Opinion: Why do we give to charity?

Which camp are you in when giving to charity?
Which camp are you in when giving to charity?

Christmas is, I have to admit it, a time for giving. We give presents, we give parties and we give to charity.

The cynical among us will assert that they know the motivation for the first two of these: we give presents because we want to receive one in return; we give parties because unless we do so, no one will invite us to theirs.

The question surrounds giving for charity. Why do we do it?

I have recently taken to telling shop assistants to drop the small change from a £5 note, for an item costing, say, £4.76, into the charity box. This is clearly for my convenience: I have no idea what the charity may be and I do not want the coppers pulling my trousers in a southerly direction.

This is very different from the more self-conscious decisions I make with other contributions. For example, ever since I saw a devastating documentary about the Penlee Lifeboat Disaster, I always drop a coin into the tin outside our own Lifeboat Station. Similarly, I see buying a Poppy in November as an inadequate thank you to the people who gave, and give, their lives for our freedom.

These random acts contrast with the decision some people have made to make regular contributions. They might Direct Debit monthly payments to a charity of their choice or even pay a set percentage of the their wages.

But all of this is just skirting around the fundamental question: Why do we do it?

There seem to be two camps here.

One asserts that we are basically good and, when we can, we help others.

The alternative view is that we are bad. Our motive for giving to charity can only be that we feel some gratification ourselves for doing so. On this view, we might feel superior to those we give to; we might get a warm glow as we congratulate ourselves on our generosity; we might be able to offset the contribution against tax.

Seems to me that these extreme positions lack an understanding of what it is to be human. In all probability, both factors are present in any act of giving.

To believe that we act purely from altruistic motives is naively wishful thinking.

The cynical view, that we act purely out of self-interest, can not really be dismissed, but it is countered by the weight of evidence as people rush to help others they will never meet, such as the unfortunates of Syria or Yemen.

Meanwhile, you might be interested to know that Britain is the most generous country in Europe for giving to charity, but does not appear in the top three worldwide: No1: Myanmar No2: USA No 3: Australia (source: CAF).

Yes, that’s the former Burma at number one. Makes you think, doesn’t it?