Change How You do Charity Work

I used to help at a rehab center in Malaysia for ex-substance abusers. One day we were overjoyed to receive a phone call from the owner of a canned food factory, saying he wanted to make a big, generous donation of canned food to the center. Soon a truck showed up, filled to the brim with canned food. Our joy was short-lived, however, when we noticed that every single can has expired. Some cans were rusty and bulging from whatever was reacting inside. The factory owner assured us that the food “won’t kill anyone.”

I wonder if he will eat them himself.

A friend was helping to collect items donated for charity and there was a huge, damaged electric massage chair being given away. He declined to accept it and was scolded. The donor insisted that the chair could be sold for money. “That’s my contribution to charity,” she declared.

On December 6th The Straits Times carried a news item about Singapore-based lawyer Dipa Swaminathan’s collaboration with Starbucks to supply unsold food items to foreign workers. it is a commendable act. Efforts like food banks acting as distribution middlemen between eateries and the needy sure seem more sensible than international charities supposedly driven by disasters and whatnot.

However, her comment “As you know, they [the foreign workers] would never be able to go into Starbucks and get a drink or muffin. What better thing to do than to take perfectly good food destined for the bin and to give them a snack” reminded me of my own experiences with charity work.

In my nearly four decades of doing my own small part to better the circumstances of the unfortunate and the underprivileged, I must have ploughed through tons of garbage disguised as gifts. I have sorted through literally thousands of pairs of torn and moldy clothing, broken shoes – smelly footwear deemed unusable by any estimation – and even worn, unwashed, stained and filthy underwear – including push up bras, G-strings and you better believe this, crotchless panties! –  discarded by people and dumped for charity.

This phenomenon is not unique to Singapore; mountains of thick winter clothes were dumped in Thailand for the 2004 tsunami victims. Following that same disaster, 4,000 tons of donated drugs arrived in Indonesia, well beyond local needs, labeled in foreign languages and were close to expiration.

Even when there isn’t a disaster, donations are being raised round-the-clock by dubious organizations with questionable intentions. In the west, an entire industry has been set up purportedly to send aids to Africa. Operators of these “charities” pocket the main bulk of the monetary donations received but items like unwanted fur coats are shipped off to “needy women and children” in sub-Saharan Africa.

For the rest of us, I suspect our behavior may be due to a number of some misguided beliefs and deep-seated psychological reasons:

  1. You can’t afford a eight-dollar frappuccino? Well, maybe you didn’t try hard enough at being successful? Surely you deserve the state you are in, so you should shut up and appreciate it! How else would you get to stuff your stupid face with a mouth-watering Egg Omelette Croque Monsieur from Starbucks?
  2. It’s not good enough for us anymore, but those who never had a fur coat, or a pair of knee-high winter boots, ought to rejoice having one, even if it’s way too warm for this climate.
  3. It’s Christmas, so let’s do something nice for ourselves, like shopping for a new wardrobe with the year-end bonus we’ve got and at the same time get rid of old stuff; it gets rid of any feeling of guiltiness too.

Let’s not hide behind charity to assuage our guilt and rationalize our insatiable need for conspicuous consumption. Those who claim that giving is often for the giver are not necessarily wrong. But we ought to remember that we give to meet needs, not because we have needs to be met. We give because there are those who are in dire straits, not because we have to dump a damaged massage chair.

Jack London wrote that “A bone to the dog is not charity. Charity is the bone shared with the dog, when you are just as hungry as the dog.” Yes, giving is not giving unless it hurts!

And also, we shouldn’t be giving because of religious reasons. Recently the Catholic Church in Singapore announced that it hopes to raise S$238 million for next 7 years, and asked Catholics to make monthly contributions.

The money will be used for the construction of its upcoming S$150 million center for archdiocese-wide activities and priest retirement residence; a new S$19 million seminary and formation center; and a separate S$3.1 million residence for retired priests.

I understand that many Catholics are happy to abide but a couple of my Catholic acquaintances actually bristled at the suggestion. “This is making us like Christians!” they complained. I am no theologian but isn’t tithing a Biblical concept, and aren’t Catholics also Christians?

It is startling that too many today who claim to be churchgoers cherish a life of pleasure and prosperity by traveling the world – sometimes even alone, leaving their loved ones behind –  to seek out culinary delights at Michelin-starred restaurants, and bragging about quaffing rare and expensive single malts, and exhibiting their narcissism on Instagram and Facebook – they seem to thrive on “likes” –  yet they seem to also live a life which is totally devoid of sacrifice. It appears that these people are the ones with the most screws that need tightening.

Finally, charity consists not the sum given, but the manner in which it is bestowed. People have pride; they may forget what you said, but they will forget what you did and they will never forget how you make them feel.

So don’t give like you’re throwing crumbs from your table to a beggar, or scraps to a stray dog; don’t give grudgingly or make a big show of it, or keep a ledger. Charity is not about chalking up Brownie points.

Don’t be petty. Be a cheerful giver!

And one more thing: giving should be unconditional; you don’t give because there’s a quid pro quo.

A case in point – smog from Indonesian forest fires have plagued Singapore since 1972, but Singapore continues to help Indonesia during times of crisis. When Aceh was nearly wiped out by a that killer tsunami in 2004, 1,500 men and women from Singapore were there almost immediately to help stabilize the mayhem. They were accompanied by three supply ships, 12 helicopters and eight transport aircraft from Singapore.

Meanwhile Indonesia continues to mock Singapore and scoff at us whenever we expressed unhappiness about the smog. In fact, the Indonesian vice president even said that we should be thankful for the oxygen provided by Indonesian forests for the rest of the year and quit complaining about the one month of haze. Yet, when the same province of Aceh was struck by an earthquake of 6.5-magnitude last week (December 7th) Singapore was among the first countries to respond with help. Singapore Civil Defense Force officers and Mercy Relief officials flew to Aceh the next day. The Singapore Armed Forces has also offered their help to the Indonesian national armed forces and the Singapore Red Cross has pledged a sizeable donation as well in the calamity that has displaced more than 65,000 people.

Singapore expects nothing; hence we suffer no disappointment.

Before long, this disaster will be over, but smog from Indonesian forest fires will continue to plague Singapore, and Indonesian authorities will continue to insult and ridicule Singapore when we grumble about the pollution but should another disaster strikes Indonesia, Singapore will – in a heartbeat – again lend a helping hand very willingly.

Now, this is what I call real charity.