Economists and social scientists have long researched the idea of charitable giving. Charity has existed since the beginning of human civilisation. But why do people give, time or money, to causes and organisations without expectations? Fundamentally, what motivates us to part with our hard-earned cash or volunteer labour, knowledge, and services for no tangible returns?
“To give back to the society,” is the most intuitive answer you would get if you were to randomly ask a thousand people. But is it really altruism or do we just want to feel good about ourselves? The drivers behind our acts of benevolence, it turns out, are more complex than what our collective intuition may suggest.
A good way to find out why we give is to first understand what we get from it. Numerous studies have loosely categorised the benefits of giving under three broad labels: economic, social, and private.
Your donations of money, labour, and knowledge have a substantial direct economic value. According to a study, the British donate 54p out of every £100 they make. (We are more generous than the Germans or the French, but less benevolent than the Kiwis or the Americans, the world’s biggest givers). The UK’s voluntary sector is worth £23.9 billion or 1% of the country’s GDP. Any skills learned or experience gained via volunteering or mentoring proportionally leads to better economic opportunities. Anyone who has built habitats in rural Africa or taught language classes in Asia is likely to stand out in a crowded job market.
The social value of giving, on the other hand, is slightly trickier to quantify. But there’s mounting evidence that the rate of return to society on each £1 in donation or in volunteered time is categorically manifold. For example, an impact study found that every £1 spent by Centrepoint, a homelessness charity, generated a societal benefit of at least £2.40. That’s a return of 140% over a five-year period. Another study, by Bank of England, found interventions funded by donations helped a children’s charity bring down the rate of substance abuse and missing-persons report while also providing secure homes and educational opportunities to vulnerable children. The social welfare multiplier effect, in this case, for each donated £1 was estimated to be 6-12 times.
And then there’s the private value of social benevolence - to the benefactors themselves! This is the part you mostly hear about, the mysterious oxytocin-laced feel-goodness one experiences after donating money or labour. Volunteers regularly report feeling satisfaction, happiness, better confidence, novel experiences, opportunities to make new friends, learning new skills, and improved mental health.
However, my own experience of volunteering helped me discover what I like to call the knowledge value of social giving. As a journalist, my livelihood depends on constantly learning about almost everything, and this experience was a gift like no other. In the summer of 2012, I began volunteering at an Age UK charity shop on the weekends. What started as a weekly escape from Milton Keynes, a black hole of boredom where I lived at the time, soon became a fascinating source of social engagement that brought huge bursts of learning. So much so that I would look forward to the weekly gig in earnest.
The boutique-like charity shop, housed in a refashioned period home with large sun-filled windows, was situated in a quiet market town called Stony Stratford. I began as the shop-floor girl who helped with everything. On the first day itself, I learned how to creatively rearrange the clothes rails each week. It turns out, this is vital for making the limited stock in a charity shop look fresh and appealing in order to keep the much-needed footfall coming. Soon I could independently dress up the windows, decorate the home section, and operate the cash register.
The outlet attracted an eclectic mix of people, many of whom would visit regularly to pore over the same goods and sections. Casual conversations with some of these bargain-hunters and treasure-seekers revealed fascinating nuggets of wisdom and knowledge I probably wouldn’t have learned anywhere else. An old woman in her sixties and with a remarkably good taste in fashion once showed me how to tell silver from steel by using just a piece of cloth (scrubbing silver until it shines will leave black marks on the cloth). Another regular, a middle-aged biker donning coloured leather jackets would come in every Saturday to meticulously examine our stack of vinyl records. Rare vinyl was a lucrative market; there were people out there with turntables who valued them more than gold, he told me.
But the real learning (and some back-breaking work) happened in the cold storeroom at the back of the shop where we sorted donations, steam-ironed clothes, and priced goods. This is where I got a glimpse of the staggering environmental cost of our fast fashion industry, the fate of our discarded yet perfectly wearable clothes, and the far-reaching impact of recycling. For example, did you know it was better to donate your unwanted underwear and socks to charity shops rather than send them to landfills? Charity shops can sell these items known as ‘rags’ to recycling companies and make money (but you should call them first and check). We sold our unwanted stock in large black bags, each weighing roughly 8-10 kgs, fetching us £6 apiece.
My most cherished memory of that experience, however, came from my favourite corner of the charity shop - the large oak bookshelf. I bought several books before I left the gig, among them a copy of The English Patient. Inside the Booker-prize winning novel penned by Michael Ondaatje, I found a hand-written love letter penned by one KJ. Addressed to one sloppy Geoffrey, who clearly forgot to retrieve the letter before donating the book, the beautiful letter reminisced their time spent together, of food cooked from unusual pantry pickings, and how KJ was now nursing a squirrel she had run over.
Any attempts to trace Geoffrey remained unsuccessful. Guess I will never know whatever happened to ‘Almost-Squashed Sydney,’ KJ’s new furry companion. The letter, a vignette of the intimacy between two strangers to which I became unwittingly privy, is a cherished souvenir from the time I spent helping in that Age UK outlet. It was like I had stumbled upon bottled-sunshine by the seashore on a cold wintry day, a warm reminder that sometimes you gain more when you give!