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Acton Commentary

On #GivingTuesday, avoid benevolent harm

Everyone is familiar with Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Now in its seventh year, #GivingTuesday has also become a permanent and popular fixture in the post-Thanksgiving landscape.

#GivingTuesday occurs on the Tuesday immediately after Thanksgiving. On this special day people are encouraged to donate their money toward charitable causes. The official website for #GivingTuesday states that it “is a global day of giving fueled by the power of social media and collaboration.” #GivingTuesday has been astonishingly successful. Last year it generated 21.7 billion social media impressions and more than $300 million in donations.

As charitable organizations solicit donations under the #GivingTuesday banner, potential donors should carefully consider who they are giving to. In addition to concerns about the organization’s financial integrity, donors must gauge whether their charity of choice is unintentionally harming their intended beneficiaries. Indeed, some organizations unwittingly inflict benevolent harm. This tragic outcome happens more often than people realize and can be especially true of efforts that seek to serve those in material poverty.

How can one’s charity actually undermine the causes or people they mean to champion?

How can one’s charity actually undermine the causes or people they mean to champion? When serving the material poor, there are numerous ways charitable giving can go wrong. Creating unhealthy dependencies or an entitlement mentalities are one way. Undermining people’s dignity can be yet another.

The next logical question then is this: how can we avoid benevolent harm? A first step would be to understand the true meaning of charity. The Latin root word of “charity” is caritas, or love, the greatest of the theological virtues. St. Thomas Aquinas provides us a simple but helpful definition of love: “To will the good of the other” (Summa Theologica, II-II, art. 26, q. 6).

When charity is defined as “willing the good of the other,” it ought to necessitate that more reflection and thought be given towards the practical effects of one’s charitable acts. To will the good of the other goes far beyond a sugar high feeling after a donate button is pressed, with no thought given to whether that donation truly empowers someone. Caritas goes beyond a check-list mentality of doing an obligatory “good deed for the day.” No, true charity, true love seeks to affirm the dignity of people, enables them to utilize their God-given talents, and equips people to stand on their own two feet.

Here are three questions to consider when giving to a charitable organization. Does that organization’s efforts:

1.) Affirm or undermine people’s dignity? Everyone, being made in the Image of God (Gen. 1:26-7), enjoys intrinsic worth and is worthy of respect. Furthermore, people’s appropriate sense of pride and self-respect ought to be affirmed as much as possible. When we constantly place ourselves or the charities we support in the position of giver and continually relegate the material poor to the position of mere receivers, we undermine their dignity and self-worth. Instead, organizations should seek to partner with the material poor and be led by their vision and dreams.

How materially poor people are displayed in organizations’ marketing pieces can also serve to affirm or undermine people’s dignity. Charities that throw around photos of children with flies in their eyes or display people rummaging around in trash probably aren’t all that concerned about people’s dignity. Look for charities whose marketing communicates needs but simultaneously show people as proud, dignified, and possessing talents they can employ if only given a chance.

2.) Promote or discourage work? Contrary to popular belief, work is a gift given to us long before the fall (Gen. 2:15). We are made to work. Any charitable organization that intentionally or unintentionally discourages able-bodied people from working and providing for themselves and their families errs greatly. Make sure the charities you support don’t unintentionally develop dependency or entitlement within people they work with.

Look for organizations that seek to start businesses or enable people to start businesses themselves. It is enterprises, both large and small, that provide jobs, enable people to utilize their God-given talents, and provide the foundation for economic flourishing.

3.) Possess an exit strategy? Some charitable organizations seem to have institutional longevity as their main goal when they should in fact be working themselves out of the job. For example, a community development organization should have a date by which they want the community they have been working in to be self-sustaining. Once that is achieved, the organization should leave the area as quickly as possible.

Ask organizations if they have an exit strategy. Do they seek to build up a charitable empire? Or does the organization strive to reach certain goals that allow people to stand on their own two feet?

The answer to these three questions will go a long way in helping you determine organizations that are worthy of your support. So as we move into the charitable giving season, don’t just give. Consider the practical results of your charity. Study the charities you give to and most of all, will the good of the other.