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Why should charity be secret and selfless?

31 July 2015, 12:07Lili Radloff

Recently there has been a lot of talk in the media (both traditional and social) around charity, and more specifically, how to give unto others graciously.

A young woman, Girl with Cake, who bakes and gives cakes to the needy, was criticised widely for her “good deeds”, as many thought they were not only in bad taste, but also self-promoting. Then Marie Claire caused quite the uproar with their ill-advised #MCInHerShoes campaign which had male South African celebs parade around in high heels to focus on gender-based violence.

And while I’m not going to talk about either issue (trust me, enough has been said for and against), it did get me thinking about this idea that many people seem to harbour around charity: Giving is only worthy if it is done selflessly, and without fanfare. In fact, it is best if not talked about at all.

I’ve done a bit of research and it would seem that this sentiment has its origins in religion. All of the major religions teach that charity and good deeds should not be done for one’s own gain, as that would defeat the purpose.

But that would depend on what your purpose is.

From a religious perspective, I presume, it would involve ideas like combating greed and making sacrifices in order to attain spiritual salvation.

I’m not in the business of spiritual salvation.

This week I spent a couple of hours at Ons Plek – a home for girls in Cape Town, South Africa that specialises in developmental and therapeutic services for girls who have lived, worked or begged on the streets. By now the preventative measures they have developed means many of the girls are helped before they actually hit the streets. The Ons Plek Projects NPO is not only doing incredible work with girls who live in what many would think are hopeless situations, but they are also seeing exceptional results. From the 130 odd girls who used to live on the streets at any given time (in Cape Town) the number has been reduced to 4.

This is an amazing feat. And the positive consequences of having gotten and still getting these girls – thousands of them by now – off the streets are so far-reaching, with such a big ripple effect, that it affects actual, tangible change in our community.

But organisations like Ons Plek gets very little help from government. They rely heavily on personal and business donations. And thankfully there are many people who give generously.

But there aren’t enough.

And I can’t help thinking that part of this is due to the idea that charity somehow doesn’t count when you don’t do it completely selflessly. That giving is not about getting something in return. Even if that something is intangible, like recognition, or admiration, or respect.

I mean, WHAT ELSE IS THERE IN THIS WORLD that demands you expect nothing in return? Not work, not love (seriously, if you love without expecting anything in return, you’re being used and/or abused) not friendship, not family, not exercise, not yoga, not drinking, not hobbies. And that is perfectly fine and normal.

So, for the love of everything that is right and dandy, why does giving to charity have to be entirely selfless?

Imagine what would happen if doing good deeds and being charitable became status symbols? Like keeping up with the Joneses or instagramming your cappuccino? My guess is that charities would suddenly be rolling in money! After all, capitalist society has always been obsessed with conspicuous consumption – so why not harness that for good?

Saying that one should do charity secretly – like it’s something to be ashamed of – feels like a bit of a cop-out to me. And I think it’s also precisely why charities are struggling to make ends meet. People just don’t give when they won’t get a pat on the shoulder for it.

And when weighing up the good with the bad, is a pat on the shoulder really that reprehensible?

- Women24

Tags charity

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