Charity Begins at Home?

by Goldie on May 13, 2010

in Society and Culture

Way back at SXSW I had the great privilege of getting to meet and talk with a couple of people from my Guild, Joi and Elliot.  We discussed a lot of great topics, but one that sparked some thoughts that I wanted to share here was our discussion on philanthropy, or perhaps more accurately cultures of giving.

For many people the idea of giving or donating, other than the occasional beggar, fits within the context of donations organizations.  NPR runs regular funding drives, Corporations do “match funds”.  Texting donations for relief efforts for Haiti had specific organizations that took the funds and directed the funds to the relief efforts.   Then there are causes or works that we want to support, whether they be political or the arts.   Often things can be justified or given “more nobleness” by donating a percentage of profits to a particular cause.   In this culture there is a strong value given to giving, but within the context of giving to the larger society.

In our discussion at SXSW it came up that in some cultures giving to the “society at large” isn’t something that is viewed as valuable.  This isn’t to say that that they don’t value giving, they are no less generous than other people.  It is just that giving takes place in the context of “family”, whether relatives or a more extended chosen family.

From the perspective of those who see strong value in “society at large giving” this can at first glance seem surprising.   By giving to these organizations we influence and participate in the building of society.  To focus only on giving to family seems on one hand short sighted, and on another not as selfless as giving beyond the family.  Giving is occurring, but only to those that are known, only within a close circle.

I can understand that view, and I do see value to giving to societal causes.  However I would not rate one type of giving as being better than the other. Rather both are necessary.

It is interesting with these big causes that we contribute to, we are often thinking globally and acting globally.  With the ever present Internet and the global economy we are a global society.  However it is very easy to donate globally and keep the connection to those charities at a distance.  We may be doing good things in the world, but neglecting the needs close at home.

In one community I lived in we had a fund that was set up to help out those in the community who had financial needs.  The woman administering the fund would find out who was struggling and then would anonymously pay their power bill, or discreetly provide them groceries in a way that did not embarrass those that needed the funds, and at the same time keeping the donor anonymous as well.  She was really amazing.  In our community there were some real financial experts who made and donated millions.  My husband and I donated a portion of our monthly charity to them, hardly what I would think was a “major” contribution.  It turns out our donation was the majority of the funds for this charity.  This isn’t toot my horn – it is to express my shock.  There were many people in the community, one where everyone gave charity to the extend that they could.   Yet the funds were almost entirely going to those good organizations helping the poor in other countries, or the arts, or research.  These funds were not being given to help those who needed locally, their immediate community, their extended family.

The truth is it is easy to see why that might be.  No great movements or societal structures are being built by feeding hungry families in the community.  It made their lives easier, perhaps gave them the encouragement they needed.  But results, what results could be reported in the here and now.   Also, how much attention to do we pay to the local community.  We have jobs that take us away from home, often far away.  We have news that comes in from all of the world that makes whatever is happening locally seem trite.  We have connections flung far and wide.

In some senses it is easier to give to causes and global charities.  They are vetted, they have relevance in where we spend our focus.  But at the same time a key part of society is the communities in which we live and the people that we care for.  If we don’t care and support our extended family, then what foundation do we have.

So I do encourage giving to causes that benefit society at large.  It is how we build the world.  But at the same time remember that as important as it is to think globally, it is equally important to think and act locally.  Those that give to their extended family are key to society, a foundation that shouldn’t be left behind.

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