Why Charity Fails: It Violates the Norm of Reciprocity

Photo by Matt Collamer on Unsplash

Charity is under fire. William Easterly’s 2006 book, White Man’s Burden, may have been the initial cannon blast. According to Easterly, an economist experienced in development issues, the billions of poorly-earmarked and mismanaged public and private dollars spent on foreign aid over decades have scarcely helped a single needy person anywhere in the world. Five years later, Robert Lupton, a Christian minister with career experience in charitable work, launched an equally aggressive attack on the charitable initiatives of his fellow Christians in his book, Toxic Charity. Lupton is so convinced that most Christian charity is harmfully misguided that he challenges those who wish to participate in what he calls “the compassion industry” to first take the equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath and vow do no harm. Meanwhile, the bashing of the compassion industry continues in other books, such as Ken Stern’s Charity.

Challenges to charity are deserved, given its litany of failures. Sometimes the failures can be attributed to unintended consequences. Writing in the New York Times, Peter Buffett, CEO of one of the charities established by his father, Warren Buffett, tells of insecticide treated bed nets distributed to combat malaria used by the recipients as fishing nets, which polluted the water and killed the fish. Other times the failures are a result of untested good intentions. Remember D.A.R.E., the anti-drug program that snaked its way into 75 percent of America’s public schools and not a few schools abroad during the 1990s? Evaluation research later revealed that it was not only ineffective but possibly even encouraged drug use. Most often, however, there’s no ready explanation for the failure of charity; it just fails for reasons that baffle the do-gooders.

Of course, there are contrary voices insisting that charity at least sometimes somewhere does some good. Jeffrey Sachs, another economist with expertise in development issues, is at the forefront of this crusade, but perhaps the most audible of these voices today is Bill Gates’. In his role as co-head of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Gates insists that the naysayers are wrong and the world is today much better off as a result of charitable endeavors. No one doubts that Sachs and Gates are at least partially correct. In fact, charity’s severest critics, including Easterly, Lupton, and Stern, continue to believe that charity can be effective. Their goal is simply to cut the feel-good and frequently self-serving clutter out of charitable endeavors in order to make them more effective at helping their intended recipients. This is a goal that Bill and Melinda Gates share along with Jeffrey Sachs, so there is actually something of a demilitarized zone in between charity’s critics and charity’s champions.

In this demilitarized zone, the movement is to operate charities more methodically, almost like for-profit businesses in their hard-nosed attention to the bottom line. ROI’s (returns on investments) are calculated, personnel are trained, and the effectiveness of programs empirically evaluated. The only problem is, this hard-nosed businesslike approach won’t succeed. And it won’t because it doesn’t address the crux of what ails charities. Charity’s chief ailment arises from a source no one suspects, namely theology.

The Religious Roots of Charity

The word charity comes to us in English from the King James Bible, where it is the translation of the Greek word for godly love, agape. (Some modern translations of the Bible just use the word love instead.) In its usual New Testament usage, charity refers to the Christians’ obligation to love their fellow humans as God loves them, that is, freely, graciously, and universally. New Testament charity is however expected to be expressed quite concretely. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus instructs his followers to give food, drink, and clothes to the needy, as well as to visit the sick and imprisoned. Moreover, as Gary Anderson shows in his book Charity, these acts of charity are not merely mandates of the faith but also intrinsic to it, even acts of worship. Referring to these charitable deeds, Jesus said, “Inasmuch as ye have done it to one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” Indeed, when asked what the greatest commandment is, Jesus replied with not one but two answers: To love God and your fellow human beings. For devout Christians, charity and devotion to God are fused, both partaking of the same agape love.

