How charitable are we really?

It seems that we are all a bit impressed by the idea of charity. But often from a distance. Without looking at the idea too deeply.

We might watch something on the tele that moves us and makes us think a little bit more about someone else’s circumstances. Or we might put our loose change in one of the many buckets that litter the streets and supermarkets. But how many of us actually practice charity systematically?

Take me for example. The organisation I work for is a charity. I volunteer on Saturdays for a charity. My side project/business makes donations out of its profits to a charity. Do I practice charity regularly? I wish I did. I’d be a way nicer person.

At its most basic, charity means – giving someone something they need but can’t get for themselves. Normally that something is understood to be something material. We overwhelmingly associate charity with giving money.

At its core, charity goes well beyond the financial. But let’s begin there.

It’s quite lucky really that charity is more than just emptying our pockets, because unfortunately our higher income earners are much less financially charitable than the lower income earners. It's not news anymore, but it's still a surprise to more: the poor are more generous than the rich. For decades, surveys have shown that upper-income Americans ... are particularly undistinguished as givers when compared with the poor.... lower-income Americans give proportionally more of their incomes to charity than do upper-income Americans. (See, "The Charitable-Giving Divide" in Sunday's New York Times Magazine.)

Turns out its quite difficult for us to be financially charitable. Firstly, we are more willing to help a single individual than many.

Take this experiment -  one group was given general information about the need for donations, including statements like "Food shortages in Malawi are affecting more than 3 million children." A second group was shown the photo of a 7-year-old Malian girl named Rokia, and told that she is desperately poor, and that "her life will be changed for the better by your gift." People in the second group gave more. A lot more.

‘Futility thinking’ also plays a role. Giving money to help the ‘poor ‘is, we say, just drops in the ocean. We focus on those we cannot save rather than on those we can. People will give more to save 80 percent of 100 lives at risk than they will to save 20 percent of 1,000 lives at risk—in other words, more to save 80 lives rather than to save 200 lives.

We could easily make some subtle to overcome some of our psychological barriers to giving. Just as the psychological ‘bystander effect’ makes us less likely to help when others are around, knowing that others are giving makes us more likely to give. The more people talk about what they give, the more we can expect others to give or even pledge it online (for example, check the work at

Financial charity it tends to flow in one direction. The philanthropist may be very generous but they are habitually the giver rather than the recipient.

But in life as a whole, and especially in relationships, charity is unlikely ever to end up being one-sided: who is weak and who is powerful changes rapidly and frequently. You are likely to be, as it were, a patron in one area and a beggar in another.

Charity is much more than just about money. It’s more about recognising that a person needs help with something that they can’t do for themselves – and that their helplessness is not a sign of anything other than a part of the human condition.  We freely give because we appreciate how often we wouldn’t have made it if other people had not – at key points, in different contexts – cut us some slack.

It is in our relationships with others that charity can have the biggest impact. Here we don’t generally require the charity of money, clothing and free meals. What we can be short of is charity of interpretation: that is, a charitable perspective on our weaknesses, eccentricities, anxieties and follies – failings that we are unable to explain or win sympathy for, that we merely act out, with vulnerability and hurt.

It might be that our partner has made a big boo boo in their professional life. They made a significant decision at work that played out pretty badly. They may have been severely criticised; there was even talk of legal action. For months, they have been extremely agitated, and hard to live with. They couldn’t articulate their fears. They were sulky and annoying. They might have had to have stern meetings and altercations with senior management, clients and maybe even people on Twitter.

As their partner, we could make the conclusion that our partner is a bit inept, greedy and maybe even unprincipled. But, the charitable soul would do the work that their partner has not been able to do. They do the explaining for them. They understand enough about their past to have a picture of where their impatience and over-ambition came from. They hold in mind what happened with their parents and with the move to another country and with the brother who died too young. They lend a picture of who the ‘human’ is that is sufficiently generous and complex as to make them more than just the ‘fool’ or ‘weirdo’  they could so easily have been dismissed as.

The genuinely charitable person gives generously from a sense that they too stand in need of charity. Not right now, not over this, but in some other area. They know that self-righteousness is merely the result of a faulty memory, an inability to hold in mind – at moments when one is totally right – how often one has been deeply and definitively in the wrong.

This is the hardest form of charity, I reckon. So much more challenging than emptying our pockets. A much more gruelling and systematic task. To continually be generous and kind to each other in the spirit of humanness.

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