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‘Tis the Season to Give

With the Christmas season nearing its apex, many of us have been experiencing a blizzard of questions about gift giving. Decisions about who to give to, how much to give (and how much to spend), and what to give have been whirling around our minds like snow-flakes driven by a piercing wind. Few are able to evade the path of this blizzard. Parents and teens, young professionals, pastors, church boards, and denominational committees alike experience the storm. Like a blizzard, gift-giving is paradoxical. It has inherent dangers, for example, misreading a loved one’s tastes, and it has the stillest, rapturous beauty of seeing another beam with pleasure and gratitude in response to a fitting gift. One type of question may slip behind the veil of frosty flakes and resist conscious reflection, and that is the question of motive. Why do we give what we give? Why do we give to those whom we give? What do we expect in return? How gratuitous are our gifts? Tovia Smith’s timely article “‘Selfish’ Giving: Does it Count if You Get in Return?” provides us with a chance to reflect upon the practice of giving and the motives of giving.

In the age when corporations like Starbucks, Macy’s, and Toys “R” Us use their generosity to increase market share, Smith asks whether or not something is lost “when givers are looking to get back more than just the joy of giving.” Weighing in on the question, Richard Weissourd, a Harvard professor and psychologist, perceives a disturbing trend of “conspicuous compassion” gaining ground in the United States. For Weissourd, conspicuous compassion describes acts of compassion that are driven by selfish motives that aim to bolster one’s social image. Weissourd laments that “a ribbon pin, a rubber bracelet or a family foundation is the new ‘must have’ accessory.”

Conspicuous compassion is contrasted by altruistic giving, that is, giving characterized by “a tenacious, low-profile kind of altruism that’s really just about the other person, and not about you.” For those having an affinity to Weissourd’s views, the motives behind gift giving matters. Even if the gift provides a benefit to the one that receives it, the gift is tarnished if the motive is robustly self-interested.

Smith recognizes that her query may be addressed from another perspective, one that embraces the selfishness of contemporary gift giving. Kevin McCall, a president of a real estate development firm in Boston and philanthropist, asserts that if the gifts benefit society, “go for it!” McCall would rather see socially beneficial gifts given than withheld, whether their underlying motives are pure or not. From McCall’s point of view, the personal, professional, and economic advantages of gift giving contribute to its value. Those who give should expect a “return on their investment,” he holds.

Jeffrey Solomon, author and president of a philanthropic organization, agrees with McCall. For Solomon gift giving provides an opportunity to “recognize” and “be honest” about the selfish motives fueling gift giving. Furthermore, it is best to “positively exploit” this fact. Ideally, gifts would be given for the benefit of the one receiving the gift and secondarily for the “nourished soul” of the one giving the gift, but in a culture where “it’s increasingly about ‘me’,” appealing to the selfish motive is profitable.

If this second view of gift giving is embraced, Robert Reich, professor of political science at Stanford, emphasizes the need for measurement and accountability. Reich asserts that if “you only care about whether there is good produced on the ground from the gift, then it becomes very important to make sure that the benefit from the gift is a large and substantial one.”

By placing these two views in close proximity, Smith draws back the veil thereby stimulating reflection about motives and the importance of motives in gift giving. Once the topic of motive is raised, it prompts us to reflect upon and evaluate the motivational impetus of our individual and collective giving, the giving that occurs within our households, the giving that occurs within our churches, and giving that is carried out by our churches. Smith’s article also prompts us to be inquisitive about where are gifts end up. For example, when we give to charity, is a sizeable amount of the donation reaching the population served by the charity? Smith’s piece encourages us to be mindful about gift giving motives circulating within the marketplace as well. Gifts are not always given with benevolent intentions, and this reminder calls us to be prudent about the gifts we are offered and the gifts we accept.


To read Smith’s article “‘Selfish’ Giving: Does it Count if You Get in Return?” click here.

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