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What is charity?

Disaster response such as this SOS tsunami relief project is just one part of a much broader abstract concept
Disaster response such as this SOS tsunami relief project is just one part of a much broader abstract concept

Charity begins at home; we only have what we give; charity is giving more than we can afford – the clichés are endless. But what is the essence of charitable giving? This week, guest blogger Isabelle Anne Abraham seeks to answer the biggest question of all.

International Charity Day has come and gone, rather quickly and fairly unnoticed. It’s a troubling indication of the struggle that charities worldwide have to face.

It is vital that organisations local and international receive the support they need. This support does not necessarily mean money; it could be regular volunteer work or recognition through reputable news outlets.

A forgotten act?

According to an article in The Guardian, there is a trust issue here. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs), non-profits (NPOs), and charity groups are often viewed as “vehicles for corruption”. That, or else their integrity and impact are insufficiently demonstrated.

However, I believe there’s another element here: we have forgotten the act of giving. Or perhaps we never really understood how to give in the first place.

On the 5th of September 2014, the United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, spoke about the idea of charity: “Charity may come in many forms, from the volunteering of time and expertise to straightforward financial or in-kind donations… Whatever the case, such generosity and kindness, with no expectation of financial gain, can make profound differences in human well-being… Let us recognise charity for what it is at heart: a noble enterprise aimed at bettering the human condition… I call on people everywhere to act on the charitable impulse that resides in every human being – to start giving and to keep on giving.”

Getting giving going

It feels good to contribute towards a worthy cause, but there’s more to the concept of giving than a one-off (albeit generous) deed. With ongoing conflicts and global crises, it might be easier to look away and carry on with our own lives. But real charity forces us to acknowledge the suffering and hopelessness that many others experience. It develops a sense of empathy within us, and compels us towards making a truly positive change in at least one other person’s life. Charity goes beyond occasional offers of money or similar sorts of donations. It is a dedicated practice, adopted out of goodwill. And above all, genuine charity is voluntary.

The idea of ‘choosing’ a cause tends to make people uneasy. Yet what is significant is not whether the issue is related to human rights, disaster relief, animal welfare or something equally as important. What does matter is that we take notice of these problems, that we view them as our problems, and that we commit ourselves to the act of giving.

The act of giving, especially in these times of financial difficulty, does not have to occur in a monetary form. Take the controversial ice bucket challenge (IBC), for example. It’s been criticised for wasting water and being a self-congratulatory stunt. Nonetheless, it has undeniably brought attention – even if briefly – to the condition of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Furthermore, various ALS organisations reported a significant increase in funds because of the challenge. More importantly though, was its ability to spread incredibly quickly.

Aid packages arrive in the Philippines following the devastating typhoon of November 2013
Delivering the basics to those most in need is an important part of
charity. But can charity have a deeper meaning than shipments of aid?

So how can we foster charitable movements that will not only gain the same momentum as the IBC, but also sustain this drive?

True charity in four steps?

Firstly, for an act of charity to be sincere, a sense of community needs to be instilled. There is a social aspect to the IBC; if someone dumps icy water on their head, it encourages a friend to do the same. And even better, their networks can see this camaraderie in action, through social media.

This leads me to my second point, because (online) media channels are exceptionally influential when it comes to information dissemination, particularly in spreading awareness about certain causes. Credible media agencies are an invaluable tool in cultivating a culture of giving.

The IBC also has a certain ‘ease’ factor: everyone has access to a bucket of water, and are certainly able to pour it over themselves. Giving should always be easy anyway, never forced. Simone de Beauvoir, writer and activist, once said: “That's what I consider true generosity: You give your all, and yet you always feel as if it costs you nothing.”

Finally, although charitable acts are seldom meant to be entertaining, many regard the IBC as something fun. Unfortunately, this last aspect is not that simple to replicate. Another option could be to show others (particularly the young) how their actions are valuable to the lives of those who require aid.

Turning indifference to compassion

Though it would be difficult to spark a movement as powerful as the ice bucket challenge, the four factors above are key in promoting such a change. Additionally, if campaigns like these hit an inspirational peak, we can’t let the energy fade away into inertia. So what should individuals do?

Anything that arises out of benevolence. This could include consistent volunteerism; maintaining and increasing public awareness and interest; or using a skill, talent, or connection that you have to do something transformative – no matter if it’s on a small scale. Even sharing and encouraging kindness towards fellow beings is an act of giving.

All in all, the most fundamental success factor for charities is the transition from indifference to compassion.

Agree? Disagree? Either way, if this blog got you thinking, why not sign up to our free email newsletter to get the latest SOS updates and our blog of the month straight to your inbox?