Charitable Problems

Jack Fleming, Opinion Editor

Long regarded as an objectively benevolent and exceptionally generous act, charitable giving has largely been immune to any sort of meaningful criticism. Charities receiving contributions are automatically presumed to be judicious spenders of donors’ money and to have their best interests at heart. However, both charities and charitable giving must be given careful scrutiny; there are tremendously problematic practices at play on both sides of the charitable equation that should certainly concern outside observers. Helping others through charity is a laudable goal, yet the ways in which charities and donors work towards that goal should be carefully examined.

The American Red Cross, an enduring and trusted mainstay of American nonprofit organizations, has become an almost bureaucratic entity whose charitable initiatives, while usually excellent, can sometimes be questionable. After Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake, millions of Americans opened their wallets and money – roughly $500 million of it – came pouring in. The Red Cross, fundraising aggressively, promised to rebuild the country. But according to a 2015 NPR report, a highly underwhelming six new permanent homes were built by the organization. And instead of using the sizable sum to give direct aid to Haitians, the Red Cross took a sizable percentage (between 9 and 24%) of the money for administrative costs before donating it to partner groups, who then took their own cut of the remaining money for their own administrative costs. The Red Cross’s failures in Haiti are emblematic of a fairly common problem among large charitable organizations – surprisingly little donor money actually makes its way to intended recipients.

The ubiquitous high society charity gala and debutante balls are events that need rethinking. Charity galas are commonly assumed to be quite profitable, a completely misguided notion. In reality, throwing an ostentatious charity gala is a massive gamble for nonprofits; they typically shell out large sums of money for a venue, caterers and entertainment, with no guarantee of reaping a profit. These events also force nonprofit employees to spend their valuable time planning galas instead of focusing on more pressing charitable initiatives. Oftentimes, these events are simply a chance for wealthy individuals to pat themselves on the back for their generosity; nonprofits frequently barely manage to break even on their galas or lose money on them.

Illustration by Elena Kaminskaia

Debutante balls are similarly problematic. These events were originally part of a highly sexist tradition where wealthy white men present their young daughters (who wear obscenely expensive white ball gowns meant to signify their purity/virginity) to high society young men and their families in an attempt to find them a suitable husband. While today’s debutantes do have to complete charity work before making their high society debut, the focus of these events remains on providing a good time to rich people and celebrating the rich young women who may have engaged in charitable activities, not on the impactful work of the charitable organization sponsoring the event.

This article is not intended to scare anyone away from donating to or working for charities. Charities and charitable giving rightfully occupy a prominent, highly valued place in American society. It’s just important to do a little research in order to make sure that your charity of choice uses your money judiciously. Additionally, one’s charitable donations should stem from a genuine belief in a charity’s work – don’t just donate to a nonprofit because you want to impress your friends while being wined and dined at a swanky gala. When it comes to charity, give generously but make sure to give wisely.