Creating a 'Culture of Giving'
I'm convinced that the inhibitions preventing many Australians from donating to charity are societal rather than personal. In other words it's not that we don't care about injustice or suffering ; No, looking at the response of the Brisbane community to the 2011 floods seems evidence enough that we do care about helping those in need. Rather it's that donating to aid groups (particularly overseas aid groups) is not a prevalent social norm in Australia. Our 'fair-go' attitude unfortunately often lingers at the coastline of the Australian shores and doesn't extend globally. It's not that we're missing the compassion necessary to donate, it's that this sense of compassion is overshadowed by subconscious concerns regarding reputation and culture. Perhaps these concerns linger as 'cultural residue' from the pre-welfare state days in which giving was associated with churches and the pious - a system that is now largely replaced with state provisions; However, regardless of the reason for our lagging overseas aid contributions (compared to other OECD countries) I think that the common attempts at soliciting donations in Australia (such as showing people pictures of starving Africans) are not the best way to encourage charitable giving. Such strategies imply that we are ignorant of the global situation and this is simply untrue. It is not more information that we need - it's more encouragement. We don't need lectures on morality - we need a paradigm shift towards socially normalised charitable giving rather than the tired perception that only the religious and/or the selfless give to charity.
So how do we do this? Well firstly we need to re-position giving as being of equal importance to the giver as the recipient. Recognising that people who donate to charities are admirable and then deciding to do the same yourself is an incredibly fulfilling form of self-development. People should be encouraged to realize that selflessness is not inherent but learnt; you CAN learn to be the selfless giver - the type that the current society praises but does not emulate. And in emulating the actions of those that you admire you too become admired - both by yourself and by society as a whole. I think that it is this type of thinking that needs be unlocked in order for charitable giving to become normalised. This is what is sometimes known as a 'communitarian approach' (see Amatai Etzioni) and is a way of trying to solve a problem by changing the moral culture in which the problem occurs. In this post I'm not interested in arguing about 'why' we should give to charity. For this you can read some Peter Singer, or Aristotle, or read a bible: The three big ethics camps - Utilitarianism, Virtue Ethics, and Deontology - can all provide strong moral arguments in support of charitable giving. No, I'm not aiming to preach to you. I'm more interested in how to modify our culture such that our favourable predispositions towards charitable giving are mobilized.
As I said earlier, Australians don't have any particular problems with charitable giving, it's just that many people deem it 'not for them'. Nevertheless people are motivated to give to charity when it is easy, or when it co-insides with other aims. For example if people are already planning on buying coffee they will often not mind spending a little more to ensure that their coffee is 'FairTrade'. Likewise Suncorp Bank offers the option to round-up BPAY bill transactions to the nearest dollar with the difference going to charity. These are, I believe, steps in the right direction but, as philosopher Slavoj Zizeck points out, they suffer the tragedy of trying to solve one problem (poverty) with an equally bad alternative (capitalism). Nevertheless it fills me with hope to see gargantuan corporations becoming interested in charities; even if their motivations are to do with maintaining a favourable image rather than a true, altruistic, sense of philanthropic duty (if such a thing exists).
As I stated earlier I believe that we should tackle the problem of poverty with cultural paradigm shifts rather than explicit moral arguments. A relevant and new-ish social trend is 'hipster culture'. I use the example of 'hipster culture' purely as an example of a cultural movement, however it is these types of movements that have the power to motivate people into doing things. (If hipster culture can encourage people to buy bulky, expensive vinyl records in an mp3 age purely because they are 'cool' then who knows where the boundaries lie) So called 'hipsters' (mostly young adults aged 15-25) will often dress in clothes purchased from op-shops such as St Vincent De Paul or Lifeline (however this style of dress is becoming increasingly capitalised upon by clothing chains). Whilst the motivation behind the hipsters' clothing choices might be non-conformity rather than philanthropy hipsters probably give more money to charity (admittedly 'indirectly') that their non-hipster friends. I'm interested in whether or not charitable giving can gain the same fashionable reputation of non-conformity as op-shop fashion - and I think it can. Giving to charity in 2012 is the ultimate expression of non-conformity. Given the range of charitable institutions that exist it can also be an formidable display of individuality depending on which organisation receives the funds.
The best way to re-brand charitable giving as a non-conformist social trend (or even as a mundane but acceptable action) is to openly defy the social norms that discourage discussion about these issues. Often when I talk about how I try and give a large proportion of my earnings to charity I am met with an uncomfortable conversational dead-end. On other occasions, however, I will see people become interested, inspired, intrigued, or even confused. These conversations plant seeds in people's minds that grow into thoughts that giving can be (and indeed 'is') an acceptable thing to do and talk about. Simply talking openly about the benefits of giving is all that I wish for my readers to do. Talk about how donating is personally fulfilling; talk about how it expresses your non-conformity and individualism; talk about how easy it is. This is a simple and effective course of action that targets the social inhibitions preventing donations by normalising an outspoken but important topic. By simply talking about charitable giving you can help to inspire others to try it for themselves and realise that the benefits outweigh the losses. We need charitable giving to attain the same magnitude of social interest as Same-Sex Marriage, Abortion, and even KONY. In fact KONY, whether you agree with the cause or not, is a testament to the power that people can have when sufficiently motivated.
My hope - my optimistic dream perhaps - is that someday we will engage in a global moral dialogue about a problem that is as equally devastating as the KONY story and far more enduring: Poverty, disease, and famine. Eventually we will need to engage with the difficult moral questions, but first we need to create a cultural environment that will allow a non-stigmatized discussion about such things. Ultimately I want charitable giving to be seen simply as 'something that all good people do'; it should be, for those of us in 1st world countries, as intuitive as the compulsion to pull a drowning child out of a small pond.
For those that are sceptical about the trustworthiness of certain charities there are tools like GiveWell.org, a private organisation that rigorously investigates the successes (or lack thereof) of many Australian and Global charities. For those that want logical philosophical arguments in favour of giving Peter Singer's 'The life you can save' is the go-to text. The only thing that is holding you back from helping the world through your donations is yourself. Make the choice to give, encourage others to do the same, and maybe we can promote the beginning of a 'culture of giving'.