The Meaning of Charity

I realize that this is a blawg, but believe that since most of our readers enjoy a relatively privileged and blessed life, it wouldn’t hurt you to think about others for a moment. That said, I apologize in advance for my pedantic rant.  But since it’s my blawg, I get to do it anyway.

Charity plays a significant part of my family life.  We are deeply involved in a number of good causes because they matter to us.  For my family, including my children, charity has a special meaning.  Charity is giving something of significance without the expectation of anything in return.  Not recognition.  Not even a thank you.  It is giving for its own sake.

Charities routinely “recognize” donors under the belief that it is required of them, and that people will not give unless they are recognized.  Unfortunately, it has created an expectation of donors that they will be recognized, thus creating a vicious circle.  When I give, I do so anonymously.  On occasion, I will find my name mentioned, or listed in some program or brochure, for something I’ve done.  It shames me to see this, as it is violates my definition of charity.

In my neck of the woods, charity galas are a grand source of social entertainment.  Ah, the black tie events, with bejeweled women in their flowing gowns.  But this really has little to do with charity.  This is fun, a way to pretend that we are doing something worthy while really having a wonderful time for ourselves.  If you analyze the cost/benefit ratio of these affairs, which is quite easy given the tax deductibility percentage included on the invitation, you realize that very little of the very expensive tariff actually goes to the cause at all, and of that, far less actually makes it to the intended beneficiaries.  But hey, let’s party!

I’m one of those weirdos who actually analyzes a charity before I decide to support it.  I want to know that my donation will be used for its intended purpose.  There’s one local charity around me that uses every penny of its funds to pay its staff to manage more fundraisers.  Nice little circle, but utterly useless. 

I am also quite concerned that donations targeted for specific purposes actually go for those purposes.  Do you remember the Red Cross after 9/11?  Billions of dollars flowed into their coffers from people across the country who wanted to help.  A few pennies actually went to those in need, but the vast majority went to administration (read salary increases for the management) or was held for future needs.  Plenty of rhetoric in the pleas for donations, but nowhere did the fine print ever say that they would actually use the money for those purposes.

What about pro bono legal services, you ask?  Here, we get into something of a sticky subject.  Law is my profession, not my charitable outlet.  While I have served as a pro bono arbitrator in New York County Civil Court since 1989, I do not otherwise seek out ways to use my practice as a charitable endeavor.  I do, on rare occasion, represent a client free of charge, but I reserve the right to pick these clients with great care.  I receive requests constantly from defendants who decry their innocence and poverty, but to accept such cases would be to strangle my practice. 

And yet, we who enjoy so many wonderful things in our lives have an obligation to give back and help others.  I implore everyone to find the charity that suits their life and give to it.  And I hope that you will do so without expectation of any benefit, but solely to be a part of humanity.

2 thoughts on “The Meaning of Charity

  1. Wendy

    Hi Scott –
    This is Wendy from the American Red Cross. I ran across your post this morning and wanted to leave some info for you about where the donations to the 9/11 Fund were dispersed:

    9/11 Legacy site:

    Latest quarterly report:

    Recovery Section on, containing a variety of reports:,1082,0_152_,00.html#liberty

    I hope these sites help to make clear exactly where the donated money was distributed.

    Wendy Harman

  2. SHG

    I do so love the vagueries of charityspeak.  So let’s look at these links, shall we:

    Disaster Strikes In Red Cross Backyard, Charity Fails To Get A Grip On Criminal Scandals At Local Chapters

    9/11/01-02: Charity Began At Ground Zero, But Where Will It Wind Up?

    The American Red Cross: A Chance for Redemption?

    Red Cross caught red-handed

    There are plenty of additional links, but I’m betting you’ve already seen them.  The efforts by the Red Cross to come off the 9/11 scandal by trying to spin things does not now, now will it ever, change its handling by now-resigned and disgraced former President Bernadine Healey.  And if you would like to discuss now-resigned and disgraced former President Marsha Evans and her handling of Hurricane Katrina, we can go there too. 

    Rather than waste effort trying to reinvent a sordid past, perhaps the Red Cross would accomplish more by fixing itself for the future, so that it can actually be what most Americans mistakenly believe it to be.


      I reread my comment above and apologize to Wendy.  It is mean-spirited, and I should not have been.  The Red Cross has done many things for many people.  It did not meet my expectations with regard to 9/11, as I was personally impacted and deeply disappointed by the Red Cross and other major charities.  But that said, it was wrong to attack the Red Cross in response to Wendy, and I sincerely hope that it has learned from its mistakes as it plays a vital and important role under its mandate from Congress.


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