Giving – but for whose benefit?

This post is in response to Writing Workshop Prompts in association with ActionAid: Giving

Last Sunday, as I attended Mass at the church in the French village where we were married, there was, as there has lately always been, a silent middle-aged man standing at the door as the worshippers shuffled past into the building. In his hand he held a small receptacle, no more than a couple of inches across. He had no sign, and said nothing, but merely gazed at the people as they went in. There was nothing in the man’s collecting cup. I too, with a pang of guilt, walked past him without giving. I knew that the few euros  in my pocket were reserved for the collection that would shortly take place during the service. I would rather harden my heart at the door than face the embarrassment of refusing the alms plate that would be held out to me by one of the nuns from the convent.

Giving. It’s such a complex thing, so many contrary currents. I feel I need to tell you, since all you know thus far is this stony lack of generosity, that I make regular donations to 4 or 5 charities every month from my salary, that I’m part of the payroll-giving scheme at work. Why? I don’t know you. You don’t know me. What does your opinion of me, of my willingness to give, matter that I should feel so driven to self-justification?

The scene switches. Now I’m at a London tube station. In the entrance is a young man, almost hidden in his grubby sleeping bag. A dog lies at his feet. There’s a notice on the opposite side of the ticket hall. “Do not give to beggars in this station.” It goes on to assure me that to do so would merely encourage people to come to the station and inconvenience passengers, and that what I might give will in any case only be used to buy alcohol or drugs. The message is clear. Giving to beggars on the street does more harm than good.

For all I know, that might be true. And yet I feel torn by this advice. I don’t want to do more harm than good. I want to do the right thing. And I’m sure that the regular, almost bureaucratic, generosity of my standing orders and payroll, tax-efficient, giving is the more rational, more effective method of doing that right thing. Charities welcome the regular receipt of gifts that they can rely on, and use to manage their cash-flow and the planning of their good works. And yet.

And yet there is an immediacy, a real human connection, in these direct transactions between the needy person there in front of us and our consciences. A connection that is lost when giving is so automated, so mechanised, so, in a sense, sanitised. But, on the other hand, if we give in direct response to visible need, or what we perceive to be need, and ignore the rational, objective, facts of what’s effective, are we in fact giving not in response to that need, but in response to our own needs: the need to feel that we’re good people, the need, as I had earlier in this post, to make myself look good to those who might observe me, even if only through reading this blog?

I don’t know. But I do know this much. I know that none of what I give month by month, to rainforest peoples, to my local church, to Oxfam, to this, that, and the other, could have assuaged my guilt as I walked passed that man outside the church, as I took the advice of the posters on the tube station, and ignored that real, visible need, there, in front of my very eyes.


8 thoughts on “Giving – but for whose benefit?

  1. This is an absolutely fabulous post. You sum up that conflict so intrinsic to the concept of giving so well. What is the ‘right’ way to give? Who do we say yes to and who no? How much is enough?

    The fact that there are no easy answers makes it harder. But the thinking about it, the asking of these questions is so, so important.

    Thank you for this.

  2. Pingback: Tweets that mention Giving – but for whose benefit? « The At-Long-Last-I've-Got-a-Job Blog --

  3. so many interesting points and things to think about, sometimes it’s very challenging to decide what’s ok and what’s not. Giving to the homeless is a really tough call, someone once said to me; so what if they spend it on drink and drugs, if you lived on the street wouldn’t you want to be off yer head on drinks and drugs. Good point. I think, I would rather be off the street and off drink and drugs but sometimes that’s easier said than done.

  4. I hate that feeling of guilt you get when you can’t donate to someone, but the simple fact is you can’t give to everyone, and have to be judicious in your choices.

    I remember feeling really bad about turning down monthly donations when I was a student. I’d always offer the change I had, but the canvassers want bank details only. As a student I was on a really irregular income and so close to the limit of my overdraft I couldn’t risk a monthly donation.

    It’s sad that giving to charity has to be such a minefield! I’m sure if it was easier more of us would do it.

  5. Wow! Deep stuff!

    These are exactly the kind of questions we’ve been asking here at ActionAid over the past year. Why do people support ActionAid? Why do they go out of their way to do incredible things to help poor people around the world? Is it just to stop feeling guilty, or is it something else?

    We couldn’t find the answers, so we just asked our supporters. And we were overwhelmed by the response.

    People told us over and over again that they support ActionAid not to stop themselves feeling guilty but because knowing for a moment that they’ve changed someone’s life makes them feel amazing.

    As Avis, one of supporters who campaigns with us and who has ran the Adidas Women’s Challenge, said, “When someone signs a petition or drops money in a box I know that that has changed the life of a woman somewhere else. In that moment I just get a really, really good feeling.”

    You can watch a film of ActionAid supporters describing their incredible feelings here:

    We’re celebrating these feelings right now and encouraging more people to get their own incredible feeling by supporting ActionAid. People can find out what their ActionAid feeling might be like by taking the 30 second quiz on our website:



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