The Problem With Charity

Suppose you are walking along and you encounter someone bleeding profusely from a wound on their arm. Would you simply walk on letting the bleeding stranger fend for themselves? Or, would you, like most others, stop and help to stop the bleeding?

Depending upon how often you have encountered someone needing immediate help (charity), the choice of walking on or stopping would likely be made. The occasional call for help usually summons a charitable response. The more frequent request, on the other hand, leads one to become jaded and callous to need. It becomes much easier to think the unfortunate person needs to learn to take care of themselves.

In most of our larger cities these days, there appears to be an emerging cottage industry.   Around key intersections, after the traffic stops, a sea of changing faces emerge carrying hand made signs shouting “Veteran and Unemployed – Please help” or “Homeless and Hungry”.

So what should one do at these corners? Do you give money (and encourage someone else to hold up sign) or drive on as if the person had never been there?

I have often thought this must be a reasonably good business because the same intersections are used and despite the changing faces, there seems to be someone there all the time.

I can’t answer, however, whether those standing their represent the bleeding person needing desperately someone to apply direct pressure to stop the bleeding. Or, are these down and out strangers just going to show up at another corner even if I give them some money? Is the act of giving money “charity” or is it “facilitating”?

There may be an answer to this question, but I do not know what it is. I have rationalized that I will not give to the street bigger but instead will donate to non-profits who specialize in providing unconditional help. (Unconditional except the unfortunate might have to listen to some words about god but that’s probably a small price for someone in no place to bargain.)

The elephant in the room, I think, is charity is almost always not the answer. Certainly it “feels” good, and it may be necessary (as in the case of stopping the bleed). So, why not support a handout?

Handouts are too easy and lead to no permanent fix.

Life seems to mirror this too much these days. It is all about treating symptoms and not identifying and eliminating basic causes.

For the new year, it might be worthwhile to consider matching gifts. For example, if it seems worthy to provide charity to someone or some cause, do it… but resolve to ask the question, why did that person or that organization need the handout in the first place?

With that answer, ask the question again until you reach an answer that if it were eliminated or managed much better, the need for the handout you had just made would be either unnecessary or greatly reduced.


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2 Comments on “The Problem With Charity”

  1. Jane Jones Says:

    This conundrum plagued me for years and I found it occurring also with every mail delivery. “Please help the children with hair lips” or starving, or… Then I read how one woman solved the problem for herself when she went back to India, where she had struggled with handouts. She made a determination how much she could give each month. Then she could dole it out, save it for a lump sum, or give it to an organization. This has helped me, especially because we live in a temperate climate and there are many street people.

    • Jane, the problem (or opportunity) to share and provide charity is huge. So much fits under that umbrella, from severe illnesses to homeless, to high school bands. And as you mentioned there are professional organizations only too ready to send out heart wrenching requests for money either by mail or by TV… What happens to that money is not clear.

      As a society, however, aggregated at a much higher level, the chronically unemployed, poorly educated, and often homeless, what do we collectively do? My guess is situations like Ferguson, Cleveland, and New York (both of the recent ones) might not have happened as they did were the local communities not so poor, uneducated, and un- or under employed.

      While giving charity is good (and probably essential), the underlying causes need far better attention.

      Thanks for sharing.

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