A Season of Giving: The Challenge of Charity

December 27, 2018 Updated: December 28, 2018


At this time each year, our family is inundated with solicitations by mail, email, and even telephone. We are given many opportunities for giving—to charities that help the poor and downtrodden in this country and across the world, to philanthropies that aid orchestras or schools and colleges, and to worthy causes and publications that we are known or presumed to support.

The first of these opportunities concerns charity as the giving of time, treasure, and talent to help those in need, those in poverty and distress. It’s a religious duty for those who are Christian, Jewish, or from other faiths. We give of our own abundance to those less fortunate, out of gratitude, liberality, and love.

Yet, charity has particular challenges. It can itself be uncharitable. Instead of expressing love and caring, it can become sentimentalized, casual and brusque, bureaucratized, humiliating, or over-professionalized. In the hands of some progressive social workers, the helping and caring that individuals and families need at the moment can be subordinated to political goals.

Funding considerations and the priorities and regulations of funders, especially government, can define or defeat the organization’s mission of meeting human needs. Major charities in the United States, such as Catholic Charities or the Salvation Army, are heavily dependent on government funding and, as such, are subject to requirements that contradict the mission or fundamental beliefs enshrined in those organizations.

In some cases, such agencies have been pushed out of work where they had for many decades played an important role, such as foster family care and adoption (for example, Catholic Charities in Massachusetts and Illinois).

Many of these problems had their origins in well-meaning attempts to improve charitable activity: to make it more caring, helpful, and organized. An important example of this paradox is the Charity Organization Societies (COS).

Social Work

Developed first in Germany and England, the COS had its U.S. beginnings in Buffalo, New York, in 1877. It was formed in criticism of, and as an alternative to, existing arrangements for helping the poor. Professional social work developed from this effort.

Charity, at that time, was either a punitive system of tax-supported public poor relief—impersonal, formal, and demoralizing—or it amounted to a disorganized system of casual and random handouts.

There were many voluntary societies for specific needs—a coal society here, a milk society there—as donors identified particular needs and sought to meet them. The public system was designed to deter dependency and reinforce the labor market by ensuring that the highest level of poor relief would be less attractive (“less eligible”) than the lowest level of paid labor.

The voluntary system was uncoordinated. It was subject to abuse, as recipients could go from one aid society to another picking up handouts, with no one knowing what else that individual had received or what his or her actual needs were.

Those who gave to charity were well-intentioned, could feel good, and could show to themselves and others that they were, in the modern term, “compassionate” and not hard-hearted in the manner of Dickens’s Scrooge character. All this “sentimental charity” substituted feel-good giving for the personal concern, loving care, and respect that the virtue of charity calls for. Charity without love.

The COS aimed to remedy these deficiencies. They sought to organize charity, to make it more caring and responsive to the actual situations and needs of those seeking help.

They insisted on the need for friendship; their slogan was “not alms but a friend.” They developed a system of “friendly visitors,” the forerunners of professional social work, who would assess the situation and needs of their “clients” (the term introduced by the COS leader and pioneer of “social casework” Mary Richmond).

The aim was to make charity “scientific,” to base it on the systematic assessment of individual “cases,” but also on research and coordinated charity in the community, from which the “community chest” and, eventually, the United Way emerged.

But this solution to the problems of sentimental charity was a cure that was worse than the disease, in the eyes of many.

A Changing Relationship

The “friendly visitors,” mainly women of the business and professional classes, with a gap in social status between them and those they helped, didn’t always seem so friendly. A friendly neighbor would give a mother who found herself without the cup of sugar she needed for a recipe the ingredient she asked for. A friendly visitor might give her not alms, but friendly advice on managing the family budget.

Professionalism offered a solution to this awkwardness. But it changed the relationship from one between a Good Samaritan helping a person in need, to one between a lawyer and client. Even the term “charity,” with both its religious and non-professional connotations, became an embarrassment to social workers seeking to be recognized as professionals.

Charity’s reputation suffered, both from the sentimental, disorganized characteristics that the COS criticized and also from the COS’s attempt to make it more professional and scientific. The supporters of sentimental, disorganized charity criticized the organized kind for going cold and scientific, and for lacking the very fellow-feeling, and personal concern, and friendship that the COS had been founded to foster.

The Irish-American poet John Boyle O’Reilly put it this way in 1887:

The organized charity, scrimp’d and iced,

In the name of a cautious, statistical Christ.

So, charity came under attack from all sides, including from socialists who saw it as a band-aid, a worthless alternative to the class struggle that alone would eradicate poverty at its roots. Social workers in the 1960s moved in this direction, as well. They still promoted their own professional status and lobbied for state licensure, but also engaged in social activism to promote their vision of justice. For the professional therapist and the political activist, charity had become an embarrassment.

But as Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his encyclical letter, “God Is Love,” which addresses the Church’s charity workers in its second part: “Love—caritas—will always prove necessary even in the most just society. There is no ordering of the State so just that it will eliminate the need for the service of love.”

Those who seek to help others, and choose a profession where they have the opportunity to do so, need to develop competence, but also what Benedict calls a “formation of the heart.”

One is a matter of knowledge and skill, acquired through education and training. The other is a matter of virtue and character. They don’t stand in opposition.

Paul Adams is a professor emeritus of social work at the University of Hawai‘i, and was a professor and associate dean of academic affairs at Case Western Reserve University. He is the co-author of “Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is,” and has written extensively on social welfare policy and professional and virtue ethics.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.