Social distance and the season of giving

Continuing from yesterday, and developing some themes I’ve pursued along the way on this blog, the depersonalized nature of charity can, when done a certain way, make the needlessly fragile equilibrium of faith in government even more fragile.

What might be ways philanthropy could do the opposite, make that equilibrium less fragile? Not by making people believe in government more, though I guess that might be a nice change of pace these days, but by helping people understand the experience of those in need in a different way.

As for example, not being “in need,” primarily, but having assets and needing some missing component – a connection, an idea, the inspiration, the space, the opportunity – to deploy those to their fullest effect. And to build more assets. To undermine the narrative of shirking – which erodes faith in government, when people believe (probably falsely, as it turns out) that shirkers get a free ride – philanthropy can replace it with a narrative of potential fulfilled. Look what these members of our community have to offer, how can we afford to miss it, etc.

So think about that when you’re judging fundraising appeals this holiday season. Are the appeals solely about need? Or do they talk about how your support helps those in need build assets to be more self-sufficient? Do they help you understand the situation of the people you’re meant to be helping? Or do they harp on your guilt, further reinforcing the social distance between you and those the nonprofit’s helping? The more we tell and see stories about those in need in ways that bring us closer to them and to understanding them as like us – that lessen rather than increase social distance – the less justification those who would tell us that government is the enemy have to peddle their narrative.

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