Do you give charity without strings attached?

For such a simple-sounding task, giving away money sure can be emotionally complicated.

A recent New Yorker essay describes an extremely awkward situation that cropped up when the author loaned money to a friend, expecting it to be paid back over time… only to have the friend seemingly vanish with the loan money.

What would you do in this situation? The author pursued the matter through (unanswered) emails, phone calls, and texts, hoping to recoup the loan. It ends happily, although not with some further embarrassment: in the end, she learned that the friend had been repaying the money as agreed; the author had overlooked the check in the mail.

It’s a small matter of the sort that each of us will deal with at some point in our lives. But the following quote from the essay touches on an uncomfortable truth about money and charity:

I kept e-mailing. She kept not replying. Somewhere in the silence, I let suspicion breed. There should be a word that means “the fatal underestimation of anothers honesty”….

Until this episode, Id thought of myself as a working-class girl whod happened upon money, my essential character unchanged. But money is not neutral; it changes everything, including the ability to neutrally judge what people will or will not do for it. George Sand: “Charity degrades those who receive it and hardens those who dispense it.” Well, it neednt, but it does the way I do it.

Is this true? How often do we make charity a degrading experience for both giver and receiver?

It occurs to me that one way we can degrade the experience of giving and receiving charity is by attaching strings to the action, as the essay author did. One obvious such string in this article was the expectation that the loan would be paid back promptly. But I think that even our “free” gifts are often given with some unspoken expectations:

  • We expect that the recipient will act grateful for our gift.
  • We expect that the money we give will be used wisely and in relation to the need that prompted the charity. In other words, we expect the money to be spent on food, rent, or debt rather than on a new iPhone or XBox.
  • We may expect that the recipient be willing to help us out should the situation ever be reversed and we need the charity.
  • Some of these aren’t unreasonable things to expect… but when we attach even a reasonable string to a charitable gift, it’s not entirely free anymore. That’s probably not a bad thing as far as human charity goes—when we give money to people or causes, we want that money to as much tangible good as possible.

    I think this raises some interesting questions about the Gospel, which Christians often characterize as a “free gift.” I’ll talk about that in a future post.

    What about you—do you attach strings to your charity? What are they? Do those strings change when the object of your charity is a close friend of family member? Would you be willing to freely give your money, time, or other resources to somebody if you knew there was a good chance that the recipient wouldn’t acknowledge it in any way… or might even outright waste the gift?

    One Response to “Do you give charity without strings attached?”

    • Mike Owen says:

      Charity should be given without strings attached. No expectations in terms of return…I refer to charity for the needy, cancer funds etc. You should give your money and go in silence, bragging how good you are to others for giving is wrong. The other thing is it is not charity if you claim donations at tax time. When it comes to friends make communication clear from both points of view….it could prevent issues down the track.

      M Owen