When charity counts, but change is called for

I’ve been finishing up a new book on “intentionality” about how to make a difference in society and also stay true to yourself and there’s a section where I write about charity vs. change. There has always been a difference that has concerned me – oftentimes I think we get them confused. I still do; so I wanted to return to this topic amid the challenges we face.

For a very long time I have always sought to speak out on significant difference between charity and change. Charity is ensuring someone has a meal tonight or roof over their head, maybe that a book is read to a kid on a given day. All things I suspect we agree are good things to do. But the problem is when we come to believe that such charity is a substitute for change – in fact, that it IS change.

I was driving home yesterday from a lunch meeting in downtown DC when I heard on the radio a segment of a National Press Club talk given by Revered David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, who was talking about how to end hunger in the U.S. At one point, he made a passionate riff how Moses and Jesus and the prophets all were fundamentally calling for changes in structures, laws, and beliefs, among other things. Yes, they wanted people to help the less fortunate; there’s much written about that in religious and other belief systems. But, they also said that only through basic changes in underlying conditions in society, would the world be different.

Beckmann was asked if he thought there was a “compassion gap” in the U.S. – had people become so fatigued by national and world disasters and assorted other events that they were no longer willing to engage or even pay attention. He emphatically said “No” – while there is a lack of confidence in our ability to act effectively on challenges, people still “care.”

I agree with him. Every indicator I see in my work and travels is that people still do care about others – and deeply so. But caring and what we do are two very different things. We have created all sorts of mechanisms that enable people to marshal in the short term financial and other resources to express our individual and collective compassion for victims of natural disasters and to respond to people’s immediate needs. We can make donations through instant text messages, directly support charities online and bypass “middle men,” and rally around a cause through instant mobilization efforts. But is that enough?

At a Craigslist Boot Camp, where I once spoke, I was taken to task for not promoting “fast and easy” volunteer actions people can take – whether they be donations or other activities like reading a book to a kid. Statements about such “fast and easy” actions were a mantra at the event. My own response was that the actions people take can be viewed along a continuum – say, from something fast and easy to something deeper and more sustained over time.

But I also said that we must not confuse fast and easy such actions with fundamental change – that our purpose and actions must be aligned. To create change, as Beckmann was pointing out, we must get at fundamental structures, policies, laws, norms, relationships. Yes, charitable acts can contribute to such change, but they do not get us there.

I suppose I am writing about this topic today because at no other point in my own lifetime can I remember when charity was more needed at home at abroad. So I find there is a pull within me to hold back a bit on drawing such a sharp distinction between charity and change. I know we need charity and we must give. And yet, what I also know is that the need for change – real, fundamental, basic transformation – is desperately needed today. We are in a new time, guided by too many old reflexes and approaches. We need to act on both charity and change, but let us be clear aware of when which response is called for when.