Giving the gift that keeps on giving
Tonight I’m going to pour myself a generous glass of red made from biodynamically grown grapes, turn the ABC up loud, and take down the Christmas tree.
I’ll lovingly pack away the angels made from old tin cans by poor kids in South Africa.
Then the hand-painted Christmas balls, lovingly painted by Hazara women, will go back in the box.
I’ll carefully fold the leftover paper made from the skin of cane toads and dyed red with the blood of feral cats, then I’ll roll up some tinsel woven from dolphin-strangling rubbish.
I’ll be able to sail through the new year on a buoyant cloud of smug self admiration.
Giving these days, it seems, is more about… getting. Getting a physical proof of your generosity.
It all started with the popularity of World Vision child sponsorship. Instead of putting some money in a tin, all of a sudden people were able to show off their generosity by propping up a picture of ``their’’ impoverished child on the kitchen cabinet.
Before too long the character of Ja’mie from the ABC’s We Can Be Heroes - who is nominated for her sponsorship of 85 Sudanese children - seems less caricature and more mildly amusing understatement.
Then there’s the Oxfam phenomenon. Giving the mother-in-law a goat has become a national pastime. Earnest couples can now set up wedding registries with requests for chicken poo or composting toilets.
You don’t donate to save the dolphins anymore, you adopt one and get a little license to prove it. You don’t give to science, you bid for the rights to name a newly discovered species.
On the one hand buying ethical products, and products whose proceeds go to the needy, is a worthwhile thing to do.
Given the choice, it’s better to buy sustainably-grown coffee, recycled paper, and gifts that (as they say) give twice.
And surely it’s better to support children sitting in the dirt learning to cut angel wings out of tin than an Asian sweatshop?
All this do-goodery though, does make one wonder how efficient the new, self-serving philanthropy is.
So much of charities’ overheads are eaten up by administration. The biggest ones generally do well due to economies of scale, but smaller ones can end up passing on the merest fraction to those in need.
The purchaser gets that warm fuzzy feeling buying the little angels and telling their friends and families of their deed, while the kid who’s sliced open his fingers making them gets just enough to keep going.
If she’s lucky.
On the other hand, ultimately philanthropy has almost always been selfish.
It’s just become a little more obvious, a little more gauche.
Every time people do something good now, they post their righteousness on Facebook.
People have always given to the churches to buy eternal salvation. Or a nice new steeple. Which everyone knew was paid for by them.
Now in the mega churches they give a tithe (interestingly this can be more than 10 per cent of their income) and can have regular deductions from their bank accounts.
Then the members get a glossy magazine or visit a slick website to see the results of their generosity. They can post a link to their largesse.
People used to trawl neighbourhoods and spend their all their spare time fundraising for a favourite cause. Now all they need is a website, a social network, and a moustache. So everyone knows they are raising money for men’s health.
These days it’s hard to imagine anyone just giving money anonymously, without a sticker or a child’s photo or a kitschy Christmas ornament to show for it.
Well, there’s probably some who do. But they’re only in it for the tax deduction.
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