The Selfishness of Generosity

Why You Spend on Others to Feel Good about Yourself

Giving moneyThere are a whole host of uncharitable reasons why people give to charity. Google each of “tax avoidance”, “tax relief” and “tax shelters” alongside “charity” and you’ll get almost 35 million results.

But this piece isn’t about those who create a fiscal smoke screen through donations to The Salvation Army or Harvard University. It’s about the conscience-cleanse, the ego buzz and the self-righteous glow that stem from parting with money in the name of benevolence.

It’s a deeply ingrained, cultural sentiment that giving makes us feel good about ourselves. This goes largely unquestioned, but the crux of it – the feel good about ourselves part – refers to the self-congratulatory reward that awaits us when we part with our time and our dough in the name of a good cause.

This is certainly not to dismiss charity. Even when people get a kick out of giving, it’s infinitely preferable to not giving at all. There are also people who’ve made inordinate sacrifices for charity who deserve every ounce of our respect. And charity, itself, isn’t always underpinned by self-regard.

Just most of the time.

Here, then, we examine the major ways in which people get their rocks of out of giving.

The cheque you can't cash

For some, few things give the ego a hard-on like charitable legacy spending.

I’ve always thought a towering example of this is when someone pays a university to create a scholarship denoting brilliance. And then has it named it after them self. As if to say: what could be a better personification of excellence than my very own name?

This, like naming a library or a wing of a university after yourself, is a kind of attempt to cheat to death; to somehow live on. But the benefactor will never enjoy the results. They’ll just be a dead narcissist with a plaque.

Statue of Donald TrumpThe very grandest acts of legacy self-fellatio are paying for a statue of yourself, or paying for a stadium to be named after you. To take an example, it’s bad enough for a human being to be called Riccardo in the first place, but at least the name dies with the man. And yet fairly recently, Italian businessman Riccardo Silva immortalised himself by inflicting his name upon the Florida International University sports stadium.

And why should it stop there?

Perhaps in the future, we’ll have the Jeremy Kyle scholarship for Media Studies; the Richard Madeley Centre of Excellence for Performing Arts and the Hugh Hefner Clinic for Genito-Urinary Medicine.

Say my name

Publicising a donation, and thereby summoning society to applaud and revere you, is the bright orange Lamborghini of charitable acts.

Say my name - AngelSome will have it that this is not self-aggrandisement; merely an attempt to get the ball rolling for further acts of charity. They’re lying. In the end, though, it’s undoubtedly a good thing that charitable acts are nonetheless taking place. But turning our attention to charity events, it seems to me less than ideal that people often don’t know the cause or the name of the charity whose event they’re attending.

But that’s because the charitable nature of an event rarely has anything to do with why the guest goes. People who buy tickets to The Met Gala Ball, say, aren’t primary concerned with the costume institute it sponsors (Which is obviously named after Anna Wintour) They go to observe Kim Kardashian’s tits and Victoria Beckham’s lips for the flicker of a smile.

And when people buy at auction at charity events, they’re seldom doing it for the kids. They’re lauding it over the room or emasculating rival bidders. The mere fact donations have to be incentivised with prizes you might say is a pity.

PandasAnd the fact of the matter is that the prizes at these auctions are often things you’d rather pay not to receive. But you can’t do that. It’s bad form to stand Carol Vorderman up for lunch at an Ivy Brasserie Franchise.

There are also the supremely rarefied charity fund raisers where the size of the donations are staggeringly out of proportion to the cause. I mean, pandas are cute and everything, but if they can’t be bothered to shag each other why do they deserve to be kept alive?

The masked hero

Anonymous acts of charity are infinitely preferable to publicised donations. And the significant contributions they make to worthy causes is commendable.

But don’t necessarily be fooled.

While there are some donors who legitimately shun the limelight, there are others for whom stealthiness brings its own aura of self-worth. I’m talking about a sort of pecuniary peeping Tom who finds it titillating to secretly bask in the good will that accompanies their good deed.

It's raining moneyActing anonymously can also go hand-in-hand with the donor allowing other people to spread the word of their charitable work so they can get high on the fumes of adulation without – or at least this is what they think – any of the gaucheness of self-promotion.

Less-than-bright benefactors are also to be found who speak of giving generously but revel in not saying to whom. They’re either not telling the truth or they’re the type of person who requires constant re-assurance during and after sex.

For the love of god

Crosses from catholicIt’s a common practice for collection boxes to come pre-loaded with a scattering of bank notes to guilt trip you in to parting with paper rather than coins.

The church is no exception to this practice. Although they needn’t bother. Because people are absolutely desperate to put their money in to the bank of God. For many, this isn’t a selfless investment in the upkeep of the institution. It’s an attempt, as we know, to buy a place in heaven.

For others, throwing money at the church is like pouring TCP over your guilt. So if you’ve been banging your secretary, neglecting your children or harbouring unpleasant thoughts towards someone more successful, maybe you can bribe God in to turning a blind eye by contributing to the church’s campaign for a new set of stained glass windows.

Pay you to stay

Buying a loved one a gift that puts a smile on their face is one of life’s great pleasures. And I have no desire to pour cynicism over it.

Pay you to stayBut the gifts bought out of insecurity and received out of insincerity are worth focusing on. We’re talking about splashing the cash to compensate for advancing years, dull conversation or a flaccid member.

And so it is, too, that a fat rock on the finger is often less an act of generosity than a back the fuck off she’s mine. Just as a labiaplasty can be a please don’t leave me for someone younger.


So what, then, is a truly benevolent act? Perhaps some form of self-sacrifice that is boring and/or painful that you never get to tell anyone about. Maybe dredging the bed of a remote, freezing river so you can remove non-perishables and help save the planet.

But then maybe it appeals to the masochist in you. In which case, it wouldn’t count at all.

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