Saturday, 5 September 2015

In Defense of Impulse Charity

So, these horrible pictures happened. And the world woke up to the fact that we are, indeed, talking about human beings and not "swarms of refugees" as the Daily Mail would have it.

And now everybody is falling over themselves to try and help.

Well, not quite everybody.

There are those who still insist that, no, it's not our responsibility, and I've already said what I thought about such a position.

And there are those who point out that such types of emotive charitable responses are not ideal, that charity really should be better thought-through than just reacting to a picture and then sending money to whichever big name crosses your mind or news-feed first, without checking whether such charities do indeed use the money on helping (rather than on bureaucratic costs), whether the plans of these charities are thought-through enough to actually fit the needs and wants of the people they purport to help.

And of course this second point is a valid one. 

When I was 8 or 9, there was a big push about the crisis in Somalia, and our school organised a big collection of packets of rice. We all dutifully filled big brown bags full of packets of rice, and felt great about having done something to help the children we saw on television.

Of course, it didn't turn out like that, as I found out years later. In fact, most of the product was confiscated by the government there, and distributed only to their partisans. Also, even for those who did get our packets of rice, procuring water to drink was hard enough, cooking up some rice was not even on the list.

So yes, our big push that made us feel so great, was all for nothing. In fact, there is every chance it actually made the situation worse.

Should we have not bothered then?

People have got strategies set in place these days to try and avoid such situations. Sites such as GiveWell assess the efficiency of various charities to help us make sure our money gives the most help possible to people who actually need it. And that is fantastic.

However, most major charities, the ones who have the resources to organise appeals and draw the attention of the average Joe, fail miserably to meet these websites' criteria. So, sometimes, there isn't actually a charity you can give to, who will address the particular crisis you were moved by.

I ask it again, should we not bother then?

Should we save our money for the most ideal, the most definitely efficient charities, regardless of the news?

Should we resist a natural movement of pity, on the grounds that we will probably be made fools of in the process?

Well, in my town, that is clearly the council's opinion, since they have put up posters everywhere, reminding people not to give money to beggars, because such a percentage of them are addicts you are enabling, such a percentage of them are organised in rapacious gangs. Give instead to charities, the poster says.

And of course, the logic is sound.

But in effect, if I don't give something to beggar by the steps of the cathedral, intent instead on going home and looking up a good charity that may help him, by the time I make it to my computer, I am reminded of how tight our budget actually is, how these charities will want monthly payments set up rather than take my change, monthly payments I can't be sure to afford every month. Or life will have happened in the meantime, and I will never get round to it.

So I will be left, pound in hand, having done exactly nothing. 

Now THAT is less than ideal. 

It MAY mean that the beggar will not buy his next beer, or his next shoot. But if that was his intention to start with, then he will probably find another way to do it. And what if it wasn't his intention? What if I deprived him of a meal under the guise of responsible giving?

So, my point?

I think it is good we are moved to action by horrible images. And it is better to shower starving human beings with baby-carriers than to do nothing, and give them the clear message that we don't even care. It is good, that we spontaneously want to open borders, even if it means we will have many problems down the line.

The impulse is good, even though the impulse may be weak and short-lived. This impulse is also what makes us humans. So we really shouldn't squash the impulse with fears and logic.

Because, in the words of Margaret Hale, "Surely to give a dying baby food is not just a matter of logic."

It's not the ideal way to give to charity, and I hope that in time, I will grow better at being intentional with my money-giving, have a set sum and some rules so that this broken world of ours is better helped. But in the meantime, weak human that I am, I will do the impulse charity thing, because it is better, far better than the callousness that would grow in my soul from doing nothing.


  1. I heard a Christian speaker several years ago who recommended impulse charity. When someone in the audience questioned whether that was simply enabling, she replied that if God is working on you, to teach you charity, then your responsibility is to respond to the Holy Spirit moving you to give, and to let God worry about the rest. If you don't struggle with charity then perhaps God will call you to "more responsible" giving, but we have to be very careful not to cover over our desire not to give with pious words about wanting to give in the best way, while actually we do nothing. It's something that has stuck with me.
    It's been very interesting since I joined the Church, the volume of charitable solicitations I suddenly get in the mail. Most are from groups I've never heard of, and I'm frequently at a loss as to how to evaluate them and choose one or two to support. My priest recommended giving to the local places such as the soup kitchen and crisis pregnancy center, and I thought that was good advice, but I still wish I could find one or two more international charities I could give to with confidence. I love Compassion International, but they aren't specifically Catholic, so I'm still looking for a Catholic organization. Any recommendations?

  2. The main international one I know is the Secours Catholique in France, which is part of Caritas Internationalis. I think they have had some issues in the past with actually following the Church's teaching, though, and I don't think they have been reviewed by GiveWell, but they are big enough to be involved in most international issues. (I am not very good at responsible giving yet, as you can tell!)