What Is Charity?

Shortly after publishing The latest wheeze from Save The Children, a comment was posted by a woman who appears to be a lawyer. She appears too to have had second thoughts, because the next time I looked it was gone, and so was she. I won’t name her because I don’t want to embarrass Rachel Watkin, also I don’t have the full comment, but the following turned up in my inbox:

“This is a really lazy article Alexander. Really lazy. Do you really suppose that you can run a massive charitable organisation solely with volunteers? Who are these people who can work and exist for no money? I might sound crazy but charity workers still have to pay their rent and eat, right? Jus...”

No, the article is not lazy, it is well thought out. I know that not simply from arrogance or self-confidence but because I received quite a bit of feedback, including from two people who are not members of my fan club. Clearly the commenter has missed the point; I was not taking issue with the proposition that Justin Forsyth is a splendid fellow, I’m sure he is, people who are paid such exorbitant salaries tend to be happy, and when people are that happy, they tend to be nice to everyone they meet, even people they don’t like.

The point I was making is that Justin Forsyth and all the other highly paid staff of Save The Children and other charities are not themselves giving charity, rather they are pursuing their own careers, their own selfish interest as Ayn Rand would have said.

Charity can be defined as assisting a person or people unrelated to oneself voluntarily out of a sense of duty, out of kindness, or humanity. That is a definition I have just made up on the fly, but you will find similar definitions in sundry dictionaries.

The person or people assisted can be actual individuals, or they can be abstracts, people or even the whole of mankind in general. For example, when Madam Curie and her husband Pierre declined to patent their process for the isolation of radium, they were performing an act of charity for the benefit of the entire world and future generations; this was an act of supreme selflessness. Can a charity worker on a telephone number salary be said truly to be doing something comparable?

The second important point is that the recipient of charity must be someone unrelated, or at least not a member of the giver’s immediate family. I would actually go further than this and claim that the purest form of charity must be anonymous, not necessarily totally anonymous, but there must be sufficient distance between the giver and the recipient to negate any sense of obligation or even gratitude.

The third important point is that charity must be voluntary. Much of the funding of Save The Children is grant money from government agencies. This is not charity but socialism. Now there can be grey areas. Humanitarian aid given in the wake of a hurricane for example may include a large chunk of government money. I prefer not to think of this sort of thing as charitable giving, because at times like these, charities, NGOs and government agencies need to get their acts together immediately in order to save lives.

Someone who is paid a nominal sum, perhaps expenses, may also be said to be acting charitably. Suppose, hypothetically, a charity concert is organised to raise money for a specific cause. It is probably not outrageous for members of a rock band who can command mega-bucks to be flown in and put up at an hotel, and maybe to have the cost of their equipment underwritten and so on.

With those sort of exceptions though, no one can be said to be working for charity unless they are giving something for nothing.

Take a gander at the jobs page of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation website:

“We offer competitive salaries and a comprehensive benefits program that reflects the foundation’s values and culture.

Health, vacation, and retirement benefits include:

Medical/vision and dental for employees, spouses/domestic partners, and dependent children (100% of monthly premiums paid by the foundation)...Minimum three weeks’ vacation in addition to 10 observed holidays, 3 personal days, and 12 sick days

Voluntary benefits plans, including supplemental life insurance, group accident insurance, pre-paid legal, long-term care, pet insurance, and discount auto/home insurance...$1,500 annual life cycle lump sum payment for employees’ discretionary use...Employees in our India, China, and Europe offices also receive competitive salaries and benefits, reflective of local pay practices.”

Yes, the people who work for the Gates Foundation are doubtless doing sterling work as are those working for Save The Children, for the most part, but the people who are giving the charity here are Bill Gates and his good lady wife. The Foundation’s employees are doing jobs for which they are paid, and paid well. There is nothing at all lazy about that simple observation, and only an overpaid lawyer could suggest there is.

[The above article was published originally as a blog December 25, 2012; it included an image - not uploaded by me - which I have not bothered to include here.].

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