People often don’t give charity, they buy it

If you want some kind of payback for your generosity, is it really charity?


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RED DEER, Alta. March 10, 2016/ Troy Media/ – We’re all busy at this time of year getting documents together for our tax returns. Did you find all your charitable receipts?

If you’re an average Canadian, you gave about $450 to charities last year. That’s from Statistics Canada, which looks at real numbers.

Every two years, the Association of Fundraising Professionals looks at trends and attitudes regarding charities, via the Ipsos polling group. The latest report contains a significant fudge factor, probably representative of what Canadians would tell a pollster versus what they’re telling Revenue Canada.

Their report, [popup url=”″ height=”1000″ width=”1000″ scrollbars=”1″]What Canadian Donors Want[/popup], tells us the average annual donation is $924. Seems one thing Canadian donors want is more credit than they’re entitled to.

But let’s ignore that anomaly. More at issue for the fundraisers are the factors that bring people to be charitable.

That obviously interests the fundraisers, but it also impacts government policy and our whole capitalist culture. Because it turns out charity isn’t everything we think it is.

Last fall, Canadian sociologist Linsey McGoey published a critique of modern big-money philanthropy titled [popup url=”” height=”1000″ width=”1000″ scrollbars=”1″]No Such Thing as a Free Gift[/popup]. Her book focuses on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and reveals parallels found by the fundraising association into what motivates people to give.

The main parallel I found between the book and the report is that donors want measurable results from their giving. Whether we are billionaires or 99 percenters, we want to know that our gift is accomplishing something.

Nothing wrong with that, right? Well, McGoey says there can be. Saying there’s no such thing as a free gift means we expect something back from our donations.

For individuals, supporting a religious institution is the top reason to donate. Curing diseases is next, supporting children and youth next, with food sufficiency and environmental causes after that. The big foundations are quite secular, so those other motivations bump up the list.

Big money changes a lot of things, but it doesn’t change basic human nature. We want to help others, but the more our donations help us the more likely we are to give.

Here’s an example from McGoey: charitable funding of charter schools. Years ago, Bill Gates declared public high schools to be obsolete. So he put $2 billion into new schools for 800,000 pupils, in a whole new program of learning.

The result? Students from these schools graduated not much better than average, with no statistical advantage in entering college. So Gates admitted he was wrong – and pulled his funding.

But in many neighbourhoods, the new charter schools had killed local public high schools. When they closed, thousands of students suddenly had no local school to go to. Graduation rates plummeted, as did college entry rates.

In short, Gates tried to play God with the education system. There was too much emphasis on results and when he didn’t get the results he wanted, he walked away. He wasn’t in it to stay in the same way taxpayers are in the education game with funding for public schools.

I was a board member of a non-profit that helped people with severe disabilities. There’s not a lot of room for personal improvement for this group – but they need supports.

Unable to get hard statistics from us – results – a local charitable agency stopped funding us. Its contributors want success stories, not hold-the-line stories. But what if success means just living more comfortably with your disability?

McGoey writes of how large industrial foundations fund projects that enable people to buy their products – often insisting recipients buy only their products. That’s not charity.

Wanting to create a society where every social agency has to prove numerically how they improve the lot of the people they serve isn’t charity, either.

Governments like to fund non-profits with tax dollars to provide community supports. Non-profits tend to do the job for half the cost.

Funders can be onerous bean-counters. Reporting and transparency costs can be more than a funding grant is worth.

But while we expect non-profits to report how much ink they use in their printers, we still allow giant foundations to act as they please. The Gates Foundation is larger than the United Nations World Health Organization, for instance, and really only answers to two people: Bill and Melinda Gates. It’s their money and they can spend it how they want.

But if you want some kind of payback for your generosity, is it really charity?

Greg Neiman is a freelance editor, columnist and blogger living in Red Deer, Alta. Greg is also included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.

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