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Give freely (but quietly)

I railed against the hypocrisy of corporate giving on Twitter recently: the self-conscious posturing, the playing for the cameras. A couple of followers pointed me to the wisdom contained in Matthew Chapter 6.

A great treasury of wisdom it is, too. Jesus is in full flow against the hypocrites: those who “sound a trumpet” whilst giving alms, “that they may have the glory of men.” And then, against those who pray loudly, “standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men.”

Why have we forgotten this ancient wisdom? I know church-goers can chant these verses to high heaven, but who is living their message? Everywhere we look people are gathering ostentatiously in places of worship, dressed to the nines as though they are there to parade as socialites, singing hymns with gusto while peering at their neighbours. Why have we reduced temples and churches to social halls, rather than places for deep communal reflection?

The same applies to being charitable. Why this outbreak of self-conscious donations, using public-relations stunts? Is this truly the only way we know how to give? When we give, who is supposed to benefit – the recipient, or ourselves? The sad truth is most of us give away only our spare change, and that too with much fanfare.

Here’s how to tell if the donor is benefiting as much as the recipient: there will always be a camera or a crowd present; and much will be made of the act of generosity.

As Jesus pointed out millennia ago, true giving is nothing like that. It is quiet, personal and discreet. It is not done for show; it is done because it is the right thing. The only benefit we need when we donate is not the applause of our peers, but something altogether different: internal growth as a person.

As John Bunyan pointed out: “You have not lived today until you have done something for someone who can never repay you.” The development of character is the only gain we should be looking for when we give to others. All else is fickle and ethereal, and worsens our nature rather than improves it.

I have written about “fake giving” on this page before. Mostly, we are not giving at all, but taking: taking applause, taking the approval of our peers, taking status, taking business opportunities, taking lower tax bills, taking mingling with society’s notables, taking opportunities to launder stolen money. It’s “taking” disguised as “giving.”

Please note: organised giving is not bad in itself: it can often have more leverage and impact than the fragmented efforts of individuals. But why does giving have to become ostentatious and self-conscious and reward-seeking, just because it’s organised?

The true challenge is not just to give, it is to give in a special way: freely, systematically, quietly and without any fanfare. And it is not just to give money, but to give a smile, a listening ear, a helpful thought, a kind word, a thank-you, a word of advice, a hand of help. That sort of giving should be every human’s second nature.

And so, whether we give as persons or as organisations, let us remember that we only make sense as part of a greater whole. To have any importance, we must be an element in a bigger idea. And therefore, we must always remember to be grateful for being able to give rather than being forced to receive. Giving is a privilege, not an act of charity. It is an honour, not a corporate event.

“No one has ever become poor by giving,” wrote Anne Frank. We do, however, become poorer by giving badly.

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