What Is Charity?
In a New York Times article entitled What is Charity? Professor John D. Colombo a tax-law professor at the University of Illinois makes this statement, “We simply don’t have a coherent rationale for what it is we call charity. So we have these vastly different sorts of organizations doing vastly different things and calling it charity.”
Other words that may come to mind when you think of charity may be generosity, philanthropy, patronage, or aid. These words are all associated with helping people through different means whether it is time, money, or goods, which at the same time can have even more meanings. After researching what charity is, and looking at different types of charities, the only encompassing definition that I could come up with is: helping someone who needs help. As broad and general as that definition might be, it is true. It is the only way that you can lump together handing out free supplies to victims of disaster, providing shoes to African children, eradicating disease, and many other kinds of charities into one category. Charity can mean helping the poor, the uneducated, the diseased, or the disabled. If I would donate my money or belongings to an organization that wastes them does that mean I still donated them to charity?
When we think of who benefits from charity, I’m sure we all think of a hungry orphan child or someone suffering from an incurable disease, but quite often charities fail to do their job and the ones that benefit are the ones that didn’t really need any help to begin with. One could also argue that charity is done so that you can get something back in return. In the United States, we are able to get a tax break when we donate money. For this reason, many wealthy people who otherwise would be taxed donate heavily to charity. For the most part, all charities are looked at the same by the federal government and it does not matter who gets the money as long as it goes to a legitimate charity and follows the eight rules posted on the IRS website. That’s right, there are rules for donating and it’s not a secret that people do it for the tax break. The first two sentences on the IRS page say this: “Charitable contributions made to qualified organizations may help lower your tax bill. The IRS has put together the following eight tips to help ensure your contributions pay off on your tax return”. So in a way by donating to charities, the charities are doing the wealthy a favor by helping them “hide” their money. One could say that the wealthy need help keeping their money, and the charities are helping them do that. So in a way, the “charity” being given to, does not have to be the one that helps Africans go to school by providing them with shoes, the charity in this case could be the wealthy person who is giving their money and getting a tax break in return.
There are charities out there that give shoes to African children so that they can attend school, there are charities whose goal is to eradicate polio, and there are charities that donate goods to disaster areas. These charities all sound like great ideas from the outside, but a closer look reveals that they aren’t quite helping anyone. In the attempt to help African children attend school, one company is donating shoes to children without them, but most of these shoes are being handed out to children who already own shoes. As a result, many indigenous shoe salesmen are losing business and families are becoming dependent on these donations. While trying to eradicate polio, many of the people aimed at being helped are refusing the vaccinations and demanding medication for other more serious diseases. This is wasting the money and time of anyone who volunteers or donates to this organization. After the 1998 hurricane in Honduras, ports were being congested and military personnel were being used up by unnecessary donations of unneeded supplies and outdated medications. These examples demonstrate how three different kinds of charities are failing the people they are supposed to be helping, further blurring the definition of what charity means and what it does.
Unsuccessful charities can still call themselves charities and make the claim that they are benefiting others as long as they make the attempt or seem like they are helping someone. After the 2006 tsunami in Indonesia, many charities donated rice to feed the people who were devastated by the natural disaster. The problem arose when rice farmers only a quarter mile inland had been unaffected by the disaster unable to sell their flourishing crops because people were being fed for free. Nobody was going to pay for rice when they could get it for free. As a result, the devastation of the tsunami was more far reaching than just the people who lost their families and homes. The donations of rice from other countries took away the livelihood of the indigenous rice farmers.
A charity does not have to be a righteous group of people who better the lives of everyone they try to help or say that they help. We can’t keep looking at charity as something that forever changes the lives of the people being affected by it. Buying a certain pair of shoes doesn’t always mean that an African child will get the opportunity to go to school who otherwise would not be able to; buying these shoes just means that someone somewhere in Africa will receive a free pair of shoes whether they need them or not.
Abraham, Thomas . “They Need Other Medicine Too.” The New York Times: The Opinion Pages. The New York TImes, 19 Nov 2012. Web. 2 Apr 2013. http://citationmachine.net/index2.php?reqstyleid=1&mode=form&rsid=6&reqsrcid =MLAWebDocument&more=yes&nameCnt=1.
Butler, Kiera. “Do Tome Shoes Really Help People?.” Mother Jones. Mother Jones, 14 May 2012. Web. 2 Apr 2013. http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2012/05/toms-shoes-buy-one-give- one.
“Eight Tips for Deducting Charitable Contributions.” IRS. N.p., 22 Mar 2011. Web. 2 Apr 2013. http://www.irs.gov/uac/Eight-Tips-for-Deducting-Charitable- Contributions.
Shaikh, Alanna. “Nobody Wants Your Old Shoes: How Not To Help Haiti.” Aid Watch. New York University, 16 Jan 2010. Web. 2 Apr 2013. http://aidwatchers.com/2010/01/nobody-wants-your-old-shoes-how-not-to-help- in-haiti/>.
Strom, Stephanie. “What is Charity?.” The New York Times: Giving. The New York Times, 14 Nov 2005. Web. 2 Apr 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/14/giving/14strom.html?pagewanted=all.