Why Do We Give?

Why Do We Give?
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What really motivates our giving? What drives our charitable decisions?

While the desire to do good is certainly a powerful motivator, we also love ourselves. There's no doubt that personal agendas and feelings have a tendency to bubble up in the altruistic mix. This is a slippery slope because personal opinions, desires, and skepticism can easily override compassion.

It's easy to talk ourselves out of being charitable.

Whether it's a poor country or the panhandler on the corner, many take the defeatist tack of "Well, they'll probably just spend it all on booze," or "I can't make any real change happen for them."

This kind of cynical thinking undermines the essence of giving -- which is to expect nothing in return. Making charity contingent upon certain outcomes makes us less charitable, and often makes us default to inaction.

No one likes to be taken for a ride or feel like their charity has been wasted. Certainly it's not good to knowingly enable negative behaviors, to support fraudsters, or to give in a way that causes problems or creates chaos. We've got to exercise common sense.

It is a great thing that savvy, informed, and involved donors want smarter charity and development that provides more "bang for their buck" (low overhead costs, measurable results, etc.) as opposed to bogus or ineffective charity. But sometimes our perception of success or what is helpful can be short-sighted, selfish ("I know what's best for those people!"), or just miss the point all together.

This issue gets to the heart of why we even give in the first place: Is it for our own edification or for the people we want to help?

I used to live with a guy named Bob who let homeless people stay at his place until they could get on their feet. His remarkable hospitality led to some miraculous transformations, but also resulted in many things being stolen from his house. He invested in a lot of people who ended up taking advantage of his generosity in one way or another.

Most people would have changed the locks and kicked everyone out after the first item disappeared, but not Bob. In my short time at the house, I saw several people come and go, many of whom would inevitably float back to the streets even after seeming to make so much spiritual and emotional progress. Some would just disappear after lifting something.

One day after my own laptop vanished, I asked Bob how he managed to keep caring the way he did after so much disappointment. He explained that his approach was more about hopeful, purposeful seed-sowing, as opposed to expecting direct, tangible results. We can't control the decisions people make, he thought. But we can control how much we invest in their lives.

Generally speaking we are powerless to fix other people's problems, but we can look a person in the eye, offer to take someone to lunch, sponsor a child, or help someone start a small business.

I like Bob's attitude about charity because it rises above the selfish sulking or self-righteous disappointment we may indulge in when things don't play out to our liking. This approach nullifies many of the excuses we use to avoid personal involvement with helping people in need. Having been burned in the past, feeling overwhelmed by the scope of a problem, or perceiving a lack of sufficient "progress" isn't a good enough excuse to stop trying or to stop giving. Who knows about the long-term impact of your efforts here or abroad?

Sometimes even the most sincere charitable efforts backed by sound methodology and highly rated organizations don't always translate into whatever our idea of smashing success may be. Development projects may or may not make a community more prosperous. Fred on the corner may or may not try to trade that sandwich you just gave him for a Steel Reserve tallboy. We may or may not live to see miraculous transformations in poor countries or see the guys at Bob's house do "great things." All we can control is our motives, our due diligence in seeking out legitimate charitable endeavors, and how much we choose to invest with our time, money, and effort.

Regardless of the outcomes we can see with our eyeballs or point to on a spreadsheet, being generous and openhanded always plants positive seeds. It's also good for us. Being charitable without strings attached and without expectation is also one the best antidotes for the uniquely destructive misery of greed.

Better then to do our best to make charity about others, and err on the side of compassion.

Robby Brumberg is a writer and editor based in Florida.

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