The Charity Business

It can be argued that charitable giving in the United States is America’s real favorite pastime. Before continuing, it is worth noting Mr. Webster’s definition of “pastime”: something that amuses and serves to make time pass agreeably. Perhaps it is not universally an amusing thing in which to take part (although in a few instances that is exactly what it is), but enough time and money are spent raising funds for charities that I’d qualify the concept of giving as a widely-enjoyed activity. Comparing the pastimes of charitable giving and baseball — for which “America’s pastime” was coined — charitable giving totaled $258 billion in 2014, compared to Major League Baseball’s measly $9.5 billion in 2015. I recently came to the conclusion that donating money to charitable organizations — “giving to charity” — because “it’s for a good cause” does almost exactly the opposite of “good.” While it may sound quite radical to argue against charity, one could agree that it is healthy to challenge the established order now and again. Besides, CNN’s Anderson Cooper has a webpage dedicated to the topic.

My main argument against charity, which incidentally is the cause of many charitable shortcomings, is that we only pitch in so that we can have a clean conscience. Nice old ladies, gentlemen wearing suits, and young children holding baskets appeal to our vulnerable selves, and we find it extremely easy to fork over some cash, or sign some sort of pledge to donate money. The defense? “It’s for a good cause” or “Oh, come on — it’s only ten bucks.” Regarding the former, you are taking the solicitor at his or her word without giving a second thought as to how that money will be spent. As for the latter, this equates to flushing your money away because you don’t know what to do with it. Unfortunately, these attitudes combine to allow organizations to collect and grow unchecked. On top of that, many funds simply go toward further marketing efforts and lavish annual galas.

When I was in middle school, I went to an international school in Southeast Asia. The social studies curriculum had a strong focus on impoverished communities and regularly had students reflect on their privileged lives in comparison to the people that lived in the surrounding communities. Back then, I was somewhat of a tree-hugging, peace-loving “hippie,” and I was inspired by campaigns put on by celebrities (of western culture) in order to reduce hunger or cure AIDS. One such campaign that I was very briefly involved with was the ONE campaign, led by U2’s Bono. The campaign’s mission was quite simple: to eliminate extreme poverty. The problem with such a lofty goal is, among other things, that it mostly mimicked the foreign aid methodology put into practice by the U.S. government — namely, throwing money at a problem. While this may provide for food or clothing in the short term, it does nothing for sustaining any meaningful progress over the long term. I think an apt metaphor would be catching someone a fish versus teaching someone to fish. Additionally, the incentive for creating a culture of entrepreneurship is minimized; instead, those on the receiving end of funds/supplies learn to be dependent on the generous foreigners that provide them with goodies.

Of course, there are many examples of charity organizations that operate in a manner that is quite distinct from what we tend to have in mind. Take Susan G. Komen. Among other things, this is an organization that exists in order to spread awareness about breast cancer. I would make the argument that the Komen Race for the Cure is one example of the “amusing” aspects of charity — at least if you are a runner! In addition to the questionable effectiveness of the organization, the former CEO of the charity — Nancy Brinker (who incidentally was once the U.S. ambassador to Hungary — received a salary of $684,000! Of course, I have nothing against people becoming very wealthy nor making lots and lots of money. If you are running a charity, however, I’m not sure that such a salary can be justified.

A couple of weeks ago, FreedomFest 2016 took place in Las Vegas, NV. Known as “The world’s largest gathering of free minds,” it included a panel-style debate with libertarian CEOs John Mackey of Whole Foods, John Allison of BB&T Bank and the Cato Institute, Jennifer Grossman of the Atlas Society, and Bill Bonner of Agora Financial. I was fortunate enough to be in attendance, and I was truly impressed with the quality of the debate. To kick it off, a quote was read from one of Bill Bonner’s books: “Most charity is a waste of time and money. Most likely you will do more harm than good.” The discussion became focused on Bill Bonner and John Mackey, two libertarians that maintain significantly different views on the matter of charity. I, of course, sided with Bill Bonner, for the reasons listed above and then some. For what it’s worth, the audience seemed to have been amused by Bill Bonner but in the end it appeared that they (not I) sided with Mackey.

 

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Bill Bonner (left) and me at FreedomFest

 
It is worth mentioning that I approach each new charity that I come across with an open mind. It is important to do your due diligence, though. Until now, there is not one charity of which I’m aware that I would support. Until I find one whose mission is to empower the individual, I will continue to abstain from charitable giving. I encourage everyone to question not the motives, but the methods employed by those charities to which they donate.


Also published on Medium.

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