By world standards, most of the people reading
these webzine columns are wealthy. So, given that we have
more than most, how much should we give as charity? And is
our giving obligation, goodwill or guilt?
Perhaps I have an unusual perspective because I was born
in India and grew up with beggars on the streetpeople in
various states of distress who intruded to solicit alms. Sometimes
we gave them a couple of coins, but most often we ignored
them. Indeed, they were so much a part of the scenery that
I really didn't notice them until much later, when I returned
from abroad. Only then did I really see the old familiar faces
of beggars that I had known since boyhood. I doubt if they
knew me, because they gave me the same blank stare that they
give any prospective donor. Perhaps I was noticed a bit more
because I now had the aura of a more susceptible foreigner.
When I started giving out the equivalent of nickels, my mother
warned me to limit my benevolence to the norms. I wondered
what she meant till I was overwhelmed by a persistent following,
including some who had already received their alms just minutes
before. They were simply testing the limits of my foreign
naiveté. Evidently, word had spread via the local grapevine.
When I ventured out the next day, a beggar's brigade greeted
me. Indeed, I had to end up being quite rude, to escape their
The situation is not different in the U.S., where I live
now. Once you give to any charity, you become a marketing
target for those who know that you are indeed a donor. You
are inundated with junk mail and telephone soliciting which
you have to fight off and discard until you eventually dwindle
to the status of a bad prospect.
So, what exactly is charity? Is it an obligation,
or does it stem from guilt? How much should I give and to
who? And, who sets the parametersReligion? Society? Family?
Relatives? Country club? Should I heed the pleas of the preacher,
or simply keep up with the Joneses?
Religion is always the first bastion of benevolence. Who
better to set the ground rules than the links with the Almighty?
You go to church to feel holy, and peer pressure takes overif
your neighbor puts some coins in the plate, why not trump
that with paper money? If they have already papered the plate,
no one will notice your $10 bill, so it may be better to put
in a few dollar bills instead.
The salesmanuh, the pastor or rabbitakes care to present
both sides of the argument: if you give more, you'll receive
more; if you don't, then your selfishness will get what it
deserves. To test your giving to the limit, you are advised
to give till it hurts. To make it easy for you (and consistent
for the bookkeeper) tithing was inventedgive a percentage
of your earnings, and in return you will receive the maximum
blessings, a good investment.
If you don't go to church, then this secular society has
a plethora of possibilities to clear your conscience or goad
You can donate to United Way, or the Salvation Army, or the
Ysecure in the knowledge that your giving is in good hands
and indeed is tax deductible. You can melt when you see the
pitiful pictures of poor orphans in some far away place and
hear Sally Struthers's plea for your generosity to help them
survive for another day. Does charity apply to humans only?
How about those poor cats and dogs in the animal shelter?
Perhaps children should be first; but would a starving adult
be more deserving than a not-so-starving child?
Perhaps you should know exactly how much of your donation
actually goes to those orphans after the marketing and administrative
salaries have been paid and the expenses for TV advertising
and sales brochures have been deducted. Ask your favorite
charity for that percentage. You will be surprised.
Most charities take care to remind you that your gift is
tax deductible. Does that encourage you to give more, or does
it discount the value of your giving? Donating your time or
giving to the homeless in the street is indeed charitybut
it cannot really be documented and is not tax deductible.
The old adagecharity begins at homeis a good starting
point. Does that mean just your immediate family, or should
it include relatives and their extended dependents? Should
you give more to the ones in need, or distribute your largesse
And where is home? Is it my neighborhood, or the huddled
homeless in the seedy part of town? Should I help the earthquake
victims in El Salvador first, because they are nearer to where
I live now? Or should my first allegiance be to the Indians
in Ahmedabad because of my origin? If I can afford it, why
not help both? I'm supposed to give till it hurts. So, how
much should I hurt?
Some people seem to advertise their public donations to music
and the artsthough, I don't personally see how helping to
pay the salary of the cellist should be considered charityif
the ardent patrons of the arts needs so badly to hear the
symphony, let them simply pay more for their tickets!
Cynics point out that charity brings its own reward. The
good feeling you get when you serve the needy is itself the
benefit you derive. Anyone who has his or her name advertised
as the benefactor of the new library or hospital wing already
receives the benefit of recognition. Let's not call it charity
and make it tax deductible in the bargain.
I have come to the conclusion that charity is only charity
when you give goods, services or money without personal gain,
benefit or recognition of any kind. True charity is anonymous.
It begins and ends within your self.
Copyright © 2001 Jim Pinto. All Rights
San Diego, CA.