Has the USA business culture, our inherent materialism, and the way we think about money in our nation hindered the ability of non-profits to enjoy the freedom of
operation, risk-taking, and R&D the business sector experiences in our country? Dan Pallotta, founder and CEO of AIDS Rides, in a TED talk, The Way We Think About Charity is Dead Wrong suggests that to be the case.
He feels that it was our Puritan roots that created this strong perspective in our nation. The Puritans came over to the USA for a better life and to experience religious and economic freedom. The Puritans were Calvinists with a strong sense of the total depravity of man. In a Calvinistic society, this belief created positive guilt in relationship to one’s personal sin, thus moving people toward Christ. But it also did and can create false guilt in various areas of life, or cause uncertainty in what God sees as good and righteous and what He does not.
Pallotta’s point is that because of their hard work ethic and the new freedoms they found in the USA, the Puritans became wealthy, but also personally conflicted theologically by that wealth. Should they have all of this money as sinners before God? Was God okay with that or how did He look at it ? To internally live with that conflict, Pallotta feels they created the concept of “Charity” to salve their consciences. If they could give some of their wealth away to the poor, then they could live with the rest of their wealth with a good conscience.
I’m not sure I agree with Pallotta on his origin of charity. I think the Puritans most likely got the idea of charity from the Scriptures and the tithing concept of the OT. And they wanted to be obedient to God with that discipline. But Pallotta may have a point in this respect: In order to live as materialists and preserve our materialism, we somehow need to justify that part of us in order to live with ourselves. So being generous with “some of what God’s given us” does help us to feel good about ourselves and allows us to live with a better conscience toward God and men. I like to call this, Charity Think.
Here’s the Implication: Charity has been a part of USA culture from the Puritans on. But, for the most part, it has been relegated to a “feel good” enterprise in our culture. Here are aspects of Charity Think:
- Charity is tolerated because it’s a way we can feel good about ourselves and still be materialists.
- It’s supported because the sector is doing a lot of good, and we all are aware of the waste government creates when it tries to do the good the private non-profit sector can do.
- It’s embraced because we can write 10% off on our taxes.
- It’s promoted as the “good face” of America as are some of our foreign aid projects, and in many respects non-profit giving creates a lot of good will around the globe.
- It’s a platform where Americans can make or keep a positive name for themselves even when their motives are self-serving. (And since we can’t judge another’s motives, we can be thankful for any and all donations that go into the non-profit sector.)
Do you resonate positively with this analysis of the origins of charity and it’s place in American culture today? Or do you have a different analysis of the present reality?
At any rate, there are implications for the non-profit sector that arise out of “Charity Think” in our culture today. We’ll take these on in the next couple posts since they impact our operations and fundraising efforts.
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