January 11, 2010

Consuming Philanthropy

new sally By Sally Raskoff

There are many motivations for giving one’s time and money. Altruism was once considered the primary rationale for giving. Our current societal context for giving assumes that the giver, whether a business or a person, gets something for their giving, so giving is not entirely selfless.

Pure altruism exists when people give with no benefit to themselves. That type of giving is not common in our society. Instead, people are encouraged to give and get at the same time; volunteering appears on one’s college applications, corporate philanthropy gives tax breaks and publicity.


“Cause marketing” gives us the “Red” campaign of the Gap and Starbucks, events like “Shopping for the Cure” and many other partnerships between charities and corporations. I’ve long been concerned about such pairings as they link consumerism with charitable activities in ways that are impossible to separate.

A recent NPR story mentions the net benefit for society and the assumptions that once people give, they will see the intrinsic value of giving and thus continue even without an extrinsic reward. However, research doesn’t necessarily support that outcome. Are those people sentenced to community service able to see it as a non-punishment? Are students capable of seeing volunteering as a non-requirement?

In a study I co-authored several years ago, we found that many students define volunteering as an activity they no longer have to do once they have satisfied their graduation requirements, rather than realizing that such activity can enrich one’s life and community.

The original intent of mandated volunteering (an oxymoron if ever there was one) is to socialize people into giving to one’s community. However, when one exchanges the volunteering or monetary giving – in obvious and explicit ways – for some commodity or other benefit, the giving becomes a commodity as well.

For sustainable societies, education is not a commodity, schools are not businesses, giving time and money are not a commodity nor are the people that give of their personal time and funds corporate entities. However, we increasingly talk about education as though it is a service to be exchanged like other services in our economy. As a result, schools are pressured to run like businesses, and giving time and money are increasingly part of commodity and consumerist exchanges.

I bristle at those discussions on our campus where education is equated with business, where students are seen as customers, since education is a far bigger enterprise, potentially, than simple business. Education – and giving – are much greater than the sum of their “services.” Society benefits in large ways from their effective functioning. Students who learn how to think create a much more vibrant society than those who don’t learn to think or who those who only learn to take tests. People who volunteer or give see their communities enriched in ways far beyond the time or dollar amounts spent.

imageThat such activities are increasingly tied to commodity exchanges cheapens and demeans not only those activities but also leaves our society much less enriched since those behaviors are not seen as life-long pursuits.

How to explain all this with sociology? I’ve already begun this explanation with a Marxian analysis. Tying giving to consumerism and commodity exchanges enables us to see who profits and how the capitalist form of our economy is involved in the creation of “selfish giving”.

Capitalism, especially as it exhausts its profit sources, co-opts more and more of society’s institutions. This example of linking giving to consumer activity is a clear co-option of democracy by capitalism. Democracy depends on the service of its people to fulfill its ideals – one needs an informed and vigilant people to fully enact a democratic society.

If people’s vigilance in ensuring society functions well is weakened by tying services to consumer activities, people no longer participate in ensuring strong and vibrant communities. Instead, they buy things and are satisfied that their philanthropic duty is done. They give their time because their employer, judge, or school  have told them to and they are satisfied when their requirement is completed. While they may learn that they can feel good by doing good, they are not necessarily likely to do more – or to see how their community and the democracy in which they live depend on such behaviors.

So what can we do about this? Marx’s theory suggests that as capitalist crises continue to increase in frequency and scope, even as more and more institutions are co-opted into the capitalist enterprise, capitalism has indeed exhausted itself and its sources of profit. It follows that the structure of our economy is in dire need of revision. Yet whether we have the will to do so remains to be seen.


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I think there are plenty of oppurtunities for people to give without receiving anything in return. Helping clear weeds and brush for a walking trail in a city park. Any parent that volunteers for a PTA or one time at a school function. Soup kitchens are always looking for people to help serve food without having to donate the food. Giving time and help is just as important as giving money or only helping for a school credit.

I agree with all that you said. I am a highschool student and what you said about students thinking they no longer have to volunter once their graduation requirements are met is true for me anyways.I have always thought of volunteering as just a requirement that I have needed to graduate.

People should give more time than money. It will create a community that care It will bring back hope and caring within our communities.


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