Charity that changes society

Charity clearly comes naturally to Americans, who generously gave away $175 billion last year.

But does charity work?

For all the good it does, the answer is that traditional philanthropy, unfortunately, reinforces what is instead of working toward what could be.

Of that $175 billion in American philanthropy last year, only 13 percent of it went directly to public benefit and human-services programs. And only 2 to 4 percent of money given away went to support social-change efforts.

The lion's share went to churches, the arts, elite private colleges and universities, and hospitals.

And even when money was given to support services, such as soup kitchens and homeless shelters, the root causes remained unchanged.

Too often, charity goes to the immediate relief of symptoms of social and economic problems. This is why charitable efforts often fail to achieve lasting solutions. And even if all charitable giving doubled, it still wouldn't meet the immediate demand for basic needs such as food, clothing, and shelter in the US.

We are all distressed to see people homeless in the streets. Our impulse may be to thrust a dollar bill into the hand of a homeless person, or after we get home, to send a check to a local shelter.

But there is a growing movement of people who believe that while charity may be a good thing, change is better. They ask: Why are people homeless?

These people give to organizations working to create affordable housing, or to groups organizing for a living wage so people can afford the housing that is available.

They give money to promote social change.

But what exactly is social change?

In numerous ways, we have all benefited from social change.

Did you have an enjoyable weekend? Thank the labor movement, the folks who brought us the eight-hour day and the weekend.

Have you voted recently? Thank the women's suffrage and African-American civil rights movements for opening up our democracy to all citizens.

Happy that your salad is free of DDT? Thank the United Farm Workers, whose union contract specified DDT's original ban.

Not only have we benefited in these direct ways, but social change movements have shifted the public discourse and public awareness of many critical concerns. For example:

Twenty years ago, most domestic violence was hidden away and treated as a private concern. Today it is a recognized crime. While women are still battered, the need for battered women's shelters and services is now a given.

Twenty years ago Love Canal and hazardous waste, Three Mile Island and nuclear power became household words. By the end of the 1980s hazardous-waste policy was moving away from the traditional format of pollution control to pollution prevention.

Today, consumers ask GAP and Starbucks for explanations of how they treat the workers who make their jeans and harvest the coffee beans, signifying a profound shift in Americans' understanding of global human rights.

These changes did not happen on their own. They are the product of grassroots groups that, with immense determination and scant resources, have set our society on a better course.

With today's attention on individual successes, such as the Internet millionaires, it is easy to think about social problems in terms of individual solutions. In fact, social impact happens through individuals coming together in a group - often around someone's kitchen table - to ask why?

Why are so many people working two and three jobs to make ends meet? Why are so many people sick in the town where the toxic dump is situated? Why are the HMOs going belly up, and thousands without health insurance?

These "whys" lead to the strategies, the plans, and the actions that eventually turn into powerful movements.

These movements are driven by dedicated people who spend countless hours doing the invisible work of careful organizing, massive public education, sustained agitation, and at times inspired collaboration across the divides of race, gender, and class.

This work requires money. Yet it is exactly these movements that are largely left out of the charitable pie. But it should - and could - be a lot more.

To give to social change requires expanding the notion of who is a member of your "family."

Charity is not all that charitable when it derives from an assumption that our money or our status somehow makes us more worthy than members of the communities we seek to benefit.

Some argue that many tax-deductible donations are made not merely from deep generosity but also from self-interest.

Social change giving is based on an expanded notion of self-interest, one that goes beyond our definition of our identity, our family, our culture, class, and borders.

The best giving is based in the knowledge that the quality of our lives is linked to the quality of the lives of people everywhere. Social change giving is rooted in that belief.

As Martin Luther King Jr. said, "All life is interrelated. All ... are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny."

With this as our guiding principle of giving, it makes sense to give to movements and communities that may be vastly different from ourselves but whose work involves making a healthier, safer, sustainable, and more just world for all of us.

And it works.

*Chuck Collins is author of 'Robin Hood Was Right: A Guide to Giving Your Money for Social Change' (Norton). Patricia Maher is executive director of Haymarket People's Fund, a Boston-based foundation that funds social change.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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