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  • Writer's pictureJon Dean

The benefits of giving

Updated: Mar 20, 2023

Fundraising Magazine: Agent Provocateur, May 2020

Several years ago, I answered a knock at the door to find a young man asking for donations for a respected animal charity. I told him he that I wasn’t interested. What happened next sounds unbelievable. Changing his voice to imitate the way one would speak to a baby, he tilted his head, and asked, ‘Oh, so don’t you like likkle kittens and puppies then?’ Stunned that he would take such an approach, I just said ‘No’, and slowly closed the door in a state of bemusement.

I’ve always remembered that interaction. The fundraiser’s tactic wouldn’t, I am sure, be one the fundraising textbooks would recommend or be widely advertised as best practice. But at the same time, I do have a grudging respect for the approach. He was totally aware of the symbolic power of charity – especially the power associated with cute, fluffy, and above all, helpless animals – and was trying to shame or guilt-trip me into taking advantage of it.

By the symbolic power of charity I mean the fact that charity is generally associated with an automatic assumption of goodness. While there may be some sniping from the side-lines, that those who give a lot to charity are ‘mugs’ or are happy to merely provide a sticking plaster when structural reform is needed, in general we do not criticise the person making the donation to the foodbank, or the direct debit to the homeless shelter, or running the marathon for a medical charity. We say ‘Fair play’, and ‘Good for you’, and think more of the person making the sacrifice. It’s one of the reasons the concept of charity works in society. If people got zero reputational benefit from giving – or at the very least weren’t able to feel better about themselves as a result – the amount of generosity in society would be a lot less.

Fundraisers have long been aware of this facet of charitable action. Offering people the chance to be involved in ‘something good’, or to be recognised for their good deeds – from a humble certificate, to a presentation at a gala dinner or with a plaque on a wall – donations always offer some extent of social reward. Business-charity relationships are based on the fact that each partner has access to resources the other desperately needs: business can provide financial resources, and the charities can provide moral legitimacy. As one financier working with the Clinton Global Initiative put it, generosity ‘can be very profitable’. Therefore, we see charity used in some unscrupulous ways, with several recent instances where rich donors have used their gifts as cover for negative media stories. Similarly, our tendency not to criticise because ‘It’s for charity’ is what leads to the President’s Club scandal, and the recently sexualised mistreatment of female fundraisers.

The young fundraiser envisaged that I would choose to donate to save cute animals, because to not do so would be to appear cruel and heartless. He may have been wrong in that instance, but I appreciated his honesty about the realities of charity. While volunteer recruiters have for a long time promoted some of the personal benefits of volunteering (such as meeting new people, or learning new skills), we all need to be a bit more honest about the hidden benefits of giving to charity, both those seen as positive (the warm glow feeling of having helped) but also those seen as negative (such as the reputational benefits). In a recent YouGov study, only 2% of people gave ‘Because they thought they’d get something in return’ as a motivation for their giving. We don’t know if this is genuine, a lack of honesty as not to contravene social norms, or because the ‘something’ one gets from giving is so imprecise. ‘Something’ suggests a material swap as opposed to feeling good or symbolic credit.

Our failure to be honest that, in general, doing things for charity makes the doer look good is part of a wider failure to ask the right critical questions about charity, fundraising and volunteering. This is not motivated by some cynical mission to undercut people’s good deeds, but to guard against the people who have seen the good charity can do for themselves and take advantage of it.

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