlers waiting to sit on Santa’s lap or the growing number of “Ugly Christmas Sweater” parties. I’m talking about the shifting trend in how we think about giving back.

Begging For Change, stencil by street artist Meek Begging For Change, stencil by street artist Meek

“Doing good” is all around us these days, not just during the giving season of the holidays. There are a million opportunities to “give back” every day, 365 days a year: a friend’s personal Facebook pitch, the checkout at the grocery, or the decision to buy a particular brand of yogurt to forward a percentage of proceeds to a charity. There has always been the opportunity for giving to make us feel good about ourselves, about the world we live in, about the choices we make, or about the prospect of impacting social change. But, with so many split second decisions available to make small differences in the lives of others, is it becoming too easy to feel good about doing our part to make the world better?

In March of 2009, American Behavioral Scientist published an article titled “A Critique of the Discourse of Marketized Philanthropy.” It looked at the social trends in how we talk about philanthropy and the subsequent negative impacts on “substantive social change.”

I’m going to get a tad academic for just a quick second, so you may want to read this next part twice to let it really sink in.

The authors argue that the transformative potential of philanthropy—its potential to represent the need for and bring about social change—is increasingly lost in the current market-based discourse of philanthropy that includes consumption of products (i.e., cause-related marketing) and consumption of media and celebrities (i.e., “charitainment”) as the basis for benevolent human relations.” **

In this era of consumer product philanthropy and crowdfunding, it could be argued that we are more charitably-minded as a society than ever before. Whether we want to be or not, we are constantly making choices about giving. And, in an age where so much of our daily makeup is left to consumer decisions, I’m left to wonder, Why do we give? As individuals or as a society, what’s behind our giving decisions? How do we choose? And perhaps an even harder question to answer, is the choice even ours?

In an effort to gain some answers, I asked a few of the thousands of individuals who give to Facing History and Ourselves each year what giving back means to them. Here’s what they said.

What do you personally consider to be most important when you give? Why?

“I want to both encourage a ‘movement’ that helps those in need and to be sure that the dollars given are extremely effective in working to accomplish their goal. I look for accountability, transparency and the percent of revenue allocated to program.”

Civil Rights March, Library of Congress Civil Rights March, Library of Congress

How do you know that you are encouraging or becoming part of a "movement"? What signs do you look for to indicate that a cause is creating a "movement"?

“Leaders with big ideas. Intelligent people joining the cause. And a growing program with passionate testimonials. A combination of all of these elements.”

How did you decide or learn to be someone who gives to charity?

“Everyone learns how to engage with the world through the place and the people who surround them when they’re growing up. It’s an education that never ends, whether you’re spending more time as a teacher or as a student, we are each constantly shaping how we want our world to be. I was lucky enough to be born into a family that taught me to think of others, that taught me to feel gratitude for the blessings of the time and place I was born, to recognize the terrifying breadth of challenges that another person can face, and to reach out and help whenever and however possible.

What do you make of the social trends in philanthropy today, like cause-related marketing and crowdfunding?

“You have to get people’s attention. Creativity, like crowdfunding, is important. But we have to be cautious to not let systemic and complicated issues become marginalized by the ease of those tied to immediacy and smooth marketing.”

Do you think these trends will inform the philanthropic decisions of younger generations?

“Yes, but Facing History’s focus on teaching teenagers to think critically is the antidote.”

How can we keep philanthropic efforts that focus on systemic change, rather than fast results, from being marginalized in today’s cultural giving marketplace?

“Financial donations are important and can make immediate impact, but nothing has a larger scope than engaging with strangers, with young people, with those in need, with those we can learn from and those we can teach, and trying to spread the message that remaining open-minded and open-hearted and aware of our place in history, our connection to the failings of the past, that’s the only way we can shape a truly better future.”

Why have you chosen to focus on tackling a systemic problem (racism, prejudice, education system) when there are more immediate ways to make an impact, like food/shelter type gifts?

“We want to help humanity survive both short and long term, and for me Facing History's work is essential for every form of generosity to others, teaching that none of us may be bystanders, but need to be there to serve others.”

Each year, Facing History reaches over 3,500,000 students worldwide. With your help, we can reach even more. Find out how.

**As partially summarized in the abstract from: A Critique of the Discourse of Marketized Philanthropy. Authors: Patricia Mooney Nickel, Victoria University of Wellington and Angela M. Eikenberry, University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Topics: Choosing to Participate

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