And so Christians have been on the historical forefront of charity and remain on it today. To be sure, the extent of Christian charity either historically or today can be debated. However, there is no real debate over the fact that charity distinguished the Christians from other religious sects during the first three centuries of its existence. Most remarkable is that the early Christians offered charity to non-Christians too, a practice that some historians say contributed to Christianity’s growth into a world religion while rival religious sects died out. Fast forwarding to today and research shows that Christians remain a generous lot. True, most Christians don’t give a lot of money to nonprofits, maybe only about 2 percent of their incomes on the average, and then most of these contributions go to their own churches, the support for which might be more properly regarded as membership dues than genuine charity. However, when attention is turned to the subset of ardent Christians who claim that their faith is important to them in their daily lives, the percentage of their incomes donated to nonprofits increases to a substantial 10 percent. Moreover, while about of two-thirds of these higher Christian donations still go to their own churches, those churches operate a lot of charities out of their funds. Meanwhile, about a third of the ardent Christian donations go to charities outside of their churches, an amount which alone constitutes a higher percentage of charitable giving than most other identifiable groups register. Ardent Christians also volunteer a lot of their time to charities.

This is not to say that Christians are uniquely charitable. They aren’t. Globally Buddhists and Muslims give generously, Jews are big donors, and increasingly agnostics and atheists contribute a lot to charities. However, the giving by members of non-Christian faith groups is frequently different from the giving by Christians. More so than Christians, Buddhist donations appear to be earmarked for the support of their monks and temples, not to assist the needy. Indeed, Buddhists rank quite low on global surveys of non-monetary giving, like personal volunteering. Muslim giving is one of the Pillars of Islam, but that same Pillar instructs Muslims only to give to other Muslims, not to the needy outside their faith. The Muslim Zakat, or charity, is also set at only 2.5 percent, lower than the Christian and Jewish tithe of 10 percent. Jews, at least in the United States, are huge givers. They rival ardent Christians in the percentage of their incomes donated to nonprofits, and by some measures volunteer more of their time than ardent Christians. However, Jews tend to give more to social justice causes, as well as to their own Jewish organizations and concerns, than to the needy. This leaves mainly the secularists to rival the Christians in charitable giving in its strictest sense, namely giving to the needy unaffiliated by faith, but it’s not clear that these atheists and agnostics are donating a lot to the needy. Someone is after all funding the feminist and gay rights groups, environmentalist causes, and public radio. More to the point, insofar as secularists are giving to the needy, it’s only reasonable to ask where they got the idea if not from the broadly Christian culture that provided them with the concept of charity in the first place.

While there remains plenty of room for quibbles and qualifications, it would appear that charity as it is known today is at base a Christian concept drawn from the Christian belief in the supernatural agape love of God. Inasmuch as it is, this is charity’s ailment, for like most supernatural concepts, charity is believed capable of transcending the ordinary laws of nature.

The Norm of Reciprocity

There aren’t many laws of human nature than anyone can point to with the kind of assurance physicists point to the law of gravity, but there is at least one: The norm of reciprocity. This is the social rule found in all societies that leads people to expect that social exchanges will be mutual and balanced. Importantly, the norm of reciprocity shouldn’t be confused with market transactions, although market transactions are a specialized instance of it. The norm of reciprocity doesn’t always entail an exchange of exact equivalences, doesn’t require balanced accounts over the short term, and isn’t necessarily motivated by narrow self-interest. Cultural values, social circumstances, and individual preferences can lend such different weights to the items exchanged that the perception of reciprocity is frequently quite variable. The time intervals required for reciprocity can also be very long, since in social life unlike most market transactions, relationships can persist for decades. Moreover, reciprocal social exchanges include things like gift-giving that are hardly narrowly self-interested. Even so, expectations for eventual reciprocity, however they are defined and understood in a given culture or circumstance, are a feature found in all human societies, and thus about as close as it gets to a law of human nature.

