Living & Working

Thinking Aloud: Charity

November 20, 2012

A few friends and I have just started meeting up to shoot the breeze over a pint or two. It gives us a chance to throw some ideas around about any vague topics. It’s part “putting the world to rights” and part chance to listen. The rule is to let people speak, and to listen, and it’s a great chance to work out what you think, and hear others’ views. The first time I took part in one of these meetings, the topic was charity, with the main quote being:

There is every excuse for not doing everything, but there is no excuse for not doing something

To what extent is this true? And how should be approach the problematic issue of giving to charity, and doing ‘good’?

What follows is something of a write-up from the notes I made that night, to see what I think!

What to give, and who to

A major problem with modern charitable giving is deciding who to give to, and how much. Concern seems to stem from knowing that your donation reaches the intended recipient, and does something worthwhile (whether the recipient knows this now, or not). Should we base this choice on a dispassionate decision, or should we support things we are passionate about?

We should make sure that our donations do not replace aid which should (we believe) be given by the state. This can cause problems when donating to homeless charities, for instance, because this is something that could be seen as a social problem, with social solutions.

There are cultural issues, and it was noted that US culture is much better inclined towards people who pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and don’t rely on handouts. On the other hand the Catholic church (and other religions such as Sikhism) make it a rule to give 10% of your total income to charity, perhaps administered by the church itself (the ‘tithe’).

Some people have taken to doing this on their own initiative, not aligned with any larger organisation. Apparently, the President of Paraguay (the least wealthy head of state in the developed world) gives away 90% of his income to charity, living on his wife’s farm, and claiming to have ‘enough’.

This word ‘enough’ led us on another, and I think related, conversation track about what constitutes enough. Should we be aiming to bring everyone up to a certain standard of living, or wealth? And what would that level be? Ours? Is there a minimum? And can we satisfy people, by making it known what this minimum is that we have decided on. Should we therefore also aim to live at that minimum level ourselves, if we are to impose such a maximum on others? Or should the level be one which allows the recipient to then go on to choose their path? A minimum level which gives new options that are unavailable when you live below this line.

The problem with money

It’s a hot topic at the moment, and so perhaps inevitably the discussion turned to the problems with Capitalism as a system, and money as a tool of exchange. It can be argued that the problems with money are:

  1. It can be hoarded
  2. It has no fixed value once you take it beyond a local system, so scams and rip-offs can ensue

A solution which has been put into practice locally is a club which exchanges hours of work, rather than cash. If you give an hour of your skills to someone, then they owe you an hour of theirs. I’m sure there must be discussions about whether hours are equal across skill sets, but if you dictate that this is a rule that must be stuck to, then it’s a viable trial for a non-monetary system. And no one gets rich, except to be owed a number of hours by their neighbours. Your wealth also dies with you, so your descendants need to be as useful as you were.

There were comments on how the Capitalist economy seems to be based purely on the confidence of those who take part in it. That seemed like a rather flimsy system to all present, someone comparing it to a Ponzi Scheme…


There was a great discussion of advertising. I’m sure we were still on the charity theme, though, as the problems of charitable giving are linked to problems of having enough, deciding what constitutes enough, and convincing others that they should be happy with their lot too. Advertising relies on making people think they do not have enough, and on convincing them as to exactly which product or service will go some way to making up the shortfall.

State aid would perhaps be less controversial if the benefit claimants were not expected to need everything that is available to the richest. Something missing from this world is a counter-voice to advertising. Now that religion is no longer a guiding authority (and no one at the meeting had a problem with that), there is little to convince us of the benefits of anything other than consuming and acquiring. Even the government tells us that the economic problems of today find their source in the reluctance of people to buy more stuff.

Which begs the question: if we want to buy less, then does it matter that we are paid less?

Post Script: Our own minimalism

Apparently William Morris said “Let nothing into your home unless it is useful, beautiful, or both”. This seems like a good way of getting rid of junk. Decide on what is useful by sealing things in cardboard boxes, and labelling it with a date. If the box has not been opened after a year, then you should get rid of it.