December 23, 2014

The Season of Giving, Charity, and Capitalism

TigonzalesBy Teresa Irene Gonzales

Within the United States, we often hear the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas called the “season of giving.” During the past three years, this season has been kicked off by Giving Tuesday.I n the true spirit of capitalism, Giving Tuesday draws on the monetary successes of Black Friday and Cyber Monday in order to tap into two great American pastimes: charitable giving and shopping.

According to a study by the National Philanthropic Trust, in 2013 the average American household donation was $2,974. Furthermore, Americans donated $241.32 billion to charities; this dollar amount vastly outpaced the combined charitable giving by foundations ($50.28 billion) and corporations ($16.76 billion).  But what does it mean to give charitably?  Where did this idea of charity come from? And, why do Americans donate?

Sociologist Marcel Mauss explains in his classic work The Gift, the exchange of gifts (what is charity if not an unreciprocated gift?) allows groups to build relationships with each other. One is expected to reciprocate a received gift, with one of equal value. If one does not reciprocate, s/he is relegated to an inferior status. This theory of gift exchange has its limitations, particularly when thinking about anonymous giving. For instance, at an individual level, giving to charity may not lead to a dominant relationship (especially since the donor rarely ever knows the receiver). But what does this mean in terms of maintaining social hierarchies between groups?  

In her quest to understand the “high public praise for private charity,” Donileen Loseke analyzed the New York Times’ “Neediest Cases” charity section for the years spanning from 1912 to 1992. She claims that people engage in charitable actions because they either 1) feel sorry and want to help (altruism), 2) feel angry and want to normalize (anger/assimilate), or 3) feel afraid and want to control (social control).

In her study, Loseke found that these popular conceptions of the idea of charity have evolved to encompass multiple meanings. For instance, in regards to Giving Tuesday, some may embrace the consumerist practices of glutton shopping during the weekend after Thanksgiving, and then, in the true spirit of giving, donate to charity as a way to feel good about themselves and possibly alleviate some level of social guilt.

Others, who may reject excess consumption, can embrace giving both as an antidote to shopping and as a way to address social ills. Both of these reasons would fall under an altruistic sense of charity, and both allow the giver to feel good about themselves while also addressing a perceived social injustice during a time of rampant gift exchange.

And this is where the idea of charity is so salient. It has the power to create a sense of community through altruistic actions, to present the façade of normalization and/or social control through dictating who can and should receive aid (the deserving versus the undeserving), and to create a sense of civic engagement or duty amongst those who give.

In addition to framing the multiple discourses on charity, however, popular media outlets like the Times’s “Neediest Cases” section also creates a business out of the needs of others. For instance, the newspaper employs journalists and editors for this section, and provides free advertising to philanthropic organizations that they think deserve  charitable donations. The charitable organizations that are highlighted in the Neediest Cases section employ administrative staff, caseworkers, community organizers, and others. At the same time, the “Neediest Cases” section also operates as a form of good public relations for the Times and the charities that it highlights.

This good PR is often one of the most rewarding aspects of corporate charitable giving. In this video on consumption, capitalism, and charity, philosopher Slavoj Zižek highlights how corporate entities use ideas of charity and social justice as a way to sell their goods, continue inhumane labor practices, and empower their customers to feel good about purchasing their product.


A student of mine refers to this as capitalistic charity; for instance, a company that relies on sweatshop labor yet donates to public schools in low-income areas, or a company that provides living wages to its employees yet pollutes the surrounding areas next to its factories. A prime example of this is Coca-Cola’s  $124 million in charitable contributions given in 2011 as part of their commitment to “being good neighbors…around the world.” At the same time, however, Coca-Cola is known to engage in unethical practices and hardly acts in the best interests of its neighbors. Rather than addressing deep seated social inequities, Zižek contends that these practices simply put a human face on capitalism.

Critics of a charity model prefer proper living wages that are commensurate with a local cost of living, the presence of quality jobs, an equitable tax system, and a socially just welfare state that adequately provides for its citizens.  

While charity can operate to maintain social hierarchies and inequity and can act as an extension of capitalism, it also provides immediate material needs to those who desperately need it. This includes ready access to shelter, food, safety, and clothing.

How can we work to eradicate the need for charity at a policy reform level, while also addressing the very real and very urgent immediate needs of at-risk populations who currently need charitable support?  




Charity I think in most forms,acts a vehicle for reciprocity and redistribution. In capitalistic societies it can help ( as you mentioned) to provide a sense to the public of altruism. It therefore functions to help a certain group of people and make the institution "look good". There seems to be a number of so called charities that use paid telemarketers that solicit, often in the name of policeman and of fireman. When I ask about what percentage of my donation goes to the actual charity very often I will get a response "well I am told to tell you that a least 10% goes to the charity". I was once told that " a minimum of 1%% goes directly to the charity" Amazing that they able to achieve that status with that kind of distribution. This makes it difficult to make distinctions between legitimate organizations and those who use this as profit making industry.

YouCaring invites you to support The Caiman Haiti Foundation to rebuild the lives of Haitian Women And Children with its program “Securing a Change in Haiti.”

Please help us make a charitable donation so that we can continue Gabriel’s mission to offer much-needed relief to Haiti. Our goal is to raise $20,000 to purchase food, medical supplies, and educational materials. It will also pay for the distribution of clothing and shoe donations and to establish an after-school program. In addition to financial support, we also welcome in-kind donations of school supplies; used computers (Pentium 4 or equivalent); projectors; DVD/CD players; classroom chairs and tables; learning/instruction books; t-shirts and pants for boys and girls 5-15 years old; sandals; and used cars.

For more details, please visit our website @

On behalf of the Haitians and their families, we are deeply grateful for your support!

It is a pleasure to know that corporates and individuals are thinking of donating for social causes. I am aware of an NGO in Bangalore, India which provides funds and grants to various other NGOs working for social causes like wildlife conservation, free education to underprivileged, nature conservation etc., They are doing a great job. You may visit their site It is a pleasure to know that corporates and individuals are thinking of donating for social causes. I am aware of an NGO in Bangalore which provides funds and grants to various other NGOs working for social causes like wildlife conservation, free education to underprivileged, nature conservation etc., You may visit their site
for more details

This is a well done article, charity is great when done by ethical and honest individuals and organizations. But it really is used as a PR tool by some corporations to mask the greater harm they do.

As exposure increased, nonprofit organizations list the messages and emails increased to the point that it was nearly a full-time job to simply respond to emails, praying for people and encouraging them, depending on their situation... and never once did she ask for financial assistance. charitable causes

Such insight. This article is really informative and really helpful in ways. thank you

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