Here’s Why Our Approach To Charity Might Be Doing More Harm Than Good

We could wax philosophical about the nature of charity for days on end, but the fact of the matter is that performing acts of kindness is gratifying.

And that’s why donating food, clothing, and money feels good. You’ve probably heard that massive, corporatized organizations are shady at worst and questionable at best, but corruption in the charity business extends far beyond money-grubbing executive boards.

While we obviously donate time and resources to these organizations with the best intentions, what those organizations do with them is often hard to nail down. Beyond that, some actions that are perceived as being charitable actually further destabilize struggling communities.

1. Let’s talk business.


Most people are aware of the fact that many major charities come complete with their own advisory and executive boards. Unfortunately for the children, cancer survivors, war veterans, and animals on the receiving end, those people all have to get paid.

And where does that money come from? Our wallets. To determine which charities are worth supporting, take a look at lists like this to get a feel for how much of your money is actually going to those who need it. After all, oppressed, injured, and sick people deserve your donations. Executives with luxury cars do not.

2. Awareness isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be.


Like it or not, raising awareness usually doesn’t do much. While displaying ribbons and participating in hashtag campaigns on Twitter serve as valid displays of solidarity, the contemporary road to awareness is often paved with self-aggrandizement.

Some awareness-based movements raise exorbitant amounts of money. Many others quickly morph into hashtag-laden displays of pseudo-charity. Most alarming of all are the studies which found that such efforts often incite equal and opposite reactions, and studies that saw no direct correlation between awareness and action. While expressing solidarity is always good, it’s time to re-evaluate the role of awareness as it relates to actionable change.

3. Sometimes, helping hurts.


It seems like common sense to send clothing and toys to regions devastated by natural disaster. Take Haiti, for example. After a tsunami ravaged the nation back in 2004, well-intentioned donors rushed to mail boxes of clothing to Haitian people. “Misguided goodwill,” as David Case of The Global Post calls it, actually damaged Haitian infrastructure in the months and years thereafter.

And this is sadly true for almost all disaster situations in the Global South. Sending goods often rocks relief efforts and local economies in the worst possible ways. First, relief workers on the ground use valuable time and resources to organize mountains of donations. Second, local economies driven by artisanal craftsmanship (i.e., textile development) are typically destabilized in the years following mass donations.

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4. Showing up makes us feel good…and that’s about it.


In a piece for NBC News by JoNel Aleccia, the reality of boots-on-the-ground charity is thrown in sharp relief against aid that actually, well, aids anyone other than the volunteer. This is not to say that meaningful work has not been carried out by volunteers, but those with extensive disaster-relief training are far more effective on a systemic level than those who are not.

“Everyone wants to be a hero,” said Dr. Thomas Kirsch of the Johns Hopkins Center for Refugee and Disaster Response, “but [showing up] is not the way to do it.” That’s because those who are experienced in disaster relief are already there. To be frank, they shouldn’t waste precious time training those of us who arrive with nothing to offer but starry eyes and compassion.

The purpose of this isn’t to make you feel bad about your desire to give. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.


It’s never a bad idea to lend a helping hand. If you see small, local charities doing fundraisers, donate whatever they need! Is the animal shelter down the street holding a charity car wash? Let them give your vehicle a meaningful scrub. Never ignore that voice in your head that tells you to use your privilege to help those who don’t have any. That level of compassion is what makes us human.

To learn more about charities that deserve your time and money, check out the resources below:

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