How do we create a culture of giving in Australia?

By · 05 September, 2020 · Blog, Features

Today, September 5th, is International Day of Charity. Sweeney Preston writes about how we can create a culture of giving in Australia.

A little over a week ago my friends and I were playing the new card game ‘ReFlex’. Created by Lillian Ahenkan AKA Flex Mami, the game is designed to provoke critical thinking and meaningful conversations between its players. A “self-development and psychology conversation card game” might not be what you first envision when someone invites you to a fun night-in with friends, although that’s entirely the point. 

Through considering concepts you might never discuss in your regular day to day, players become fondly attentive to the oddities of those around them. Even in my case, playing with a group of usually echo chamber-bound arts degrees, we were prompted to dissect the nuances of our beliefs. 

Among the many questions the game asks its players (each presented on an individual card), one that particularly stood out to me was this: Does everyone have a moral obligation to try and make the world a ‘better’ place? 

Well… yes. Of course! Or perhaps… Yes? Yes absolutely. 

The confounding thing about a question like this is that there can be many interpretations. What does ‘better’ mean? Is ‘better’ totally subjective to your own culture? In situations like these, I feel it’s always best to simplify the framing to the lowest common denominator. For me, the question was about the notion of both organisational and individual acts of charity. It was referring to charity’s most fundamental goal of reducing pain and suffering within communities, both globally and locally. 

This question has particular pertinence to Australians. We are, for the most part, a very well-off country that has experienced a shocker run in 2020. We’ve had catastrophic bushfires that affected thousands of regional Australians, a Black Lives Matter movement that shone light on the abhorrent treatment of our Aboriginal first nation’s people, and most recently, a COVID crisis that has disproportionately affected the most vulnerable people in our community. This last point was highlighted by the heavily policed hard lockdown of 3000 public housing residents in Victoria. 

Thankfully, each of these crises prompted an enormous public response from charitable individuals and organisations alike, each of them trying to, as the question refers, make the world a ‘better’ place. However, as I mulled over it during our group conversation, I realized that there should be a careful distinction made between reactionary and ongoing acts of charity. A giving mentality that is largely reactionary does not aim to cure the continual needless suffering of those experiencing it. Rather, it seeks to dispel the ephemeral pain felt by outside observers when that continual suffering is, for a brief moment, put on public display. 

Encouraging people to make the act of giving a constant in their lives is a difficult challenge, but one I believe as Australians, we are equal to. So, if we are to make sincere progress towards our duty-bound goal of making the world a ‘better’ place, the question we must ask ourselves is this: How do we create a culture of giving in Australia? 

  1. Realize that charities fill gaps left by Government. 

A subconscious barrier that a lot of people face when deciding whether to donate to charity is a belief that the problems should have, or are already being, fixed by the government with their tax dollars.   

In the absence of a truly socialistic society, successive individualist governments have been successful in outsourcing altruism and compassion to its citizens. Take for instance the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, commonly known as the ASRC. Before being approved for a protection visa, people seeking asylum in Australia do not have access to Medicare or Centrelink services. The ASRC, a non-government organisation is consequently tasked with housing, employing, feeding and counselling people who would otherwise have nowhere else to turn. The workloads of non-government organisations like the ASRC are largely dependent on the amount of government assistance allocated to a particular area of expenditure. In this constantly shifting pendulum of necessity, if government cuts funding to refugee support services, the ASRC must then appeal for more donations in order to fill that void.  

Therefore, due to the harshness of Australian refugee policy, the ASRC must exist. 

Further, the underfunding of refugee services creates additional societal division since only those who support its work will contribute to its continuation. If the Australian government were to increase refugee services, the entire tax-paying general public would be funding them. Especially in situations like these where the public view is incredibly polarised, the ASRC gets on with a job that politicians are determined to treat as a political football rather than a human rights issue. 

It would be no exaggeration to call the work of the ASRC and other similar charities the difference between life and death. Regardless, their line of work may sadly never have enough bipartisan support to be carried out by government. It is for this reason, enculturing the act of donating to non-government charities is so essential. 

  1. See giving as a social activity. 

One of the main ways to normalise any activity within society is to do it with friends. Whether it be going to the movies, having dinner or donating to charity. The group-giving mentality is one of solidarity, rather than one embodied by the anomalous lone-wolf. 

