Ten Arguments Against Relationship-Constrained Charity (1/4)

Relationship Constrained

by Dominic Roser


My charitable donations go to people I have never met and will never meet. I am anonymous to them. And they are anonymous to me. I think this is fine.

In the past, I at least knew the people who were delivering the aid (even if the ultimate recipients were unknown to me). This was so because my donations used to go to 4-5 friends of mine who worked in NGOs across the world. Then, I deliberately stopped supporting the work of my friends, even though this was a hard decision. Rather, I now donate to whatever charities GiveWell recommends as most effective — even if this means supporting people to whom I have no personal links.

Many think this is wrong. They point out that relationships are central in a Christian life. And since relationships are so important, our charitable donations shouldn’t be abstract transfers of money to unknown people. Rather, my donations should be embedded in a relationship between me and the recipient (the NGO which delivers the aid and/or the ultimate recipient). This involves meeting each other as equals and knowing each other’s face, name, and life story. Or even if we don’t know each other personally, it is at least desirable that charitable donations flow primarily within communities in which people are rooted and connected, such as within a town, a church, or a global denomination.  (Here are 3 quotes from people who argue for such a point).  

What does this mean in practice? It could mean primarily donating to the local soup kitchen in which I personally volunteer rather than transferring money from my online bank account to an anonymous person’s mobile phone far away via GiveDirectly. Or it could mean donating to an orphanage in Moldova which I can then visit twice each decade and where my donations are the starting point for a long-lasting relationship. (Such a focus on loyally donating to places and persons to which I am connected comes naturally for Christians. In most churches, there will be some long-time members who have moved away to serve the poor and who are now asking for donations among their former fellow worshippers. Also, many have themselves made a “voluntourism” trip to a charitable organization in another country and now feel particularly connected to the persons and causes that they served there). The relationship constraint could also mean serving the refugees who made it to our doorsteps — and whom we thus meet face-to-face — rather than the anonymous masses who remain trapped along the way or who are too poor to escape in the first place.

In contrast, I think we should donate our money primarily where it eradicates poverty most effectively. I think it matters much less whether our donations are embedded in a personal relationship. Ultimately, we shouldn’t apply a “relationship constraint” to our donations.

I must be precise, though. I wholeheartedly agree that relationships are a core element of the Christian life. But: I do not think that this implies that our charitable donations must generally be embedded in a relationship between donor and the (direct or ultimate) recipients. Many Christians rightly point out how essential relationships are but completely overemphasize the application of this insight to the specific case of donating money to charities.

What could support my claim? In the next three installments of this little blog series I will list ten considerations in its favour.

Click here for next instalment (part 2) of the blog series. Alternatively, if you would prefer to read the series as one longer document, then click here.

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