To appreciate how the norm of reciprocity operates, consider a couple of everyday examples. Suppose you are introduced to someone, say hello and stretch out your hand. You expect your new acquaintance to return your greeting and shake your hand, and if he or she doesn’t, you would surely suspect that something is afoul, probably that the person has some reason to dislike you. Basically, your social expectation is for reciprocity, and if it isn’t attained you become concerned. Now, cultural values and social circumstances can alter these expectations somewhat. If the introduction takes place in a culture in which a bow is the expected form of greeting instead of a handshake, you would probably bow instead of offering your hand, and if the person you are introduced to is of a higher social status than you, you would probably bow more deeply than is reciprocated. There are variations. Even so, you would still expect reciprocity, albeit a culturally and situationally embedded form of it.

There are also instances when the norm of reciprocity involves longer intervals of time. Suppose you are baking a cake, discover you have no sugar, and rather than go out and buy it, knock on your neighbor’s door asking to borrow a cup. Odds are your neighbor will not only give you the sugar but will also give you much more than a cup — “Here, take what you need,” your neighbor says handing you half a bag of sugar — and will certainly not charge you for it, since reducing neighborly lending to a market transaction would be rude. Your neighbor is therefore quite willing to take a loss on the exchange. However, the loss is understood by both of you to be temporary. No, you would not return the exact amount of sugar you borrowed the next day after grocery shopping, since that would be perceived as rude too. Instead, you might bring your neighbor a slice of the cake, later lend him or her tools, or otherwise even up the exchange. Indeed, if you don’t even up the exchange, and especially if you continue to borrow from your neighbor and never return the favor, your neighbor might stop answering the door when you knock, or at minimum grow to resent you and wish you would move away. At the same time, you yourself might start feeling bad about continuing to borrow things from your neighbor without recompense, since you realize that doing so annoys your neighbor and you don’t like the feeling that you are a mooch. Again, this is the norm of reciprocity operating.

Charity and the Norm of Reciprocity

The core problem with charity, which by definition involves one party giving to another without any expectation for returns, is that it violates the norm of reciprocity. These violations have serious consequences. The chief consequence is that the violations terminate the relationship, which is what would happen if a new acquaintance refused to exchange your greeting or you were mooching too much off your neighbor. However, terminating the relationship is exactly what a charity doesn’t want to happen. Although there may be some short-term charitable acts such as disaster relief that don’t demand an ongoing relationship, in most instances effective charity requires a continuing cooperative relationship between donor and recipient. If either party withdraws from the relationship early, the charitable effort fails; yet withdrawing from the relationship is the most likely outcome of violating the norm of reciprocity.

Worse though is what happens when the charity is unwilling to withdraw from the imbalanced exchange relationship and the recipients can’t withdraw from it. This is unfortunately the usual pattern of charitable endeavors. The charity calculates at the outset that its commitment to recipients has to be ongoing, and in fact usually arranges long-term funding to enable it to continue its work long enough to achieve the results it hopes for. It therefore won’t leave no matter how imbalanced the relationship becomes. For their part, the recipients can’t leave, since they lack the resources. This may be because they are homeless in the United States, and as much as they would prefer not to sleep in the shelters or eat at the soup kitchens, can’t afford to sleep or eat anywhere else. Or it may be because they are simply living in their home villages in their home countries where the charity’s workers have invaded and set up shop. In either case, the usual pattern is for the charity to stubbornly insist upon maintaining a relationship that violates the norm of reciprocity and for the recipients to remain trapped in the relationship despite their desire to escape.

Cross-culturally, wherever social exchanges are imbalanced over the long run and termination of the relationship doesn’t occur, there is a predictable result: The party that gives more is rewarded by the party that gives less with social esteem. The classic extreme case of this is the potlatch among indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest, a ceremony in which the wealthy give away their goods to others. In the potlatch, the holder is rewarded with elevated social esteem more or less in proportion to the goods distributed. But everyday life reveals how this process works too. If a friend with a higher income than yours invites you out to dinner at a restaurant too expensive for you and picks up the check, you reciprocate with expressions of gratitude. If the pattern of free expensive dinners persists and you can’t avoid them, you might find yourself becoming quite fawning and deferential. At the same time, your dinner partner might begin to believe that he or she genuinely deserves your deference, and might even begin to make belittling and insulting remarks at your expense. Basically, social esteem (as well as the power that follows from it) pretty much automatically accrues to those who give more in an imbalanced exchange relationship, since it’s the only way the parties have to achieve a semblance of reciprocity.

