Why You Shouldn’t Give to Charity


Next time you pass a "Food for the Poor" donation box, keep your $5 and buy yourself a salad; it’ll be better for you and better for the poor.

Drop the $5 in and here’s what happens....

Fast forward a few days. Those $5 feed a hungry mouth for one meal – and teach it to wait for the next handout. With each donation, you make that mouth slightly less able to feed itself and eventually create dependency. So stop it already. Or at least think ahead if you want to help – are you building capacity or fostering paternalism?

Paternalistic projects weaken people’s ability to help themselves. Donated farming equipment, solar panels, or seeds suggest that the recipients are incapable of acquiring these things on their own. Without ownership or pride in the project, the recipients often lack the motivation to implement long-term goals. Sustainability suffers in the palm of these handouts as people simply wait for the next one. This concept may seem obvious, but paternalism is often subtle, hiding behind an organization which means well.   

I opened with Food for the Poor as an example of a capacity killer; many other organizations also sound good but don’t help. Harvest International donates medical supplies, food, and school supplies, cornering their recipients with disempowering gifts. Toys for Tots is a Christmas favorite – it’s Tiny Tim’s only chance to have a merry time. It also teaches Tim at a young age that he’s so poor he must rely on handouts – that he’s a charity case. It’s almost sinister, it’s so paternalistic.

"But I want to help!" you say. Of course you do. And there are plenty of charities that build capacity (that is, help people help themselves). Habitat for Humanity builds houses with poor families – and the poor pay for them. Down and monthly mortgage payments are reinvested into Habitat and used to pay for other houses. Amnesty International protects against human rights abuses by freeing prisoners of conscience and pushing governments to change laws allowing torture or denying due process. Donations help Amnesty research and campaign more effectively and with each success, Amnesty makes it more difficult for these kinds of abuses to occur unseen.

There are exceptions.

Some charities are more of an investment than a donation. Giving blood to the Red Cross could one day save you in an emergency room. Donating to the Salvation Army at Thanksgiving lets you buy cheap, brand name shirts for your younger brother’s Christmas present (he’ll never know). Yes, it also helps the poor.

Other charities are simply so specialized there is almost no way to make them sustainable. Operation Smile fixes cleft lips for those who can’t afford surgery. Disasters are inherently special events and sustainability should not concern charities focused on disaster relief.

However unintentionally, many charities hurt their recipients through paternalism by reducing their ability to help themselves and your five dollars is much better spent elsewhere. Still hungry for a donation instead of a salad? That’s fine, but before donating, ask yourself, are you building capacity or just improving your image at the company Christmas party?

Photo Creditbrittany.durgin