Where does charity begin: Home or Away?

Every year the Bristol-based Quartet Community Foundation hosts its annual philanthropy debate. This year the question posed was: Does Charity Begin at Home? which was interpreted as giving in the UK vs overseas. There are good arguments on both sides: on the one hand, the need in developing countries is greater and the value of our money there can save lives; and on the other, there is a need to learn and be generous at home before you can extend that generosity to others. Of course, there is a lot to be said for doing both and in fact the original quote (attributed to a 17th century, English clergyman Thomas Fuller) is ‘Charity begins at home, but should not end there’.

What I noticed when listening to the arguments was that both sides drew upon fundamental drivers of philanthropy: connection and knowledge. Those arguing for giving in Africa or India did not argue the effective altruistic position of ‘most lives saved’ but instead talked about their travels or family connections to another country. They shared their experiences of witnessing poverty and being moved to help.  Their philanthropy started from a sense of connection with those who are less fortunate. Those arguing for local giving talked about their connection with the city of Bristol and how everyone should share its wealth.

This sense of connection is also linked to knowledge. It is difficult to give effectively to something you don’t know about. So, the speakers talked of giving to communities they had relationships with, even if they were geographically far away. There is a criticism of philanthropy that, because philanthropists give to what they know, heir giving does not always go to where the need is. For example, some areas such as higher education and the arts are served well by donors who have benefited from and appreciate these sectors. Whereas other ‘unpopular’ areas such as supporting offenders can struggle to secure funds. This debate highlights the need for donors to travel and experience the world outside of their comfortable sphere.

And finally, what struck me was that complexity can be lost over distance. Tackling homelessness in Bristol was understood to be difficult: there are different players, and the causes and solutions are inter-woven with a whole range of factors from poverty to government policies. Whereas giving overseas was described as a simple transaction to address basic needs. Things can look simple from a distance - that all people lack is money. Is this true? Or does giving at a distance mean we are not so well informed about those complexities on the ground?

Whether giving at home or in other countries, we always need a connection that motivates us to be philanthropic. And to ensure we are making the most of our money, we need to make sure we are knowledgeable about the issues or have chosen partners with proven experience.