Getting charity right

Giving is a thing of the heart. Giving in ways that don't lead to unintended consequences requires the head.


Charity is simple in theory: A heart warms, a hand reaches out. In practice, though, charity can become a tangle of motives and consequences. Giving can be driven by guilt, duty, condescension, the possibility of a plaque on a wall, a tax break, or perhaps the hope that giving will somehow expiate past cruelty or neglect. Too little charity can be a drop in the bucket; too much can foster dependence or open the door to skimming by middlemen and hucksters.

Charity can be as spontaneous as holding the door for a stranger and as complex as a global campaign to eradicate malaria; as big as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – $34.5 billion in grants since its inception – and as small as a widow’s mite. In a Monitor cover story (click here), Stephanie Hanes shows how crowdfunding is democratizing charitable giving, how mites become mighty when teamed with thousands more.

Giving from the heart is good. But critics have long worried about misdirected charity, about projects that do more harm than good. In his 2012 book, “Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It),” Robert Lupton, a veteran of 40 years of community work in inner-city Atlanta, argues – carefully and nonideologically – that charity must not do for the poor what they can do for themselves. His is the ancient “teach a man to fish” philosophy, which is no less true for being ancient.

Mr. Lupton advocates limiting open-wallet generosity to emergencies such as natural disasters. Follow-on funding should focus on the development of self-sufficiency – via, for instance, offering microloans, hiring local builders and suppliers, and trying to establish self-funded, locally owned and operated enterprises. What seldom works, he argues, are untargeted handouts from far-off providers and the parachuting in of inexperienced volunteer-tourists hoping to earn merit badges by digging wells or patching roofs that locals are perfectly capable of taking care of themselves.

In war zones and disaster aftermaths over the years, I’ve watched courageous aid workers racing to feed and shelter the displaced. The good they do is on the side of the angels, and the risks they take are high. The Oct. 3 accidental bombing by American warplanes of a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, is a tragic reminder of how close to danger they work.

I’ve also been in refugee camps where dependence had become multigenerational, and in places where the shipwrecks of ill-conceived charitable projects have littered the landscape.

Getting charity right isn’t easy. But from crowdfunding to the boom in volunteering among Millennials, from the increasing worldwide willingness to give to the efforts by established charities to become more efficient and effective, there is strong evidence that humanity’s capacity for compassion is growing along with its ability to help without harming.

Charity works best when it returns the weak to strength, when it helps a battered community get back on its feet. A successful charity is one that eventually is no longer needed.

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