Charity a drag on society

Is giving to charity a waste of money?

If you believe the details of the Sydney Morning Herald article, Harvey: Charity not so sweet, Billionaire Gerry Harvey thinks that those who benefit from charity donations are often just a bunch of no-hopers. I need to say right up front that a short article like that one possibly doesn’t represent his views entirely but he is quoted as saying some interesting things.

Asked in a new book about the role he and Harvey Norman play in the community, Mr Harvey said giving money to people who “are not putting anything back into the community” is like “helping a whole heap of no-hopers to survive for no good reason”.

Does he have a point? Are we wasting our hard earned dollars by giving to those who can’t repay society in any way? Should we be expecting a return when we give or do we give for other reasons completely?

He said he believed in helping “develop people to their potential” because “when they achieve [their potential] they will put a lot more back into the community”.

“You could go out and give a million dollars to a charity tomorrow to help the homeless. You could argue that it is just wasted. They are not putting anything back into the community.

“It might be a callous way of putting it but what are they doing? You are helping a whole heap of no-hopers to survive for no good reason. They are just a drag on the whole community.

“So did that million you gave them help? It helped to keep them alive but did it help our society? No. Society might have been better off without them but we are supposed to look after the disadvantaged and so we do it. But it doesn’t help the society.”

So according to that thinking, people don’t really deserve to live if they’re not contributing to the greater good. Unless they’re ‘putting back’ they’re just a drag on society and we’d be better off without them.

The strange thing is, his retail business, Harvey Norman, does contribute to charity and earlier this year Harvey Norman donated beds to Bridge Back to Life, a charity helping homeless men find rental accommodation. So is the company being charity minded or simply doing something that is expected of big business?

In some ways I agree with Gerry. I think that we need to be very wise with the money we give to those in need. We need to ensure that we’re not just encouraging people to always expect a hand-out rather than helping them to take steps to get back on their feet.

On the other hand, if the article is a true reflection of Mr Harvey’s thoughts, our understanding of helping those less fortunate is very different in many ways. Giving to others without thought of return is part of what makes us human. Compassion is an essential part of human life. Giving to those who have no capacity to return that gift to society in any way actually does push society forward. It shows that we care not just for what a person does or offers but because each person is intrinsically valuable, whether they ever reach their ‘potential’ or not.

Do we turn our back on those who are disabled simply because we can’t see the ways that they benefit society? People with disabilities are valuable members of our community and it is right that we not only help them whenever we can but that we strive to learn from them.

Do we refuse to give money to those living in desperate poverty in developing countries because we can’t see how our little corner of the world will benefit from such a gesture? Is saving a life itself not enough incentive to give?

Yes, we need to decide wisely when giving our money away but we can’t only give based on what return we might see.

I understand that men like Gerry Harvey have worked hard to earn their millions and that it can be difficult for some to see why they should give that hard earned cash away to those who haven’t earned it, but let’s face it, being born in a western country full of opportunities, rather than is a third world slum is not something in which any of us had a choice. If we’re born into a place like Australia or America or the UK we’re already a long way ahead of people in many other countries. Yes, we might have made the most of opportunities but we didn’t deserve to be born in a rich country any more than someone else deserved to be born in a poor one.

I’ve been given so much in this life that I don’t deserve and can never pay back in any way. I know what it is to receive what I don’t deserve. It’s out of that that I must find the compassion to help others, whether they deserve it or not.

The article ends with an interesting insight into Gerry Harvey.

In the interview, Mr Harvey also said that despite his wealth, “I still have a fear about going broke. I always think about it.”

Imagine having 1.6 billion dollars and still worrying constantly about losing it all. Maybe if he got used to giving more of his wealth away, money, and the thought of losing it, wouldn’t have such a hold on him.

Our family doesn’t have a lot of money compared with many others in Australia but compared to most people in the world we’re rich, filthy rich. We have been richly blessed and it’s out honour to be able to give some of those riches away. Life is about so much more than money and productivity. Aside from our financial wealth we have a lifestyle full of love, family and spiritual riches. Even if we lost everything materially, we’d still be obscenely rich in so many ways.

Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self. What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? What could you ever trade your soul for? Mark 8 : 35-37 – The Message

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About the author

Rodney Olsen

Rodney is a husband, father, cyclist, blogger and podcaster from Perth Western Australia.

He previously worked in radio for about 25 years but these days he spends his time at Compassion Australia, working towards releasing children from poverty in Jesus' name.

The views he expresses here are his own.

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  • I agree with you Rodney, we need to be wise with our giving but we should not expect funicial returns on our charity. There are times when I assit someone in our community knowing that the help will bring no lasting change. I do it simply because I feel that is what Jesus wants me to do.

  • I’d suggest that perhaps retailers who seduce people to buy consumer goods they don’t need and cannot afford with the promise of “12 months interest free credit” are a significant drain on soceity.

    But maybe that’s just me

  • I assumed this post would go in a different direction when I read the title. Though I appreciate the post and find it interesting, I would suggest that charity is not the best investment for us as a society.

    People need charity because something in their lives isn’t working, and ultimately, this is a matter of public policy. Charity can’t fix systemic problems; it can only alleviate the symptoms. For example, if there are no jobs, the problem isn’t that people are hungry; feeding people is necessary, but doesn’t fix the problem, because people ultimately need jobs.

    So, while I think charity is necessary right now and is an important calling for people of faith (indeed, as you said, it’s part of what makes us human), I think the real challenge and the ultimate goal is to create a society in which charity is not necessary.

  • And having said that, I think we have to accept the fact that there will always be a small percentage of people who simply can’t give anything back to society. If we can actually deal with the people who can work but need rehab or training, I think people’s attitudes toward the truly needy would be better. Right now, charity overlaps too much with enabling, hence the cynicism of Mr. Harvey.

  • I’m going to say the same as nearly everyone else here…..I agree. I did listen to a big debate about Gerry Harvey’s comments on the radio.

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