Charity is a tricky business

In the wake of Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) I have stuffed cash in donation boxes, contributed to a church donation drive, participated in a bake sale and bought tickets to a fundraising dinner.

And all this has brought up two issues:

1) Why do we so often need an incentive (in this case, cakes and dinner, but also things like people absailing and doing marathons etc) to contribute to a cause?


2) Can making children participate in charitable sponsorship activities (e.g. sponsored walks) be harmful?

Today, I want to focus on issue number two.

As an adult, the way I usually contribute to a charity is either in the form of outright cash donations (thank goodness for online payments) or by becoming a volunteer.  I’m lucky in that I have the disposable cash to make a donation, and that I have the choice to not publicize how much I am donating.

As a child, however, the situation was very different.

It was all the rage, when I was in primary school, to have children participate in sponsored walks and runs etc.  Nothing wrong with that, you might say. Encourages charitable giving, perhaps? Sure, but each and every one of these activities was accompanied by the incentive – a prize for the people who raised the most in sponsorship.

Most primary-aged children don’t have much in the way of disposable cash. They might get a few relatives and neighbors to be involved, but very few are going to be asking strangers on the street to sponsor them.  They can’t ask their school friends as they are all participating the same ‘competition’.  So really, these sponsorship activities are directed at the parents – those who have a lot of disposable cash to make a sizable donation to their child’s sponsorship form, and those who have rich(er) friends and colleagues.

So whether or not your child ‘wins’ is really up to the parents….and the size of their wallets.

And how galling is it to tell a child both that you’ve not done that well, and that the reason you’ve not done that well is because your parents couldn’t afford it?

That is not a great message, is it?

I’m not at primary school now.  But I  have seen an uptick in celebrating children who give up their pocket money (however small), to buy a book for mobile library program, or some vegetables for a soup kitchen.  I’ve been impressed by kids who have taken time out to man lemonade stands at school fairs, or to visit the blind.

Charity, we are led to believe, particularly in the wake of a huge disaster, is about how much money you raise.  But by doing that, we stifle charitable giving of those who have less to give, those who wish to give something other than money, and those who would prefer to remain anonymous.

Ultimately, charity should not be able who gives the most, or who wins the ‘who raised the most’ competition.  It’s about giving to help others, because you want to, because it is the right thing to do.

So the bake sale and fundraising dinner I’m attending – why am I doing that?  Not because I necessarily think it’s a great way of supporting the typhoon victims (after all, I could just send the cash).  But my friends and neighbors are organizing these events, and I need to support them.

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