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Giving Is Not About Being 'Selfless'

25/01/2016 14:32 GMT | Updated 25/01/2017 10:12 GMT

Segregating altruism and consumerism risks missing the point of #GivingTuesday and the reason that giving follows compellingly after consumer-frenzy, as Charities Aid Foundation's (CAF) research into unwanted Christmas presents recently showed. Neither is 'self-less'.

The research shows that 58% of us admit to having not kept or used a Christmas present in the past. The most popular thing to do with such presents is to give them to charity (as 67% people do), while only 2% exchanged them for a refund. This charitable donation doesn't negate the original purchase (as returning the gift would). Instead it preserves relationships.

I want to challenge conventional wisdom that suggests giving is an antidote to consumerism. Not because I want to knock giving, but because my experience of conducting anthropological research into philanthropy suggests we can better understand it by not viewing it as the polar opposite of consumer activity.

For the past few years I have been devoting much of my time to studying philanthropy from the perspectives of people who do it, not just by asking them questions about why they give, or their theories of what should happen, but by 'participant observation'. I focus on what really happens in real life philanthropic acts: in giving circles, during grant-panel meetings, and in the negotiations individuals go through with those they support.

Anthropologist Daniel Miller has published numerous provocative writings on consumption including titles such as 'Making Love in Supermarkets' (1998). He challenges the prevailing sceptical view of consumerism which characterises individuals as greedy, gullible, and susceptible to deceptive advertising, and manipulative behaviour by companies.

Rather than unleashing selfish impulses via the onanistic modern magic of the credit card, his research shows shopping as a moment when people make 'social' decisions. They are based upon personal connections to loved ones, and broader health, ethical, or environmental concerns. They are often a compromise. The 'peanut butter theory' of shopping, for one, is a mother's ambivalent supermarket choice of a fast food that a child will eagerly and gratefully eat, and a (relatively) healthy and nourishing snack.

This is just the type of act that donors in my research make when they choose to give to charity. Javier, a multi-millionaire banker who grew up in an 'emerging economy' and has what he calls a "real-life exposure" to grinding poverty is profoundly affected by his formative proximity to need. But because of it, he is also aware of how little he can do. Both things guide his idiosyncratic view of giving, and individual gifts he makes. He makes decisions on his philanthropy which are both socially conscious and deeply personal.

All sorts of personal factors make the act of giving powerful: the family member we lost to a disease we now help to fight, the team we join to make a difference together, the solution we understand that can transform suffering. The Oxford English Dictionary defines altruism as self-denying. But giving, to paraphrase Peter Singer, is about what we can do. It is a celebration of self, but never a celebration of self alone.

James, a major figure in London's hedge fund industry, has a nuanced approach to philanthropy, built upon his commercial acumen and sharing in its success. He talked me through individual gifts he has made. We dwelt on a bee keeping project he helped introduce. This is his signature impact, not just because of the compelling rationale for (social) return on investment, but because of his keen amateur interest in apiary (bee keeping). The project's success was a personal success.

For Miller, consumption has very little to do with selfishness. Symmetrically, I suggest that philanthropy has very little to do with self-denial.

The difference between consuming and donating is not between a self-interested and a selfless act. The potency of the act of giving is that it creates a moment where donors affirm morality, efficacy, and aesthetics together in one choice: what they can do personally.

Philanthropy is an interested gift that links self and society. Embracing the donor's perspective enables us to better understand donating unwanted Christmas presents and #GivingTuesday: as a consequence of (and compliment to) consumption.

I welcome #GivingTuesday for the enthusiasm and populism it brings to giving but also for the opportunity it brings to challenge the dominant but flawed conception of philanthropy as an antidote for consumerism. Besides, I selfishly need to get rid of a few Christmas presents.