Monday, April 7, 2014

On the impersonal nature of charitable giving in the USA

I really struggle with the way we give in the USA.

We give a lot. Statistically, we are a very charitable country, and that's great. We give to a lot of things. We provide tax write-offs to continue to build a culture of philanthropy. That's great. But...

It struck me over Christmas. There were all these commercials and blogs and feel-good stories about people giving instead of getting, and we all have our hearts warmed by the ability to do something special for really needy people. But... I also felt a little cynical. There were some needs I knew of this Christmas that were really personal and I thought how much those on the receiving end were grateful for the gift, but would much rather simply have not needed it. The giving can feel a little like taking advantage of hardship in order to get a one-time feel-good high without managing to make a long-term difference.

It struck me in Chicago. I remember people from my company going to host an event at an orphanage. Externally it was such a good thing. We put on activities for the kids, it really sweet, and it's really great that instead of just hoarding corporate profits, this money was being spent on kids in need, right?

And yet. How much was for the good of those kids and how much was actually so that WE could get the warm fuzzies of a beautiful party and delighted children and pat ourselves on the back for doing a good thing, and then never see those kids again. Did they actually benefit from our fancy party? Or did it just increase the distance between us and them? Why is so much of our giving to the poor so impersonal?

A study I did recently was emphasizing thankfulness over discontentment. The action point was to go and serve someplace with people in true need, like a soup kitchen, and then to spend some time really pondering those people and your life. The intent obviously being that you come away struck with how much you really have and how petty your discontentment is. True, you might. But in the process you increase the distance between them, the really broken, the really needy, and you, who are in contrast really fine. Us. Them.

Our church did this thing where everyone was given a small amount of cash and challenged to consider how God would have them use it.  Awesome. I was struck, though, in reading through the stories of how the money was used, that the vast majority of people gave their money to a big charity. This tells me that most people don't know of a personal need that they could meet, so their best bet is to give to a charity that has great marketing and gives their donors warm fuzzies. The fact that we buy houses in neighborhoods with people all like us means we isolate ourselves from being in close relationship to greater need and brokenness.... or just plain diversity.

I worked with refugees in Dallas until we moved up to McKinney. It was wonderful. But it was amazing to see how much we want to give... clothes... food.... gifts... money. But not really personal relationships. That's too hard. We want to GIVE. Not get involved personally. And yet at a symposium of all the organizations working with refugees in DFW, a panel of refugees that have been here for a long time now said that what is truly needed in the refugee community is just friendship. Long-term, invested friendship. 

We had someone we talked to this year tell us that they have decided not to give to anything they don't know about personally because only when they really know the people are they able to engage emotionally and really be "cheerful givers". Well, there's that. But it could also be that your giving is really for yourself, so that you feel good, rather than simply in obedience. 

Jen Hatmaker hit it on the nose when she spoke at the IF:Gathering and talked about being totally convicted by the needs in the world and thinking that my word, they were going to have to move to Africa if they were really going to obey God's call to go to the least of these. And through all of that angst, they had a widower next door to them who was totally dysfunctional and thus the butt of neighborhood jokes. The needs next door are sometimes invisible to us, because sometimes really giving is slow, daily work that involves friendship and time and isn't particularly gratifying.

There was some time during our life here in Dallas when we couldn't pay our bills and were reeling from car repairs and baby bills, and realizing our own need was really convicting. People gave to us, and that was SO humbling and beautiful. But. You know what the best and most empowering gifts were that year? A man I know in Wichita contacted me with advice about car insurance. I got a promotion at work. Some people online gave me guidance about handling medical bills and paying out over time.

None of that feels like "giving", but they met more needs than one-time gifts could, lasted over time, and gave me the ability to handle our finances and life with confidence and personal investment instead of just passively receiving. If you teach a man to fish...

Sure, if we give to, say, a program that provides gifts for children of single parents, that's great. But if you're a single parent family, you will be more powerfully spoken to if people that you KNOW are talking to you, helping you, and celebrating with on the holidays. Relationship.

I'm not saying that giving is bad. Far from it. I am saying, though, that we need to think hard about whether we are giving for ourselves, or if we are giving out of obedience to God. I am saying that we need to think about a lifestyle of giving that combines love, relationship, and finances, rather than giving impersonally. I am saying that we should be so involved in our community that we know the needs and are meeting them.... in whatever way we can.


RetroWisconsin said...

I would challenge you to consider that the need of a refugee for community and interpersonal relationship is completely different than those US citizens living in poverty. Many who have lived here their whole lives are willing to take help and are grateful for it, but don't want people involved in their personal lives. It's an American thing about pride and privacy. Anyway, your general point about impersonal giving is something I've often thought about....which is why we've started giving to and volunteering in one of the poorest and most ethnic neighborhoods in Milwaukee. It's a start.

RetroWisconsin said...

By the way I can get this ID to change. It's Char

Kacie said...

Hey Char. Well, thing is, I think we DO want people involved in our personal lives, but we don't want strangers involved. That's my point, though. It's always better to have people that you ALREADY know. The real challenge is to be living internationally all the time, not as a charity project.

The fact that we immerse ourselves among people just like us makes it really difficult to actually help a different group, because we are unable to really build life-on-life relationships.