What is Charity?

Poor Kids

What is charity?  Look in any dictionary, and you’ll find two strands of meaning: (1) giving material help to those who are poor, ill, or in need, and (2) showing love toward humanity.

The Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Corinth that three things endure—faith, hope, and charity—but that the greatest of these is charity.  Almost every modern version of this letter translates the word as love rather thancharity—and the chapter that contains this verse is often read at weddings.  But Paul’s extended definition, read in context, clearly shows that he is talking about love for humanity and the actions that spring from that love.

There are times when no one questions whether an act is charity.  When my father lost his job in a coal mine and my family received food stamps and government cheese and bologna, everyone we knew would have agreed that we were receiving charity and that my hard-working father deserved it.  When my husband and I volunteered in a homeless shelter and helped a woman who had been badly beaten by a boyfriend, we knew we were offering charity.  And when we saw the woman a year later, working as a waitress in a restaurant a few miles from our home, we knew the charity the shelter had offered helped her get back on her feet.

Then there are times when defining charity isn’t so clear-cut, though one thing is clear from a reading of these definitions:  Charity in its truest form does not necessarily equal charity in the form of a charitable donation.  I’ve been thinking about this a lot in the wake of news stories about organizations that qualify as nonprofits.

So I went to the IRS.gov web site and searched a list of charities in Rockville, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, DC.  The search produced 678 results, and many of them, not surprisingly, are houses of worship for various faiths.  But here is a sample of some of the other types of organizations that have nonprofit status:  National Coalition to Save Our Mall, Rockville Community Baseball, Heritage Theater Company, Community Ministries of Rockville, Rockville Daycare Association, Rockville Pregnancy Center, and the Rockville Volunteer Fire Department.

The list abounded in advocacy groups that have no mission to help the poor or needy—from political groups to arts foundations to social organizations.  On the list are groups that my husband and I have supported through our employer’s United Way campaign.  And while we also support charities through our church and through independent contributions, not all of the causes to which we’ve given money fit the definitions of charities, though we generally avoid political advocacy groups, even those whose causes we support.

Technically, I guess one could say that all these organizations qualify as being “in need.”  And I’m not sure where the line should be drawn.  I wouldn’t want groups that restore historical sites to lose their funding.  And I don’t want to see the arts lose monies that go toward preserving beauty that nurtures our hearts and souls and minds.

I think it’s fitting that when we donate money to political parties and candidates, that money is not tax-deductible.  And perhaps the same should be true of organizations that are blatantly political.  I could live with having tax deductions taken away from groups like the Tea Party and those on the other side of the aisle as well.  I could even live with having advocacy groups on both sides of issues I care about taken out of the mix, such as groups on both sides of the gun debate.

But an article in this week’s Washington Post online shows how hard it has become to distinguish among nonprofits.  The article, entitled “Only a Third of Charitable Contributions Go to the Poor,” gives a garbled explanation of which of the donations they qualify as going to the needy.  As far as I can tell, they don’t consider donations to religious organizations as part of that third, even though most churches give a portion of their money to groups that feed the poor and care for the homeless.

But surely smart leaders should be able to find a way to weed out groups on both sides whose aims are purely political.  If we could do that, then perhaps our political candidates would no longer be held hostage by big money that makes it nearly impossible for them to educate themselves and vote in an informed way.

So tell me a story that has shaped what you view as charity.