Charity begins with a free gift


Why is it that fundraisers feel folks won’t donate money if they don’t receive something in return? Shouldn’t charity be a one-way street?

Maybe charity does involve a little selfishness now and then—like the fact that giving something to those in need can make the giver feel good, even useful. But if giving is predicated only by what the giver receives, then I think we’ve missed the point.

I don’t fault the Indian school for mailing me trinket wind chimes and ultra-thin notepads, but I do wonder why its fundraisers spend the school’s hard-to-find money for such manipulative trinkets?

I know somewhere scientific data exists that shows that people are more likely to donate money to a non-profit organization or cause if they get something in return. But I’d like to believe that, perhaps naively, this just isn’t so—that people like me actually donate money or volunteer time for the simple joy of giving and sharing personal bounty with others. Even the idea that some donations to charities are tax deductible appears to turn the entire process into something like a tawdry business transaction. Perhaps this kind of reciprocity was always the foundation of charitable giving?

Psychologists Anthony Pratkanis and Elliot Aronson, in their book titled “The Age of Propaganda: Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion,” write that “the norm of reciprocity is successful as a persuasion device because it directs our thoughts and carries its own motivation to act on those thoughts. We are directed to think ‘How can I repay my obligation?’ as opposed to ‘Is this a good deal?’ Our primary motivation is to avoid the uneasy feeling that comes from transgressing the norm.”

So my obligation is to repay the receipt of notepads and glow-in-the-dark crosses?

Admitting that Pratkanis and Aronson are likely correct in their assessment of the underlying motivations of reciprocity, it still doesn’t scratch the surface of why I personally feel good about sending a small Indian school in New Mexico a few dollars more.

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