Selling altruism by the pound

It might seem a little old-fashioned to defend notions of altruism and charity – a little bit church-pulpit sermonising: “Ye cannot serve both the charity sector and Mammon!”  But sometimes you have to make a stand!

Sometimes we have to re-examine and re-assert our core values, especially when faced with a perceived shift in thinking about how the voluntary sector should work and about how people should go about doing good in society. In this case it is the increasing tendency towards treating the sector as a business market and giving as a reciprocal transaction.

The Minister for Civil Society, Nick Hurd, set the tone of this Government’s agenda for the voluntary sector when he said recently: "The sector has to open its mind to absorbing skills from the private sector because it clearly needs more business skills” and this mindset crops up all over recent policy thinking towards the sector.

DSC has countered this argument vehemently in public before, with Debra Allcock Tyler saying that the Minister has things the wrong way round, and considering business’ current reputation and responsibility for the state of the economy they make poor role models. The bigger picture is, however, one where the market (and open market competition) appears to be the model du jour, seen as the panacea for everything from our public services, to the charity sector, to philanthropy itself.

It is the latter of these 3 parts of ‘Big Society’ which has most recently come under the spotlight in the Giving White Paper. This clearly sets out a model of giving (and volunteering) largely based on the principles of “exchange and reciprocity” rather than any altruistic theory of why people give. The underlying assumption in the Giving White Paper is that givers must be rewarded and ‘nudged’ as if they are incapable of making the correct moral decisions for themselves, while businesses are exonerated of all but the smallest moral responsibilities towards society.

As the Giving Green Paper put it: ‘We also want to emphasise the role of reciprocity – to move away from a caricature of giving as a one-way street.’

What happened to giving and not counting the cost? Let’s just look at the concept of charity for one second – sometimes defined as “love of one's fellow men”; or altruism: “unselfish concern for the welfare of others; selflessness.” Are we saying we shouldn’t encourage this view anymore?  I hope not!

The 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant once said that incentivising people to act in morally correct ways takes away one’s moral sense of duty.  I agree, and the irony is that this is the very thing I thought the Government was meant to be encouraging in Big Society.  

Giving is not a one-way street. Giving researchers agree that people do get something out of giving – some intangible benefits (joy, satisfaction, a warm glow) and some tangible (giving may provide some future benefit to one’s family, friends or oneself). Yet the Government tells us in the Giving green paper that:

the prospect of feeling good about ourselves, making new friends or gaining experience, are not enough on their own to encourage us to give in new ways, to new causes or for non-givers to start. This is where exchange and reciprocity become particularly important. ... it is helpful for people to see and feel the benefits they can derive from contributing ...not just to blindly help anyone and everyone, regardless of how they treat us.

By the White Paper, this position has become embedded in the policy approach: the new Social Action Fund will “support new models that incentivise people to give time, such as ‘complementary currencies’ that give people credit for volunteering”.

The examples of projects supported by the Government include ‘Spice’, a time credit scheme for volunteers, and ‘ProDono’, a scheme whereby donors give money to meet a celebrity of their choice.

Language is a powerful giveaway of our true motivations. So when the Government talks in the Giving White Paper about: “making it more compelling to give” I am struck by the ambiguity of their words (‘persuading’, ‘coercing’ and ‘binding’ are all synonyms).

We in the voluntary sector are told that we need ‘more business skills’, ‘more social investment’ and ‘more incentives’ for people to give, in order to be ‘more successful’. Nick Hurd tells us that the Coalition is: “actively shaping a different world for charities” and this brave new world is clearly going to be based on a market model.

We in the sector need to figure out how we want to respond to this. DSC’s position is clear:  altruism does not require incentives and this is the kind of charity we should be encouraging in order to build a healthy, happy society. Emphasising exchange and reciprocity over pure altruism denigrates and erodes that motive and makes charity, and society, a poorer experience of mere bartering. But we don’t have to buy into the Government’s way of thinking. Giving should remain a personal choice.  Long live altruism!

This post was originally published by DSC e-news in 2011.