Ruben Flores, PhD University of Kent 2018-02-19
Feel Yourself in a Million For Five Dollars

Charity is highly correlated with compassion, which is the subject of my interests. How do people care about each other and what is the role of compassion today? I came to Moscow four years ago to gain international experience and cultural immersion while being able to continue working on the research paper. Russian university Higher School of Economics offered very good and generous conditions that convinced me to move to Russia.

Hailing from Mexico, I now can feel similarities and differences in the attitude towards charity in Russia to that in Mexico. Mexico and Russia share a distrust of charity as a form of social interaction and civil initiative. People from Russia and people from Mexico both assume that the state should support and care for philanthropic organizations. Another similarity I observe is that in both countries, the upper classes are large; and yet few of their members are engaged in charity work. The incidence of charitable activity is relatively low in comparison to UK and EU where charities play a huge role in many people’s lives.  

The development of a culture of charity in Russia was heavily influenced by the soviet experience. In Mexico, the history of charity is not long either, although the development of charitable culture has been relatively gradual. In Russia, there has never been a single straight path to charitable activities and civil initiatives. From my perspective, roads to philanthropy in Russia will remain vibrant.

Science plays a vital role in social living. Civilians and financiers usually become interested in new approaches toward traditional forms of interaction only after scientific research has been conducted that proves hypotheses. Social researchers have investigated apathy and depression, but generosity and altruism have traditionally been left from the sphere of scientific interest.

In the history of sociology, researchers have traditionally paid more attention to social dysfunction. Social scientists gained interest in charity following an absence of generosity in people. It may be a mystery to skeptics why people spend their time and effort on charity since many hold the belief that people are generally selfish. However, it seems that times are changing, as people are trying to be more helpful and generous. Nevertheless, humanity remains oriented towards catering for only the most basic needs. 

This phenomenon has different explanations. The first one is still the selfishness of people. Surprisingly, selfishness might motivate people to donate, as donating enables selfish people to feel essential to society. This idea is not widespread in the scientific community, and me personally also don’t believe its validity. Another idea is that part of human nature is the basic intention to help people who are in need.  

Interactions in charity are two-way: taking place between the sufferers who receive aid, and the donors who provide aid. These interactions might include benefits as well as losses for both parties, some of which may be intangible.

Philanthropy improves not only the lives of those receiving aid but also of those who offer help. Philanthropy is definitely a fulfilling activity that can't be substituted by spending money on oneself, and which benefits both parties. Involvement in such charity lets donors and volunteers experience a feeling that has an incredibly positive impact on their health.

In the research paper “From personal troubles to public compassion: charity shop volunteering as a practice of care”, I conducted interviews with people who were working with charitable organizations. I was really surprised to see how vibrant people in the UK were. Surprisingly, most activists were seniors and retirees. This unusual number of elderly people who are activists results from philanthropy being an outlet and a source of social activity, engagement, and new opportunities for retirees. One of an elderly activist noticed:

“I was very worried when I retired that I wouldn’t have enough to occupy my time. And it seemed to me that having one afternoon a week working in the Oxfam bookshop would be something I would enjoy and which would give some sort of focus to my week, which it has.” (Male, over 50, Oxfam; retired medical doctor).

Philanthropy has already become a part of a luxurious life. Michael Norton, a Harvard professor whose research has explored the psychological difference between spending money on oneself and spending money on others, presented his results in a 2011 TED talk. From Michael’s perspective charity has a currency and exchange rate differs from the one you see in a bank. Being generous with one’s money often makes one feel happier than one would if one spent those buying goods for oneself. According to the conditions of the experiment, it doesn't matter how much money you spent $5 or $20. What really matters is that people spent it on somebody other than themselves.

There are cons to spending on other people as well. Businesses are blamed for using charity as a way of self-promotion. A controversial question arises regarding the undermining of charity. Are the main concepts of charity, namely generosity and altruism, often lost when business corporations undertake charity in a way that connects charity with money and economic activity? To be honest, the cases of large corporations undertaking charity should be scrutinized individually, instead of attempting to draw a generalized abstract solution theoretically.

A person who is receiving financial support can also lose the basic understanding that money and social goods are given for labor and efforts. Giving unearned money may promote laziness and a willingness to survive on handouts for their entire life. If someone is drowning we don't ask ourselves whether we should help the person or not. We don't think whether this person acted responsibly or it happened by chance. We help, because it is the right thing to do.