Professor Peter Singer, one of Australia’s most prominent academics and an advocate for Effective Altruism, writes in an article for the Guardian that “one of the most significant factors in determining whether people give to charity is what others are doing. Those who make it known that they give to charity increase the likelihood that others will do the same”. 

Something I was extremely proud of these past few months was a project I started at my University called #Clubsforacause. The program provided a blueprint for group-based donating using the pre-existing communities of the University’s clubs and societies. The two societies through which I pioneered the program were the Melbourne Arts Students Society which ended up raising $2658.25 and the Melbourne Uni Vegan Club which raised $1060 for various Aboriginal organisations in light of the Australian Black Lives Matter movement. 

Even simple acts like discussing which charities the group will put their money toward, allows individuals to become more educated on the issues and permits everyone to feel more involved in the process. It also sews the seeds for repetitious giving, setting off a ripple effect throughout everyone’s broader network. 

The visibility of donations is similarly important. In order for donating to become normalised, posting about it on social media must not be seen as a brag. With Tall Poppy Syndrome rampant in Australia, an antidote to being shouted down for publicising your donation is strength in numbers. If everyone’s doing the thing, the thing ceases to be an outlying act and sets about becoming the norm.

  1. How to take action. 

Like any self-help guru, personal trainer or piano teacher named Ian will tell you, the most important thing in achieving any goal is repetition. With a daunting ambition such as making the world a better place, it is quite easy to slip into cynicism. After considering the vastness of global suffering, concluding that you might never completely fix anything and therefore shouldn’t try, is an attractive, yet fallacious premise. Overcoming the ‘perfectionist fallacy’ becomes our first hurdle. The fallacy asks us not to reject a solution if said solution does not entirely solve the problem. This is extremely relevant on the road to enculturing charitable giving within our society. The goal of rejecting perfectionism is neither to absolve oneself from obligation, nor accept the totality of all conceivable responsibility. Instead, it is about finding a happy medium. 

As I mentioned before, structures and collectivizing are helpful ways to set about normalising an activity. But how does this apply to acts of charity? Is there a charitable equivalent to going to the gym three times a week? When deciding on the appropriate structure for you, it’s important not to discount your current financial situation. This is particularly fitting for young people and students such as myself, who don’t have the same earning power as those older than us. An excellent way to counter this is through a pledge-based organisation called ‘One for the World’ or OFTW. Using extensive, data-driven research on factors such as evidence of effectiveness, transparency, and overall cost effectiveness, OFTW has come up with a list of their 16 most effective charities. The best part for students? The program is based on a pledge system. What this means is that you only commit to donating 1% (hence the name ‘One for the World’) of your yearly postgraduate income. I.e. when you have a real job. 

Speaking solely as a time-rich, resource-poor university student, another excellent way to extend the definition of charity is to commit to donating your time. For this, I see two clear avenues. The first is to offer labour hours for companies such as Foodbank where the work itself only requires general motor skills, a good attitude and a smile. The other avenue is to offer your specialist skills such as bookkeeping, copywriting, administration, marketing and media literacy. Through volunteering these specialist skills in not-for-profit organisations such as Oaktree, young people can have opportunity to gain experience performing roles that wouldn’t otherwise be afforded to them in a for-profit institution. Either way, there is something for everyone depending on the field you’re looking to work in, and the skills you’re looking to apply. 

To conclude

Enculturing the act of giving in Australia can begin at the hip pocket, the soup kitchen or the not-for-profit office. Further, it is as much about closing the economic gap as it is about closing the physical proximity gap. To be truly altruistic, the goal of charity at all levels, must be the diminishing of needless suffering by encouraging a physical, economic and spiritual democratizing of communities. Making the world a ‘better’ place means embracing the theoretical idea of sharing, training our brains to prioritise it, allowing ourselves to be inspired by a friend’s act of kindness, resisting the urge to shout someone else down as a bragger or a do-gooder, and last, realizing that individual acts can be hugely significant. 

Sweeney Preston is a 22-year-old comedian, cinema worker and anthropology student at the University of Melbourne, Australia. Sweeney has written for the Foundation for Young Australians, the National Youth Commission Australia, and had his writing selected to be Australia’s contribution in the Intergenerational Foundation’s Worldwide Intergenerational Fairness Week (UK).

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