As the seasons turn and the winter holidays near, people are likely to begin feeling more generous and consider ways of giving back — most notably, through charity.
In the name of altruism, many individuals take it upon themselves to give what they can — some even all that they own. Philosopher Toby Ord and his partner Dr. Bernadette Young of Oxford, United Kingdom provide notable examples, having gone so far as to consider charity more than an individual pursuit but as a moral obligation, donating all the income they don’t need for basic living to charity organizations year-round. Ord even began Giving What We Can, an aptly named network of hundreds of members — engineers, musicians and students — who have taken similar measures in their own lives.
However, while charitable acts can provide concrete relief, Orb and Young, or individuals like them, are in no way obligated to donate the money they don’t need for basic living.
While it’s easy to forget amidst press coverage of the charitable ventures of large foundations and corporations, the fact remains that 80 percent of U.S. annual giving already comes from individuals.
According to Philanthropy Roundtable, a U.S. nonprofit organization advising and serving the interests of philanthropists, individual donations, including personal gifts and bequests in wills, come to more than four times the amount that corporate giants such as Gates, Ford and Walton foundations give away each year.
Perhaps we shouldn’t ask how the individual, or even charitable foundation, can aid in the basic sustenance of millions of impoverished people worldwide but whether or not the current economic system allows for the success of charitable action.
In 2015, out of the nearly $390 billion of domestic and foreign charitable donations from the United States, the 20 most generous companies in the country, including Walmart and ExxonMobil, collectively only donated $3.5 billion in cash. The positive publicity this grants these companies, however, ought not overshadow their reputations for perpetuating the working poverty of their employees or collaborating with governments that entrench their citizens in impoverishment. Such acts are superficial marketing strategies and, at worst, self-cancelling.
As Mathew Snow wrote in a 2015 article in Jacobin, a left-wing quarterly magazine, “we should be questioning an economic system that only halts misery and starvation if it is profitable. Rather than solely creating an individualized ‘culture of giving,’ we should be challenging capitalism’s institutionalized taking.”
These effects aren’t only more potent and far-reaching, but long-lasting, permanent solutions to global impoverishment.
While we may contribute financially if we are able and inclined, we must above all educate ourselves and others to these social injustices and advocate for change so that such charitable acts may be realized.
If we don’t respond appropriately when we view such continued injustices, we are more than witness. We are accomplice. For we inadvertently benefit from that unjust system — even if, we too, feel pained by it.
While each of us might not have an obligation to donate all we have, we all have an obligation to work toward affecting these kinds of institutional, permanent solutions.
If the holiday season is to cue us into charitable behavior, let us do so cautiously. When shopping for holiday gifts, it’s just as charitable, perhaps even more so, to purchase goods consciously — from businesses that respect their workers rather than benefit from their forced poverty — as it is to offer our pocket change to a Salvation Army bin outside of the neighborhood drugstore on the way to buy our holiday greeting cards.