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It’s More Than What We Give; It’s Why We Give

‘Tis the season for many things: gatherings of family and friends, special programs for worship and entertainment, lots of food, festive surroundings – and giving.
This last one is an interesting phenomenon. Not only the traditional sharing of gifts among family and friends, but also the expanded generosity toward charities and causes of many kinds surges to make this season distinctive in support of needs other than our own.

Various reports suggest that about 30 percent of all charitable giving takes place in December, supported in part, no doubt, by end-of-year tax benefits.

Still, by any measure, the season reflects a generosity that is not as evident the rest of the year.

A friend passed along an article reporting on recent research that examines the reasons why people give in response to appeals by charitable organizations.

Noting that appeals often use stories and images to prompt an emotional response that leads to a willingness to give, the article cites several studies that show other factors that have a significant effect.

One feature shown to be effective is identifying a “big name donor” – someone of significant means and reputation whose participation in the cause provides an affirmation of its value and credibility. A kind of “celebrity endorsement.”

Another factor is the promise or likelihood of recognition – a name on a plaque, on a brick in a walkway, in a program or organizational publication.

Experiments testing for the effect of recognition showed a higher response than when no recognition was provided.

Also mentioned was the use of social media to report giving and to encourage others to join in giving. Controlled experiments testing the effect of direct, personal appeals compared to more general ones showed a doubled level of response.

The point of the article was that the latest research into the motives for giving shows that there are strategies and techniques that can be employed to gain better results in fundraising.

No surprise here, even though the specific findings are interesting. Some appeals “work” better than others, and such research helps us know what they are. Who can be faulted for using this knowledge?

My friend who shared the article, an engineer by profession, observed, “This flies in the face of the teaching of Jesus and much of the Old Testament.”

He was no doubt thinking of Jesus’ words about giving alms in secret (Matthew 6:2-4) and the report of the widow’s offering (Mark 12:41-44 and Luke 21:1-4), as well as the Levitical obligation to tithe (Leviticus 27:30-34), which took the volunteer out of voluntary giving.

This has raised some questions for me about giving and its motivations.

In one sense, if a need is there, does it matter whether my motive is self-centered or selfless? Regardless of the motive, a dollar given to the food bank buys food for someone who needs it.

I remember growing up hearing “tithing testimonies” that extolled the value of giving: “You will get back more than you give” and “the 90 percent will go farther than the 100 percent would have if you give a 10th.”

Looking back, some of that very faithful and well-meaning encouragement seems now to have treated giving more as a kind of spiritual investment that would pay off for me than as a gift that would help others.

Here is the question that concerns me: Should we who teach ethics (and that is all of us by what we think, what we say and what we model) be concerned about nurturing a level of motivation that is deeper than recognition, social approval and any other benefit for us that might result from our giving?

It seems that the “Why” question of our ethical choices, including our choice to give, can be focused on one of two motives.

The cause side: it makes me feel good, it gets me recognition as a good person, it generates appreciation from people I care about and want to help. Or the purpose side: the greater good that is being served by my contribution.

Cultivating a sense of responsibility for the common good, and living in response to that sense, seems to be a pretty clear part of our calling to follow the one who discloses to us the nature and character of who God is.

So when I get out my checkbook or go online and join the crowd of December givers, maybe it will be good for me to think more carefully than I often do about why I’m doing that.

From a faith perspective, maybe the quality of my giving and the commitment it expresses matters as much as the quantity of it.

Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.