Thinking About Donating to Charity this Holiday Season? Don’t.

Charitable giving can do more harm than good. Here’s why, and here’s what to do instead.

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Photo credit: Etienne Godiard via Unsplash

The Holidays are here, and ten months into a global pandemic that has ravaged families, exposed inequalities, and exacerbated wealth gaps, charitable giving is uniquely significant.

People need help — badly — and those who can give, want to. Covid may have revealed the cartoon villianesque greed of the one — percenters, but it has also inspired unity, forced us to interrogate how we define “essential worker,” and led to moments that are, frankly, heart — warming. Times are tough, but so are communities.

Charities recognize this, and because they know that most of us are fundamentally “kind” (or are at least want to see ourselves as kind), they are capitalizing on 2020s surge of good — will to solicit donations.

Don’t fall for it.

Why? Because charity got us into this mess in the first place. And giving to charity won’t be the thing that gets us out.

Charity, then and now:

First, charitable giving is as old as wealth itself. By 2 500 BCE, the Ancient Hebrews had instituted a mandatory tax (“tithe”) to help the poor, and the word “philanthropy,” (“love of humanity”) first appeared in a play by Aeschchylus in 500 BCE.

However, the definition of charity has evolved. Whereas it once existed to foster independence, wealth redistribution has been usurped by “donations”. And like most things under capitalism, it has also become competitive, hierarchical, and an industry that is more useful for givers than receivers.

It is impossible to condense the complete history of charity into a single article, so I will describe broad transitions that have occurred since the Industrial Revolution. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Europe and the Americas changed: It was a period of urbanization, innovation, and production, and most of it happened rapidly. Rural societies dissolved as male breadwinners competed for jobs in urban centres, and without labour laws (including ones pertaining to child labour), workers were exploited.

The division of people into capitalist and working classes also fuelled poverty and other social problems. By the time the United States became the world’s leading industrial nation at the end of the 19th century, a combination of private wealth accumulation and few state supports meant that rich philanthropists responded to some of the poor’s needs, as did fraternal societies and churches. Philanthropy was seen as a “bourgeois duty;” a moral imperative inextricable from religious conviction and the desire (at least for Christians) to absolve oneself of sin. Fraternal organizations were different from individual benefactors, though some also had religious origins.

Throughout the early twentieth century, charity took on greater or less significance based on social and economic trends in the geo — political landscape. Notably, while private relief efforts were vital at the onset of the Great Depression, they were dwarfed by initiatives implemented as part of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deals.” The years 1933 to 1939 saw the implementation of federal regulations, public work projects, and legislation such as the landmark Social Security Act that focused on the “Three R’s:” relief for the poor, recovery of the economy, and reform of the financial system to prevent future economic collapse.

The New Deals altered the function of charity. Many organizations were “crowded out” because the expanded role of government reduced the need for donations. Those that remained began offering specialized, “therapeutic” services such as skills training, women’s care, children’s programming, and immigrant settlement supports. This mission creep remains important when we assess the role of charities (and their counterparts, non — profits) today.

Things were modified again in the 1980s. Elected leaders Margaret Thatcher (the U.K.), Ronald Reagan (the U.S.), and Brian Mulroney (Canada) were all vocal critics of “big government,” and while in office they dramatically shrank state supports for middle — and lower — class citizens. Their approach to governance entailed privatization, briefly defined as shifting the production of goods and services to the private sector. This was ostensibly done to minimize government expenditures and encourage market competition, which they claimed would streamline access to goods and services for commoners. Its impact, however, was catastrophic for most who weren’t part of the owning class.

The Thatcher — Reagan — Mulroney trifecta of neoliberal governance framed citizens as rational consumers whose democratic choices were best exercised by buying and selling. Rugged individualism replaced the welfare state, and “freedom” (from trade unions, collective bargaining, health and environmental regulations, and taxes, especially for corporations) was espoused as inherent right. The problem with this, however, was that governments were equally free to suppress wages, outsource labour to developing countries at a fraction of the cost, poison the environment, slash healthcare spending, offer loans with exorbitant interest rates, and hoard resources for itself. In the U.S., the money “saved” on social supports was re — allocated to defence, while national debt exploded.

Inequality also rose without state wealth re — distribution, as did the charitable sector. While there have been many changes in government since the 1980s, one fact has stayed consistent: As the rich get richer the poor get poorer because “trickle down” economics is a myth. Instead, charities are expected to fill gaps left by government, and their prominence in providing food, shelter, and clothing legitimates state neglect.