But few people on the receiving end of imbalanced social exchanges like having to repay gifts with deference toward those who, as they see it, just happen to have more affluence than they have. Thus, the recipients of charity end up resenting the providers of charity, and if they can’t express their resentment directly, tend to express it in acts of sabotage. All the money that is skimmed of foreign aid by local dictators and petty bureaucrats? Some of it might be stolen anyway, but there is an extra incentive to steal it when the dictators and bureaucrats already resent their dependency on the donors. At the same time, long-term recipients of charity sometimes express their resentment in the way the indigenous on Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast did in 2008 when an aid shipment was late: They riot. Of course, the Stockholm Syndrome sometimes operates instead. Recipients of charity can channel their resentments against their benefactors into identification with them. These are charity’s poster children, and not a few of them are literally paraded in front of prospective donors to give testimonies to the benevolence of the charity. Even so, the poster children are the brainwashed exceptions.

Thus it happens that charities invariably fail. Worse, they will continue to fail regardless of how much attention anyone gives to calculating ROIs, evaluating programs, or any of the other managerial solutions. They will fail because their very modus operandi violates one of the few laws of social nature we know, the norm of reciprocity.

The question is why otherwise rational and almost always well-meaning people, who themselves operate according to the norm of reciprocity in their daily lives, believe that this law of human nature can be magically suspended when they embark on charitable endeavors. The answer would frankly seem to be that they do believe in magic. Consciously or unconsciously, they believe that charity is a supernatural undertaking that is capable of violating the laws of nature. Just as God parted the Red Sea for fleeing Israelites, they imagine that charity can save the needy through divine intervention.

The Difficulties of Rationalizing Absent Reciprocity

Jews have an advantage over Christians when it comes to charity, since the proverb tells Jews that God will directly reward them for charitable acts. True, there is the problem of the Book of Job, namely that God doesn’t always appear to reward the righteous, but in general Jews can hold fast to the expectation that although the recipients of their charity may not repay them, God will. Muslims have a similar advantage. The Muslim recipients of their charity are obligated to pray for their donors’ entry into heaven and rewards when there. Reciprocity of sorts therefore governs both Jewish and Muslim charity. Secularists have other tactics for introducing reciprocity into their charitable endeavors. For some the motive is “giving back.” These people believe that they have been provided with opportunities that others lack, and once they are wealthy enough want to re-balance the scales by providing greater opportunities for others. For other secularists, the motive is enlightened self-interest. They realize that they are themselves simply happier living in a better world, and accordingly do what they can to create that world. Not a few of the above probably also borrow a little bit from the doctrine of karma, according to which the recipients of their charity may never repay them directly, but may repay them indirectly by helping others down the line when they are able.

Unfortunately, Christians don’t have as ready a justification for charity consistent with the norm of reciprocity. Yes, there are New Testament passages that echo the Old Testament passages about God rewarding the charitable, but the problem with these for Christians are the doctrines of sin and grace. At the end of the day, Christians don’t believe that any number of good works can merit them heavenly rewards, since no matter what they do, they won’t deserve them. If they are saved, it is solely by the grace of God, not by their own efforts. Neither do Christians as a rule believe that the world can be made a better place. Their eschatology frankly forecasts an eventual worsening of the world regardless of what they might do to try to avert that, with only divine intervention in the form of the Second Coming of Christ setting things straight. Alas, when it comes to charity, Christians lack a doctrine of reciprocity.

