Shoppers who spent a little too much on Black Friday and Cyber Monday had the chance to opt for a feel-good fix on Giving Tuesday this week.
Dubbed #GivingTuesday, the annual social media movement claims to “kick off the charitable season” by encouraging people to donate to charities around the world on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving. For the most part, it crops up as online donation portals that allow you to help your favorite cause with the click of a mouse.
Giving Tuesday supports some good causes, but it isn’t the best way to be generous.
Rather, its promotion of simple online donations can be a form of materialism itself — encouraging us to act as though money and things will solve people’s problems and to support organizations that do the same. And it can distract us from giving our greatest immaterial resource: the time we could spend volunteering and building relationships in our local communities.
Online giving is becoming more popular. According to the latest M+R Benchmark Study of nonprofit giving metrics, online giving revenue in 2016 increased by 14 percent over 2015 totals. And the Network for Good’s Digital Giving Index found that about 30 percent of online donations on their platform in 2015 — nearly $250 million to more than 40,000 nonprofits — took place in December.
Despite generous intentions, the money you’re donating probably won’t have the effects you imagine — and might even wreak unintended havoc.
Most of the third-party charitable organizations that handle your money don’t use it to the most helpful ends, argues “Poverty, Inc.,” a 2014 documentary produced by the Acton Institute. They often flood money or goods into an impoverished community, stripping the local people of the ability to help themselves and glutting a market that would otherwise work smoothly on its own in the long run, the film points out.
For example, the film criticizes the trendy TOMS shoes organization, which donates a pair of shoes to a poor person for every pair bought in the U.S. The slip-on shoes used to be made in local Argentinian communities. But with free ones coming in, local shoemakers found themselves out of business.
A church sending eggs to Rwanda and the U.S. government dumping free rice on Haiti created similar problems, the film explains — putting local people out of work by giving them goods they could produce themselves.
Ultimately, the film demonstrates, projects and organizations like these are all too common, and they do more harm than good. By flooding impoverished markets with goods, even well-intentioned charities aren’t just hurting the economy but also treating poor people as if they’re incapable, material consumers, not creative entrepreneurs worth the investment of our time and effort.
The problem affects domestic charity efforts, too.
“Our society … has been all too willing to write off some subset of our neighbors, seeing them as burdens to be managed at minimal expense. We must reject this,” writes Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, in his discussion of American poverty in his book “The Conservative Heart.” Instead, he argues, people should be treated as assets who can create value and who want to earn their success — and that requires investment of our time to help them.
Thoughtless material giving makes a condescending assumption, what Covenant College professors Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett, authors of “When Helping Hurts,” call “resource paternalism.” By dumping goods or money on a community, we’re implying that the local people can’t help themselves with their own creativity, skills, and hard work — that they need to subsist on our excess goods.
Moreover, material giving assumes that poverty is a material problem, which is true only to an extent. Certainly, physical needs should be met with physical goods like food and clothing, especially in the wake of disasters. Providing material goods can be an effective ministry, but as a long-term solution, it won’t suffice.
“Poverty is rooted in broken relationships,” write Fikkert and Corbett. The solution, then, is in building relationships, not just making sure the poor have the food and clothes they need.
And that requires a lot more work than a one-click bank-account transfer or sending a check in the mail. It requires your time and involvement, especially in your local community, where you can sustain lasting relationships.
Local volunteering is inconvenient in the holiday season, but it’s much more rewarding. Forego a few hours at the shopping mall to spend time working at the local food pantry, sorting clothes at a pregnancy center, or tutoring a nearby student. Make a meal for a family at your church. Get to know your neighbor, and find out if they need yard work or a babysitter.
Love your actual neighbor — someone within your reach, whose needs you know and with whom you can build a long-term relationship with.
An hour of volunteering is worth $24.14, according to the Independent Sector — far more than the average millennial wage. But regardless of monetary value, volunteering is a better method of self-sacrifice. It’s more reflective of Christ, who took time to dine with the poor and the sinners and talk with children and humble women, and who’s supposed to be the center of attention this time of year.
It’s not wrong to give on #GivingTuesday. If you do it next year, take the time to research the organizations you donate to. Make sure they treat poor people as creative, talented, and capable, and that they seek to establish relationships.
Give money, thoughtfully — and don’t be satisfied with your generosity till you’ve given away a lot of your time.
Nicole Ault is a junior studying economics.