Charity in the present:

This brings us to today. Now, most charities and non — profits act as brokers between citizens and the state. Employees are authorized to dole out government resources, while the organizations that hire them encourage private citizens to donate to their mission (especially around the holidays). This public — private hybrid model forces charities to compete for government monies through contract — based financing, and because they must prove that they offer good returns on investment, their prioritizes align with those of the state. Thus, charities now seek to get people employed, subdue social disorder, and conceal the visible suffering that deters capital investment — not bad things in and of themselves, but damning in the long run.

Practically, this means that charities can’t engage in radical advocacy. To critique the government would jeopardize their funding, and for years we have seen progressive organizations crumble after daring to speak up. It’s a catch — 22: Those who want to improve society must stay muzzled about how to improve society because their jobs are on the line. Consequently, the biggest and most “successful” charities tend to push out forward — thinking employees, and in doing so, they contribute to the conditions that make charity necessary in the first place. Namely, they de — politicize poverty and reproduce state control interpersonally by withholding resources from those who need it most. This is particularly true for Indigenous, racialized, disabled, LBTQIA+ people and drug users whose identities depart from the mostly White, abled professionals who oversee their “care.” Beyond this, job training, financial literacy, and abstinence — based addiction treatment are all born of the same neoliberal ideologies: That poverty is a choice, that it can be overcome by changing one’s behaviour, and that morality and hard work shape one’s life chances more than structural inequalities.

Homeless shelters, for instance, once tasked with providing “three hots and a cot” (three meals and a bed) now ask that clients sign in and out, attend counselling, disclose their financial information, make budgets under the guidance of “expert” staff, take mandatory psychiatric medications, and sign contracts promising to stay sober. They risk losing the roof over their heads if they refuse, so survival becomes performative, even for people whose only problem is poverty. This aligns with broader trends of medicalization, in that the government’s unwillingness to provide for its citizens is re — formulated as evidence of personal sickness. Those who access charity mostly need money, not to become someone else, but because society is set up to keep people impoverished, the government — charity nexus reduces people to tangible pathologies. We see the poor embark on elaborate “self — improvement” schemes that, paradoxically, reinforce their “outsider” status because wealth gets conflated with “wellness” so they’re never truly “fixed.”

If you think this is a stretch, imagine for a moment a daily routine that entails journaling, meditation, connecting with friends, eating nutrient — dense food, and sleeping soundly at night. Now imagine trying to do this while receiving a $300 welfare cheque each month and living in a tent. It would be impossible, yet these are the “life skills” that are taught in shelters and adjacent institutions; they’re great in theory, but no amount of “healthy living” will combat the simple fact that people need affordable healthcare and homes. Add to that the rigid behavioural guidelines that professionals enforce in exchange for accessing services, and we see those most in need of compassion are literally and figuratively left out in the cold.

The assumption that highly marginalized people — unhoused drug users, for instance — are doing something “wrong” is embedded in our collective psyche. Neoliberalism is invisible and insidious, and it’s only when making power relations explicit that we see how it has failed. The United States, for instance, spends roughly $180 Billion per year on prisons and policing. Homelessness could be ended by spending 1/10 of that, but private property — and the ability to exclude people from it — is a mandatory tenet of capitalism. Under our current economic and political system, we need a concentrated underclass because poverty, homelessness, hunger, and preventable death are sticks to dodge while chasing the carrot of “life and liberty.”

Life itself was never supposed to be a carrot, though. And charities were never supposed to have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo so that executive directors, board members, and the police and state officials they collude with could bring home exorbitant salaries as the people they “serve” survive, barely.

What to do instead of giving to charity:

As the ramifications of a global pandemic intensify, cracks in our system are being revealed as gaping wounds. In the U.S., an estimated 30–40 million people are on the precipice of eviction, many of them belonging to communities of colour. The nation’s healthcare system is overburdened, while some of those who have survived Covid now have staggering medical debt. Unemployment rates have skyrocketed, and as deaths surpass the number of 9/11 fatalities each day, the president keeps attempting a coup while also tweeting a lot.

This is not the time to donate to an organization whose real purpose is prolonging state abuse. Doing so may help you sleep at night, reassure you that you’re “good,” and, if you represent a business, substantially augment your tax return, but beyond that you won’t have done very much of value.

