The art of giving charitably

If there was one worldly thing I had to associate with the word ‘repulsive’ it would be present gift lists. Many of my otherwise delightful coupled-up friends have nearly seen my non-attendance at their nuptials by sending me an exclusive access code to their top department store digital wish list. Invariably, by the time I get around to accessing said outlet, the only remaining item to be bought is a Nutribullet bundle. Once the temporary amusement that this perfect couple has accidentally included a vibrating, all purpose sex toy on their list has been dispelled, nausea at fuelling their freshly-squeezed diet sets in.

I get why you’d make a gift list: you can consider yourself magnanimous in taking the stress out of the thinking and purchasing for the rich childless aunt you rarely see; you avoid having four tea pot and cup sets. But surely that’s part of the point of present buying: not only at weddings but also for birthdays and national days of celebration. No matter how busy you are, a gift should be representative of a thought and personalised process rather than just another capitalist transaction. After all, if you can’t find a themed tea pot that reflects a joke or memory you share with the happy couple, then you probably shouldn’t be going to their big day. This extends to Secret Santa suggestions. At the behest of my mortified boyfriend, I recently had to remove a comment on social media in response to his group of friend’s annual £5 swapathon in which I refused to participate if we offered a list of suggestions of what we would like to receive  – I mean, it’s not as though your specification will ensure you get a life-changing offering.

A few years ago, I was given a pair of (virtual) charity donkeys for Christmas. Having never written a letter to Father Christmas, I’m used to getting whatever random junk my brother cares to re-gift, or personalised hand-baked offerings from my Mum and while I’m not hard to buy for (and easily pleased) I thought this present reflected a soupçon of ‘can’t be assed’ (get it?). Of course, I was thrilled that my relatives had chosen to redirect the usual gift vouchers into a philanthropic donation, I was just dubious as to whether their money would actually make a difference.

For those who want to ‘give a little back’ or who are just stuck for present ideas, you can now purchase 10 chicks for £10 from Age Concern, a pile of poo from Oxfam Unwrapped for the same fee or even help deliver a baby for £27.50 from Unicef because, you know, noone wants to witness all that mess in person. Sarcasm aside, surely any means of augmenting charitable donations and their contribution to overseas development aid (ODA) should be encouraged (notwithstanding the critique levelled at ODA to developing world infrastructure and local level accountability)? Certainly, increased public and individual level contributions to non-governmental organisations is an important buy-in for the third sector and one they wish to safeguard and expand upon.

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However, encouraging this form of ‘boxed-in’ philanthropy is problematic. These hypothecated funds associated with specific gifts function as a low-scale equivalent of vertical aid programmes and the 1990s explosion of specific funds such as the Roll Back Malaria Partnership, UNAIDS and the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (which prioritise funding, research and development of specific diseases rather than a more explicitly multi-sectoral, cross-disease burden approach) with associated risks of in-silo working which could, as outlined in this article, leave people behind. Realistically, if your great-aunt annually donates a pair of donkeys on your behalf, you are going to help alleviate a pocket of transportation and access challenges in mountainous Nepal, but will there be enough resources (monetary, skills- and personnel-based) to provide shelter or produce food for these animals?

Luckily, it is unlikely that such ‘thoughtful’ or ‘inspired’ donations go directly to the donkey supermarket, but more probably become absorbed in the donor organisation’s integrated ‘vertical-horizontal’ and collective efforts in locales and populations of focus. But perpetuating a layperson vision of humanitarian aid as a compartmentalised activity grossly undermines the complexity of such altruism; the compounding factors of power and politics, and the bias of perceived and expressed need. Which prompted me to consider: how can we ensure that our money does more good than harm? How can we ensure that its potential is maximised? One such answer was presented by watching Peter Singer’s TED talk about Effective Altruism (EA). Since he delivered this speech in 2013, EA has developed as a worldwide social movement.

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Image Credit:

Most of us will probably have heard of EA, but what exactly is it, and why do I think it might represent a more appropriate and reasoned art of charitable giving? Its official catch line is ‘doing good better’ and fundamentally seeks to answer – through actions and discussion – where and how a small set of individuals can make the biggest difference. It combines both the heart and the head through employing global empathy, critical thinking and open-mindedness to try to choose the path that will make the most difference to global wellbeing. A practical example is as follows: the cost of a guide dog for the blind is $42,000. As an alternative, the cost of performing surgery to correct trichiasis, the blinding stage of trachoma, often costs as little as $40 in developing countries. This surgery is 80% effective. Therefore, sight can be restored to 840 people for the cost of one guide dog, and the guide dog does not restore sight.

There are many ways for both haters of present gift lists, and considered philanthropists, to participate in the EA movement, including through the charity GiveWell,  or the career-focused 80,000 hours which considers how you can make a social impact through your work. Some might argue that wedding gift wish lists practice their own version of effective gifting, but furnishing a newly-weds first home does not really come into the same arena as development assistance, or donkey transportation for that matter. So next time you make a charitable gift, stop and think whether you are just buying into an easy, ready-made option, or whether you are putting the most effort and productivity into your pound.


Image Credit: Randy Stewart, Flickr

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