Charity – What is it Good For?

Lately, I’ve noticed a lot of my friends advertising charity events for their student groups on Facebook. They usually sound pretty similar, something along the lines of:

Do you like people? Do you like fun? Do you like food? Then come to our event FOR CHARITY!

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love helping out the next person as much as you do (hopefully, you do). And what’s not to love about enjoying delicious donuts while helping those poor kids in South America at the same time? But as more and more profile pictures and snapchat stories filled my feed, I couldn’t help but think about all the other times I’d seen banner ads plastered with faces of emaciated toddlers or emails containing desperate pleas for financial help. Why are we so eager to donate money now, when most of us hardly bat an eye when these emails ask us to donate to all the same causes?

Of course, most of us could write this off with a simple response. “There’s a human connection with your peers,” or “we get inundated with so many ads, I hardly notice them.” These are hardly likely answers. If the former were true, we would only ever bother advertising to our friends and would have no use for posting on social media; if the latter, ad revenues wouldn’t be hitting record highs year after year.

Perhaps, another response might be that we do it for personal gain; we donate to these for the same reason many firms operate under a “purchase one, donate one” model. We wanted to consume the good anyways, and donating to a cause helps us to feel better about it. But that begs a much larger question. What does that say about us, and about our community here at Duke, when helping others becomes a matter of convenience?

Speaking with residents of Durham, I’ve gathered that Duke is not particularly known for its dedication to community service, at least locally (whether, then, we should be spending so much on programs such as Duke Engage is another matter entirely). Yet with no lack of desire to give back (as evidenced by the numerous charity events year round), why do we choose to go the path of least resistance? As Duke students, part of what got us here was a willingness to tackle challenges and go out of our comfort zone. That should hardly stop once we get to Duke, and no amount of donations to charities scattered across the globe will have an impact on the Durham community right outside our doorstep.

In writing this piece and reflecting on my own experiences at Duke, I’ve realized that I’m guilty, too, of often forgoing “difficult” community service for the easier alternative. Do I really see a future where helping others precludes inconveniencing yourself? Is a donation of convenience really more valuable than physical presence and thoughtful labor in the community? That’s not the legacy I want to leave behind.

Author’s Note: These were just late night thoughts, in no way meant to discredit the value of donating to the important causes you believe in.