“This pandemic is not an independent actor, it is constantly being fed by the conditions that were already established, long before it’s outbreak. Vulnerable living conditions, limited access to health care, muted voices, and insufficient ground to establish self-determination are the by-products of our capitalist structure that continues to sustain itself through the most marginalized people, who tend to fill our most essential positions.” — ash — marie

What might actually be useful, then? Short of revolting (which I highly recommend; we could all take a page out of India’s playbook right now), here are a few things to do this holiday season that won’t further line the pockets of the rich:

Mutual Aid

The term “mutual aid” was coined by anarchist Peter Kropotkin in the early 20th century to describe the voluntary exchange of services and goods. It involves political (or rather, politicized) participation that takes place outside of the realm of government. It is horizontally delivered, meaning that people meet as equals, and its purpose is to advance the human rights of everyone, not just those we have deemed “pitiable.”

Mutual aid has always performed a wide variety of social functions, and not surprisingly, it thrives among groups who face state — endorsed violence such as sex workers. Since lockdowns began, reciprocity has experienced a resurgence, and it has also become mainstream. New networks have emerged organically, while pre — existing ones have expanded in size and scope. Mutual aid takes many forms, but salient examples include neighbour— led grocery delivery to the elderly and immunocompromised, student associations maintaining spreadsheets to keep their peers equipped with supplies, crowdsourcing personal protective equipment, free breakfast programs, and prison abolitionists raising funds so that incarcerated people can afford sanitary products.

There are few limits to what constitutes mutual aid, but on a localized level I suggest searching for community — led funding requests in — person or via social media. Those who oversee donations will re — distribute to peers without strings attached, and they tend to prioritize those for whom “charity” can be violent. Most groups have one or more mandates to uplift a specific group that has been historically oppressed, while others are more general. If finances are an issue, you may wish to contribute supplies you already have or donate time by employing a skill such as grant — writing, editing, organizing, advocacy, or manual labour.

Remember, mutual aid is radical: Its purpose is less dependency or full emancipation from the the state, so expect to treat people as you would comrades, not as “patients” or “clients.”

Advocate for legislative and policy change:

In most (not all, but most) contexts, incremental change is better than none. Familiarize yourself with legislation regional and beyond, research how the government spends your tax dollars, and critically interrogate your complicity in the “relations of ruling” that regulate your life and the lives of those around you. Gathering information is a crucial step in the process of deciding which laws and policies should be altered or abolished, and questions you might ask include:

  1. How much of my local, state/provincial, and national budget is allocated to funding the police?
  2. How much is allocated to housing, healthcare, and other vital services?
  3. Which laws are in place to make poor people’s lives more difficult (i.e. anti — panhandling laws, anti — loitering laws, anti — camping laws, and laws that criminalize drug use and sex work all exacerbate poverty and homelessness)
  4. What initiatives has the government introduced (or not) to promote reconciliation with Indigenous peoples? What do Indigenous people say about the success or failure of these initiatives, and what more could be done?
  5. How are wealthy individuals and corporations taxed relative middle — and lower — income individuals?
  6. How are chronically ill, disabled and neurodiverse people protected (or not) from social and economic hardships?

After you’ve gathered information, write letters to state officials, speak at council meetings, ask to contribute to organizations comprised of individuals who are already doing advocacy work, talk to your friends and family, and, when the time comes, vote for candidates whose vision aligns with yours.

This isn’t a holiday — specific task, but applying consistent pressure to elected officials en masse with the goal of advancing progressive policy would make charity obsolete.

Give money directly to unhoused people:

While this could be categorized as mutual aid, it can take place without any forethought and it is relatively effortless. The next time you see someone who is asking for money or looks like they could use it, give it to them. That’s it. Don’t worry if they’ll spend it on drugs (wouldn’t you?) or otherwise “waste” it, ignore the impulse to moralize, and don’t “buy them food instead” (unless they directly ask). Simply reach into your pocket/wallet, and dole out whatever you can afford. People know what they need, and when you give money directly, you can trust that it’ll actually get where it needs to go.

Just revolt.

Seriously. Look around. This is long overdue.

In sum, charitable giving may absolve us of guilt if we are better resourced than most. The problem with this is that catharsis isn’t social justice, and our desire to feel good may actually dilute the pursuit of equality. Covid has proven how creative we can be, and it has also illuminated the extent to which current governance isn’t working. Let’s not lose the gift of clarity by repurposing it as a charitable donation.

Author. Academic. Mad Woman | Critical takes on health and illness | Pre-order my book:

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