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How has the concept of charity evolved over the years? Is our current definition and understanding of charity adequate and effective? Are the mechanisms leading from our current conception of charity serving us as a society? These are questions I have been considering in several posts over the last week (Muddy Water; Caritas, Compassion, Charity; and Widespread Warmth) and will continue to consider.

Charity has several definitions (Caritas, Compassion, Charity) and I have been curious about how our perspectives about charity has been altered over the years.

As the internet is the source of information for the majority of the population these days I did an internet search on the word charity and charity definition.  It brought up many sites for charity organizations, legal considerations for charitable organizations; tax information related to charities, information on how to start a charity, and several sites for specific charities and their events. Reference to charity as a virtue was near the bottom of the list.

According to Canada Revenue Agency we have approximately 85,785 registered charities in Canada. I understand that this includes the main organization for a particular charity and does not include regional spin-offs so there are actually more charities across the country. We do not have to look far for a run, a race or other event sponsored by a charity for some purpose. And unless you have taken action to block unsolicited calls (which is an interesting development in itself) you will be familiar with being bombarded with requests for money donations for a very wide assortment of charities that are registered here in Canada and elsewhere.

Anytime there is a disaster anywhere in the world various charities begin the process of playing on our sympathies and offering many opportunities for us to contribute money to their particular part of the disaster relief. As we approach the Christmas season our mailboxes are filled with requests for donations of all sorts. In every form of media charities are using clever means to grab our scattered attention and contribute to their charity at “this time of giving”.

From one perspective we are doing a fabulous job with charity, there are many charities focused in many areas defined for Canada: health, welfare, education, religion and other areas for improving community. (The other community category was an interesting category which included things like cat and dog rescue, land trust, labour history, women of the sea etc.)

Back to my original questions and specifically how the concept of charity has evolved over the years. From my perspective in the name of progress we have formalized giving and charity. We have applied the business model and now we have a growth industry competing for our consideration and our money. I am not saying that charity organizations are not good or that they are not needed. My issue is that for the most part this formalized and mechanized form of charity is a very disconnected form of charity. Handing over money does nothing for our need to be charitable in the true sense. We lose the connection that makes charity special. We lose the ability to share our love for all mankind.

A further issue with the formalization and the industry of charity is that it has become an industry. The costs of running the charity organization reduce the amount of money that goes directly to the people that the charity was set up to serve in the first place. Along with the formalization of the industry we have also lost some of our capacity to connect and to give to others because of legal liability, food safety and other legal issues. Again resulting in less connection.

Some of the approaches that certain charities are using do bring us closer to the human element: buying from a wish list of clothes and goods and taking them to a local shelter or hospital provide us with that very critical element of connection. I believe the true value of charity is in the connection. In instances where we have a connection to someone who is benefiting from our giving we get much more back than what we given. The personal connection for the person who is receiving the giving takes on much more than the material value of the giving. There is mutual benefit with positives ripples that are not easily measured in dollars and cents.

It reminds me of a quote by Albert Einstein

“Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted

Maybe a move away from counting and to a focus on what does count would do us good.

I am still wondering whether our current definitions and understanding of charity are adequate and effective and whether the mechanisms leading from our current conception of charity are serving us as a society?


Irene McDermott © 2011