I was recently confronted on the issue of providing incentives for charitable acts. The question posed was a great one: is it wrong to donate and take an incentive in return? After pondering it for a while, here is my response:
A deep chill blew through the streets, biting deep into my bones. A sea of people, on their daily commute home, flowed like an endless river coursing through the streets. A man growled at his phone over a dropped call. A woman flagging down a taxi cried out in agony for the car to stop so she could make her way out of the cold. But I, I had nowhere to go. Nowhere I needed to be. Nowhere to head off to. It was just me, the chill nipping at my nose, and a stray thought begging my attention. I needed to find a place to sleep; somewhere warm and cozy or even just a blanket to keep in my warmth when the night fell. I needed the simple necessities that many of the mob could easily afford. By the end of the day, I did not care where my food came from—whether a volunteer handed it to me or just a passerby. I did not care how, just what.
When people are caught in desperate situations, they do not care where or how the sustenance gets to them. The thought of whether it was from an altruistic donation or a rewarding fundraiser does not even cross the mind. People need these goods, and, even though it seems unethical, if providing an incentive gets the goods into the hands of the needy, then it is well worth it. Incentives for donating help create a feeling that it is reward and also brings about the habit of helping others wherever possible.
“For the want of a horse, the message was not delivered. For the want of a message, the war was lost” (Japanese Proverb). If there are no incentives (the horse), then there may not be enough blankets (the message) to go around, so the person in need (the war) does not get the equipment needed to survive (the loss). Incentives have been proven to be an effective way of raising more money and collecting more goods than not having an incentive. There is always a need to fill, and the more we can fill it, the better off everyone is. It is a win-win situation.
Oftentimes, school fundraisers have rewards for reaching a certain level or donating a particular amount. Many times these are silly gifts that mean little to the person who donated. Students fight their way to the top and bring all they can, not for these prizes, but rather for the prestige; for the ability to say, “I went all out and brought in this much!” It is that feeling of accomplishment and good-will that truly rewards the students. This feeling fosters a habit and a “moral obligation” to help others later in life.
By the end of the day, I did not care if my food came from the soup kitchen or some good-willed stranger. I did not care whether it was donated because of a reward. I did not care if it was donated for the sake of ethics or not. I did not care. I needed it. It was sustenance. It was life.
What do you think? Is it hypocritical or unjust to give charity with an incentive attached?