Why should philanthropy be inconspicuous?
May 17, 2006 7:43 PM   Subscribe

Generally it seems frowned upon to allow information about the extent to which someone supports charity enter the public sphere. What is the reason for this or if that is too obvious the origin of this belief?

It seems to me that conspicuos philanthropy is treated as though it is less socially appropriate than conspicious consumption. People are more comfortable talking about how much they spend on various extravagant luxury items than how much money they give to charity. Both luxury goods and charitable gifts have the ability to serve as markers of social affluence, and both generally provide little utility to the purchaser/giver apart from the socio-psychological benefits. This modesty strikes me as ultimately harmful since more people would likely give to charity if it was not so taboo to discuss it. Why the stigma? Is this common across different cultures?
posted by I Foody to Society & Culture (19 answers total)
I think the idea is that charity is supposed to be its own reward -- altruistic. Trying to impress others by being conspicuously charitable is self-defeating, since what you're really showing people is that you're not actually altruistic.

That said, an awful lot of rich people make their charitable contributions very obvious.
posted by JekPorkins at 7:51 PM on May 17, 2006

There's also probably a good deal of Christian influence here too. Jesus calls the phariasees out more than once about the fact that they make a big show of being so charitable and kind to the poor. Not to say that other religions don't take issue with playing up your philanthropy, but since we've got more than a few Christians kickin' around this country, the fact that the Bible says so has some relevance.
posted by Doublewhiskeycokenoice at 7:58 PM on May 17, 2006 [1 favorite]

Actually it may not be that rich people publicize their donations so much, but that the charities themselves want to. We had a discussion about "conspicuous charity" over at my website and my sister - who worked for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society of California had this to say:

"We always ask whether we can divulge major gifts (or "lead" gifts - get it?) because we know that it can inspire other donors to match or surpass that original effort. Being able to "publicize" those gifts, so to speak, also establishes our credibility, because now other donors can see that someone finds us either worthy enough or a good enough investment to support us on a higher level. It helps raise double the money, in short!"
posted by web-goddess at 8:09 PM on May 17, 2006

I remember back in Hebrew school we were taught that there was an order to how "good" charity was in terms of anonymity. When both the giver and receiver knew each other, that was lowest. When the receiver knew the donor, but the donor didn't know the receiver, that's better. Better still was when the donor knew the receiver, but not vice versa. Best of all was when neither party knew the identity of the other.

I might have the middle two mixed up though. But the basic idea is that charity is best done in complete anonymity. The knowledge that you have done good is supposed to be its own reward, and spreading the news of your good deed around is just selfish.
posted by yellowbinder at 8:14 PM on May 17, 2006

I would go with the Christian influence as well. As an ex-Christian, its been one very important part of Jesus' moral code that really stuck with me. When collectors on the street ask me for money (for Kidney Disease research, or whatever), they often want to give me a sticker to wear on my shirt to say I've donated to them. I always refuse, because it just feels wrong and arrogant to me to go around showing people...hey, look at me, I gave money to a charity! Charity should be it's own reward? I almost feel that goes too far. Charity should be no reward for you. You're giving to help someone else, and that gift is more pure the less you get out of it.
posted by Jimbob at 8:16 PM on May 17, 2006

(Reading yellowbinder's reply, I guess I'll have to turn that into "Judeo-Christian" influence. Very succinct description of the levels of charity there, yellowbinder.)
posted by Jimbob at 8:17 PM on May 17, 2006

Are these the same people, in both instances? I'd find it very believable that the people who donate a lot of money to charity and do not want to focus on it in public are not from the same set who spend ridiculously on luxury items and do share it with the rest of the world...
posted by whatzit at 8:20 PM on May 17, 2006

This modesty strikes me as ultimately harmful ... Why the stigma?

Consider that if you knew the dollar amount, you would exactly quantify how much the person cares about the charity. That's not always a good thing. Bill Gates endowed his foundation with $1 billion. What, he couldn't give $2 billion? Really, what's $1 billion to Bill Gates? What, he's going to take it with him to the grave? Give it back to his customers? Wow, he's really selfish. You start looking at it that way and you start to see how "modesty" creeps into the picture.

Also, sometimes, the dollar amount is not very much at all. Last year, my local movie theater was constantly running ads about how great the Will Rogers Institute was. Except the ad claimed the Institute had collected only $75 million since the 1930s.

