By Eden Zorne
We’ve all heard it before on the radio or the TV. Donate to the food bank, donate to the toy drive, drop a quarter into the Salvation Army kettle, lend an extra helping hand this holiday season! Every year, we’re bombarded with the overwhelming pressure to be philanthropic, to help your neighbour, all in the spirit of Christmas (or other holidays, but in Canada, Christmas is likely the most common culprit). But where is that pressure in March? Or July? Or October? And is that philanthropy genuine, out of the kindness of our hearts? No. The pressure for philanthropic actions during the holiday season is a byproduct of consumer culture and creates philanthropy that is as far away as possible from genuine.
December is the most popular month to give to charity, with 20.3% of all charitable donations being made in this month (source). We even have a whole Christmas song about helping the poor people in Africa (which the artist seems to think is a single monolithic desert country, rather than a diverse continent of more countries than they probably thought existed in the whole world, but that’s for another article). So, why does the pressure for philanthropy hardly extend past December, what makes it false, and what ties it into consumerism?
Giving at Christmas isn’t a new concept. Baby Jesus was showered with gifts when he was born, and he, Mary, and Joseph weren’t exactly living it up in a mansion at the time, so of course all the gifts were acts of charity at their core. It’s only logical that this tradition of giving to the less fortunate would continue throughout the centuries. These days, we don’t exactly shower infants with gold, frankincense and myrrh, but we donate to toy drives, we sponsor families in need at Christmastime by buying them gifts, we donate to charities to give to starving people in impoverished countries. This is where consumerism and capitalism come in. Companies and charities advertise their philanthropic acts that YOU, yes, YOU can be a part of, for as little as $9.99! And because the tradition of giving to the less fortunate on Christmas is hardwired into our brains from centuries of conditioning, we’re more compelled to donate or take action when we see ads like these in December versus when we see ads like these in July. When companies reach more people, their profit inevitably goes up, and the same principle can be applied to charitable organizations: when they can reach more people with ads, especially when people are predisposed to feel more charitable, more people donate, and the more recognition that charity gets, meaning they can do more for their mission.
Now, why is this philanthropy “false,” as I called it? Well, it’s not false in the traditional sense, meaning not real, it’s definitely real, as real good is being done and people are benefitting. However, the consumerist pressure renders it false; it’s not true philanthropy. True philanthropy is done out of the goodness of one’s heart, for no ulterior motive. It’s done simply because they want to help others. That’s what the original spirit of giving to the less fortunate on Christmas reflects. However, in the age of consumerism, of course there’s ulterior motives. Most companies don’t really care about helping people, so their pressuring of consumers to be philanthropic is more so to improve their reputation and brand name, which in turn boosts profits. I’m willing to bet that many people wouldn’t be philanthropic if they weren’t being motivated by social pressure or ads. If there’s some event at the office where everyone is encouraged to bring in a toy for a child in need, Jimmy would look and feel pretty embarrassed if he’s the only one that didn’t bring anything, and he would probably be shunned by coworkers for it. If Susie’s church wasn’t collecting money during service to give to the homeless shelter for Christmas, Susie would probably never consider donating to the homeless shelter.
Much of our philanthropy today is because of ulterior motives, not the goodness of our hearts. It’s fueled by consumerism, social pressure, and ages of tradition. Now, I’m in no way saying that false philanthropy is inherently a negative presence in society. There can never be too many kind actions in the world, especially now. It’s merely the drivers behind the false philanthropy that is disheartening. It’s depressing that the things that drive many people to do good these days are consumerism and social pressure, rather than genuine kindness and regard for humanity. But not to put too much of a damper on this already depressing holiday season. At least people are doing something good, even if it’s for a more selfish motive than we would like to see. And doing good during the holiday season always makes everyone around you feel a little bit better. Now, go get out there and do some philanthropy. Drop some coins in the kettle for the Salvation Army, buy someone less fortunate a coffee or hot cocoa. Do something good, and you’ll feel good, even if you’re only doing it because I told you too.