My Annual Grumpy Charity Post is Here!

Now that the calendar has finally ticked over to December, it is time, of course, for the annual slew of demanding charity appeals. Whether they’re in the newspaper or on the street corner, you’re surrounded by people who want your money, and who are promoting a variety of very worthy causes. Supporting the homeless community, for example, or extending services to disabled people, or ensuring that children in the community have access to basic needs like food and shoes. It’s hard to turn down those requests when you have any money to spare — though, notably, research shows that people with less money tend to give more, with wealthier people giving less than the working and middle classes.

But here’s the thing. There are two problems with charity.

One is a larger institutional issue, which is that the charity-based model of providing services, outreach, and support is a terrible one. It doesn’t work, and it’s offensive, and it is a slimy, sleazy, gross way for governments to dodge responsibilities to their citizens. It makes far more sense to centralize these services to ensure they’re distributed equitably and through the network of a system that can ensure maximum efficiency.

A classic example came up in West Africa this year when an ebola outbreak left West African governments struggling to keep up, and medical charities like Doctors Without Borders (more about them in a moment) hit the ground running to provide support. However, even a combination of government and NGO support wasn’t enough to hold back the tide of a major outbreak, and by August, Doctors Without Borders was calling Western governments out on their inaction and demanding to know why they weren’t extending support. Because, as a charity, they’d run out of options, but they knew that governments had resources and deep pockets that they couldn’t access.

The charity-based model has been with us for a very long time, but this doesn’t make it right, or okay, that we continue to rely on individual citizens to support the good of all. It makes far more sense to create a robust social safety net so that fewer people need intervention, and so that those who do get it in a timely manner without judgment. Nations can support this — and I’d much rather see a tax hike and a turn away from charity than a continued support of the charitable system, especially with governments like the US actively promoting the idea that charities should take over government services.

This is not a problem we can fix in a month. It requires a fundamental retooling of social policy and individual attitudes. But it’s something to keep in mind, and it’s something we should be working towards as a collective society, because this is ridiculous. We can do better than this. Children shouldn’t have to rely on the kindness of strangers for shoes. Their parents should be making a living wage so they can afford shoes in the first place.

The other issue with charity is one we can address right now as individuals, though, and that’s the fact that many charities are inefficient or do terrible things. Some just waste an absurd amount of money along the way to providing goods and services, with obscene executive compensation and administrative expenses. Others do things like denying services to groups they don’t like (like members of the LGBQT community) or forcing people to jump through hoops (like attending a Bible study) or exploiting people (like Goodwill does with disabled people) before allowing them to receive services. This is noxious and disgusting.

We can choose not to support such charities, focusing instead on those that are efficient and provide services without discrimination. But this requires actually researching charities before committing our funds, ensuring that we know where our money is going and how it will be used. Many donors do not do this, which feeds the attitude among charitable organizations that they can basically do whatever they want and no one will stop them. Needless to say, this is not really an attitude we want to continue cultivating. We want charity to be about something else — committing resources to those most in need, not to causes like pushing Christian conversion on people or lining the pockets of CEOs and CFOs.

If you’re going to donate this season in the interests of getting services to people who need them now, I respect that — and I will probably do the same, because while I hate the charity system, I find the thought of leaving people to suffer because of an ideological policy issue unconscionable. While I’m working to change policy, I’m not going to leave people homeless and starving in the street. But if you are donating, think about where your money is going. Don’t hand it out to the first person who asks for it. Don’t be afraid to research. Read the charity’s annual report or quick breakdown of where funds go. Use common resources (like the internet) to quickly look up information about its practices and financials. Make sure you know where your funds are going.

Because if I give a charity $40, or whatever amount, I want to know that most of that money is going to direct service (or other stated goals like research), and I want to know that anyone who needs that service can get it, no matter what.

Oh — and if you’re wondering which charity I endorse this year, it’s Doctors Without Borders.

Image: Charity in the dictionary, Howard Lake, Flickr.