Wait a sec, I thought. $75 million in 70+ years isn't a terribly great amount, if you think about it. That could be just one big golf tournament per year. Nothing to slight, of course, but not exactly Hall of Fame material there.
posted by frogan at 9:08 PM on May 17, 2006

Super-rabbi Maimonides (1125-1204) taught that there are 8 levels of tzedakah, ranked worst to best:

1. The giver gives, but reluctantly.
2. The giver gives less than is appropriate, but gives it graciously.
3. The giver gives money to the poor person only after been asked.
4. The giver gives the money directly to the poor person.
5. The recipient knows who gave the money but the giver does not know who receives the donation.
6. The giver knows who the recipient is, but the recipient does not know who the giver is.
7. To give to those who need in such a manner that the giver does not know who the recipient is and the recipient does not know who gave the money.
8. To assist a poor person by providing him/her with a gift or a loan or by accepting him/her into a business partnership or by helping him/her find employment; in a word, by enabling him/her to dispense with other people's aid.
posted by spork at 9:08 PM on May 17, 2006 [1 favorite]

Not downplaying the Christian influence, but another more, er, practical reason for downplaying one's philanthrophy is that a well known, generous contributor becomes an obvious target for fund-raising pitches from other charities.
posted by zanni at 9:09 PM on May 17, 2006

It seems to me that showing off what you've spent your money on is a proper part of consumption - part of what you get for your money when you buy a 50" TV or a $50,000 car is a better TV/car than your neighbor. This is part of the appeal, and it's expected, and frequently advertised as one of the benefits.

But bragging about it isn't a natural part of philanthropy. The idea of it is that you're supposed to do it because you want to help.

There's nothing saying that people can't do philanthropic things for non-standard reasons, but here's a thought: if you have $70,000 to spend, and what you really want to do is impress the kind of people who are impressed by hearing about how other people spend their money, are you going to get more mileage out of giving it to the Red Cross or showing up at work tomorrow in a 7-series?
posted by pinespree at 9:18 PM on May 17, 2006

btw, i'm not sure if "the kind of people who are impressed by hearing about how other people spend their money" exist, but i know a lot of people think they do...
posted by pinespree at 9:19 PM on May 17, 2006

Spork has the complete levels of what I was talking about.

Another thing I've been thinking of: Many religions view charity as a commandment. In Judaism, every person regardless of their financial situation is commanded to perform tzedakkah. Therefore there's no real reason to brag about it, as it's something everyone should do.

Seems to be giant high profile donations could make people feel bad about not giving more, when the idea behind the commandments (or tithes, or any other charitable commandment or belief) is just to give what you are able to.
posted by yellowbinder at 9:37 PM on May 17, 2006

BTW, Gates has, at this point, endowed his charity with far more than $1B.

I remember reading Ted Turner's thoughts on philanthropy, he's public about his gifts because he wants to tap the competitive instincts of other mogul types.
posted by Good Brain at 10:01 PM on May 17, 2006

Ostentatious displays of wealth, whether by conspicuous consumption or conspicuous genorosity, have always fallen in the domain of the nouveaux riches. The novelty of wealth overwhelms them and they do not have experience with the troubles that come with it, such as fake friends, government scrutiny, and threats to personal security, just to name a few. That's why old money elites try (but often fail) to be discrete about their wealth. There's probably ten times the number of billionaires in the world than are listed in those silly lists that Fortune or Forbes publish.
posted by randomstriker at 10:08 PM on May 17, 2006

It is not just Judeao-Christian, the concept of Zakat is fundamental to Islam, one of the five pillars. A friend of mine living in the wealthy West, has his mother distribute his Zakat in their local village as she will know who most needs it. That way he keeps it local but avoids embarrassing the person who is to receive it. In every religion I know there is a sense that is is more noble to give anonymously as it is less egotistical.
posted by Wilder at 5:02 AM on May 18, 2006

As far as the Christian aspect, it's about what reward you're really seeking -- on whether you're after the reward of social status, or doing it for God's praise:

"(1) Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.
(2) Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.
(3) But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth:
(4) That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly."
-- Matthew 6:1-4.

It also goes on in the same chapter about praying in secret and fasting without telling anyone you are.
posted by vanoakenfold at 3:17 PM on May 18, 2006

BTW, Gates has, at this point, endowed his charity with far more than $1B.

I was merely using the most extreme example as ... well ... an example. ;-)
posted by frogan at 8:52 PM on May 18, 2006

I work in the philanthropic sector in Australia, and anecdotally people are much quieter about their giving here than they are in the US. I believe it's largely a fear of the tall poppy syndrome; people don't want to be seen to be telling everyone how good and altruistic they are, because they expect others will see it as bragging. There's a concept that philanthropy should be above things like competition and blowing one's own trumpet. Personally I think a little trumpet-blowing can be good; it can encourage other people to give, and publicising the work of the charity one is giving to can be a service to them.

Most of the people I know who are very philanthropic aren't really part of the conspicuous consumption set, although in many cases they do lead a somewhat different lifestyle to the rest of us. And most of them, even the very wealthy ones, do contribute quite a lot of time as well as money to the causes they support.
posted by andraste at 2:06 AM on May 19, 2006

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