Is “Charity” a Bad Word?

Charity is becoming a "bad word" to some

“Charity” is being swapped out for “investing for impact” these days.
Image: Shutterstock

When you think about the word charity, what do you imagine?  It reminds me of church workers handing out food or blankets to the poor.  Or, it reminds me of people serving starving Russians in bread lines.  It doesn’t often bring up anything too positive.  It’s really a word that indicates a handout. Is “charity” becoming a bad word?

“I would advocate getting rid of words such as ‘charity,’ which keep us trapped in an outmoded mindset. They reek of patronage and keep us wedded to a legacy of religious dogma and guilt, and to a bygone era of patriarchs and robber barons. Indeed, the way we think about charity may not be wrong. Thinking in terms of charity is wrong,” says Bhaskar Chakravorti in critique of Dan Pallotta’s TED Talk.

Don’t get me wrong.  Charity, the deed, is a great thing.  It’s the word that many people object to.  But why does it evoke such visceral, vitriolic response from so many people?  It could be that they feel the approach is all wrong.  Giving somebody food when they are starving is one thing.  Teaching them to grow food is another.  The first example might be an example of charity.  The second is usually called something else.  It’s the old proverb that says, “Give a man a fish, and he eats for a day.  Teach a man to fish, and he will eat for the rest of his life.”

So, if we can’t call it charity, what then?  It seems the new trending name is “investing for impact.”  It doesn’t have quite the brevity of the former name, nor is it clear what impact investors are aiming for.  However, the phrase has caught on with the media.  Apparently, this means “investment that aims to solve social or environmental challenges while generating financial profit.”

It seems investors want more bang for their buck.  They are demanding transparency, social and environmental change, an assessment of results and effective management throughout the process.  Do we still need charity?  My answer is yes.

Think of organizations such as the Salvation Army and Goodwill.  They rely on donations and charity to survive.  Donation of time or money without the incentive of getting anything in return is good for the soul too.  It’s important to realize that there are instances in which plain, old giving is appropriate.

Perhaps society has a place for many different types of charity, philanthropy, “investing for impact” or whatever else we decide to call it.


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