But it’s not clear that the reciprocity notions of the non-Christians are persuasive enough to convince the recipients of their charity that there really is reciprocity in the relationship. If you were forced to routinely join a wealthy person for expensive dinners that your companion paid for, and your dinner companion explained that you are under no obligation because he or she expects God’s blessings or a better world in return, would you believe it? More importantly, would even believing it relieve you of the feeling that you are still expected to display deference (as well as your resentment over the obligation)? Perhaps the recipients of Muslim charity find the most relief from the violation of the norm of reciprocity, since at least they know that they are obligated to pray for their benefactors, but it’s not hard to imagine a few of them adding the postscript to Allah: “Don’t make their heavenly stay too comfortable.”

Requiring Reciprocity for Charity

The truth is that norm of reciprocity requires a more concrete and earthly balancing of exchanges than these abstract rationalizations provide, and charity’s critics are beginning to recognize this. Robert Lupton includes in his recommended Oath of Compassionate Service the requirement to “limit one-way giving to emergency situations.” For his part, William Easterly found a charitable program that Peter Buffett would love. Instead of giving insecticide treated bed nets to the people of Malawi to help them fend off malaria, the charity sold them the nets. True, the charity sold the nets on a sliding scale, below cost to the poor and at a profit to the more affluent, but it still charged the poorest of the poor something. Follow up research not only revealed that the use of the bed nets grew from 20 percent of the population to 55 percent almost overnight, but also that nearly every bed net was used as intended — not as a polluting fishing net.

Similarly, almost everyone concerned about charity’s ineffectiveness eventually realizes that charity must honor a core principle of healthy exchange relationships, namely the right of recipients to withdraw from the relationship or to help determine its nature if they remain in it. (Regarding the right to withdraw, a half-century ago the priest and social critic Ivan Illich not only begged US Peace Corps volunteers to stay home rather than invade peasant villages helpless to drive them off, but also taunted the US government that if it must send the volunteers, it should spend as much preparing the villagers to deal with them as it spends preparing the volunteers to deal with the villagers.) Easterly toys with the idea of providing the global poor with vouchers that enable them to choose which if any charities’ services they want to use, asking why the poor should be deprived of the same democratic rights that the wealthy expect for themselves. Lupton insists that nothing should be done for the needy that they can do for themselves, and as an example suggests that instead of opening soup kitchens and food pantries, charities help the needy open and operate their own food co-ops. More than this, Lupton stresses the importance of forming a relationship with the needy, listening to them before trying to help, and to continuing to listen to them. Since no healthy relationship is possible without reciprocity, Lupton is indirectly emphasizing the importance of reciprocity — including the rights of the recipients of charity to withdraw from the relationships if they choose to and to codetermine them if they stay.

Of course, the answer is not markets, even though sometimes market solutions have a place. (Micro-lending seems to have been a good idea, albeit another one that ended up being too quickly implemented by people who failed to develop relationships with or therefore understand the recipients.) Once again, markets are a special instance of reciprocity, not the whole of it, and even Malawi’s bed nets required charitable subsidies. There is plenty of room for charity — so long as it is embedded in the balanced and reciprocal real relationships the laws of human nature require.

But beyond recognizing the importance of reciprocity in real relationships, theological clarity can help. Consider the fiasco of D.A.R.E. Its weakness was perhaps the most common one in charitable endeavors, namely untested good intentions. Yet, while it is easy to insist, as charity’s reformers now do, that common sense dictates that at some point after you try something, you need to stand back and assess your efforts to make sure that they are achieving the intended results, the larger question is why this bit of common sense was overlooked by D.A.R.E. and often remains overlooked by other charities. The answer would seem to be that when people embark upon doing good, they leave their common sense behind, and they do because they think of charity as a supernatural endeavor in which the usual laws of nature don’t apply.

Ken is a former professor and writer in Costa Rica. His most recent books are “On American Freedom” and “Unfinished Revolution.”

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store