Do we just give to look good?

Billionaires might ditch their charity giving if new proposals to cap their tax relief come in. But getting less splash for their cash is only part of the reason to give less.

John Low, chief executive of the Charities Aid Foundation, says the wealthy are less likely to give now that they are being “vilified as tax avoiders”. This means that what charities receive could have less to do with their need and more to do with how much it enhances the image of the giver.

You are your car

But it’s not just the rich who care about their image. According to Freakanomics co-founder, Stephen Dubner, we’re much more likely to buy a Prius car than one of its hybrid competitors. Why? Because the Prius is the only model that looks nothing like its fuel-guzzling cousins. It says, “Look at me – I care for the environment!” South Park insightfully renamed it the Pious.

But is there a problem? Surely all this trying to outdo one another in ‘worthiness’ is beneficial to society?

In many ways yes. But our desire to look good can be to the detriment of our effectiveness in actually doing good. According to Dubner, it’s not unusual for people to have solar panels fitted to the sunless side of their house because that’s the side that faces the road. And, as More or Less’s Tim Harford points out, in Japan, you can now buy mini eco windmills for your roof that look super-efficient. This may have something to do with the electric motors inside…

My confession

In a couple of weeks I’m running the Manchester 10k for anti-trafficking charity, Hope for Justice. It is a truly excellent charity and I genuinely want to raise money for it and awareness for the cause (and I’m very grateful for your donations). But I admit I have other motivations too.

I initially booked my place purely because I wanted to run a competitive 10k – simple as that. And if I’m honest, another reason is my desire to look like a kind, caring sort of girl.

Christians and non-Christians alike jostle to prove what great people we are. Everyone does good for a whole host of reasons, from demonstrating that God values all people to proving that you don’t need to be religious to be caring, which of course, you don’t.

Unfortunately, our mixed motives cause us to suspect the motives of others. That’s why we often prefer the Simon Cowell ‘bad guys’, who make no bones about being selfish or misanthropic, because we understand their motives; unlike politicians, Christians and ‘do-gooders’.

Out in the open

I have a good friend who is refreshingly honest about her motivations for doing things. It makes me laugh, but it also makes me trust her, because I know she’s not hiding anything, and I can relate to what she says.

In writing his gospel, John was honest about his agenda too, writing, “But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” How often are we so open about our motives for sharing what we believe?

Wouldn’t it be great if everyone was more open about their motivations in life? Hybrid car owners would be less smug, charity fundraisers less self-satisfied. We’d realise that we’re not alone in our imperfections, and maybe we’d all be able to trust each other a little more.