What should charity look like?

The news on Google’s recent charitable donations got us thinking about common assumptions about charity. What prompted this head-scratching? For those who missed it, here is the news:

Chromebooks for refugees? Don’t they need food and water? Turns out they do, of course, need these necessities first. However, after those needs are met, refugees need to access information on jobs, paperwork, learning the language of their adoptive country, most of which are online. Enter Google's donation of Chromebooks. The Chromebooks will in fact not be donated to individuals but to NGOs who will run cyber cafes where multiple beneficiaries access the technology. 3-D printing technology belongs in the lab right? The prize money for 3D printing will probably go to a for-profit company that manufactures and sells 3-D printers. One or more of these printers will be then be bought for the NGO in question. How is that even charity?

We tend to see charity as benevolent, emotional and driven from the heart. Awards that take the form of purchases of cutting-edge machines or grants of licences for special software don’t cast the same fuzzy feeling that we’re expecting.

But it’s highly likely that Google has done their due diligence well and the gift of a 3-D printing machine will enable Ratna Nidhi to expand their impact and give more people prosthetic limbs. Donors can presently sponsor limbs for amputees at a cost of Rs1,900-2,200. The 3-D technology will enable Ratna Nidhi to simply take the amputee’s measurements, upload them to their cloud software and send the 3-D printed leg directly to the beneficiary. It eliminates the need for the beneficiary to travel to Ratna Nidhi’s centre while providing a custom designed limb at low cost. In effect, the Google award gives NGOs a chance to be ahead of the curve at no cost.

This award was part of the Google Impact Challenge for Disabilities, which funds ideas that can improve the lives of people living with disabilities. Google also donates grants that enable NGOs to run thousands of dollars’ worth of advertising campaigns on the Google network. Microsoft, Adobe and other giants give free licences to their software to NGOs, who can ill-afford market rates for these products. Like corporate brands with deep pockets who spend millions of dollars competing for your attention, NGOs too need to spread the word about their work. Thanks to initiatives like these, they are brought to a somewhat comparable standing as their for-profit peers.

Perhaps the time is here that companies apply business acumen when selecting the vehicle through which they make their donations!

The side-effects of charity

Making a donation has an effect on your life and behaviour as well. You may not even realise it, but it will change the way you feel about the world. Have you ever had any of these reactions? Find out below!

  • You feel good: You start to realise that you are not helpless and can actually play a part in bringing about some change. It feels good take action about something that is important to you. This sparks a feeling that is not happiness, but a feeling of positivity about yourself and your action. This is especially true of people who donate blood.
  • You may even feel happier: But this is not the kind of happiness you get when buy something at the mall. Psychologists gave money to two groups of people. One of them was asked to spend it on themselves, the others were told to buy something for someone else. When surveyed later, those that had spent the money on others were happier! Turns out that sometimes doing something for others can make us happier than spending on more things for ourselves. This was even true for women in Uganda who had very little money of their own, but felt happier after helping others.
  • You feel less selfish: We are trained to conserve our money, time and our energy for ourselves, our families or things that matter only to us. This sentiment is understandable if you are going through difficult times. However, in the long run, it makes one narrow-minded and focused on the money-value of everything. After you donate, you start to lose a little of the scarcity mindset with which we usually view the world. You may realise you actually have enough resources, be it time or money. You are able to look beyond the concerns of everyday life.
  • You learn a little more about the world: We all have mental models of the world and we operate according to those. Our theories about other people’s lives change after we hear stories of those in need. You put yourself into the shoes of elderly mothers abandoned for being a burden to their children. You wonder why a woman who lost her only daughter is volunteering at the cancer wing where her daughter died. You start to realise that the world is not as predictable as you thought it was, and not as black-and-white either.
  • You rethink your own values: The media wrote a story about the man who downsized his daughter’s wedding to save farmer’s lives instead. Here is an ordinary, middle-class person who probably put aside some part of his salary each month for years to save for his daughter’s wedding. As it turns out, when his daughter is to get married, farmers who have been struggling with drought are dying for want of a few thousand rupees. Should he do something? Isn’t it the government’s job? After all, he didn’t cause the drought, and he had planned for his daughter’s wedding years ago. Yet there is something about the plight of the farmers and his own money that lights a spark in him. He cuts down the unnecessary expenses and manages to donate Rs6 lakh to charity. What’s more important than the money is the fact that he gave up something important to him to focus on someone else. He has acquired a new value of his life’s priorities, his money and his relationship to others in society. This happens to many people who sacrifice something of their own to give someone else. You orient your priorities in a way that is more meaningful to others, and not just yourself.

It's something to keep in mind the next time you want to help out someone else. The rewards you get from acts of charity are not material, but it is surprising what a high value they will have for you!