Editors’ Note: Jon Dean introduces his forthcoming book, The Good Glow: Charity and the Symbolic Power of Doing Good (May 2020). Starting with the basic premise that people tend to think positively of other people whom they perceive to be altruistic and kind, Dean argues that such seemingly charitable people are imbued with a certain symbolic power or symbolic credit – the good glow – which they can operationalize in all kinds of ways, including self-serving ends.
A few years ago, the New York Times journalist Frank Bruni wrote about US college application procedures, finding that elite universities were seeing an increase in voluntourism in student applications. The article included the startling reflections from Richard Weissbourd, a child psychologist and Harvard lecturer who studied the admissions process, who “recalled speaking with wealthy parents who had bought an orphanage in Botswana so their children could have a project to write and talk about,” and was “aware of other parents who had bought an AIDS clinic in a similarly poor country for the same reason.” Both examples indicate the extreme ends wealthy parents may go to in order to provide their children with deep and meaningful charitable experiences, which are suited to being used by those children to sell themselves in applications and demonstrate that they are moral and altruistic citizens.
While revealing various issues with the privilege and coloniality that is wrapped up in white saviourism, the use of charitable activities for self-serving purposes occurs in many different social spheres to varying degrees: various recent UK government initiatives have seen volunteer brokerage agencies and schools promote to young people volunteering experience, not principally as opportunities for altruism, but as experience-building opportunities for employment and educational purposes. Fundamentally, both examples point towards the same issue: people can take advantage of and manipulate the credit they receive from undertaking such “charitable” actions because charitable activities and the work of nonprofit organisations generally aim to tackle need, help others, and promote social justice – behaviours widely seen as “good things.”
In my forthcoming book, The Good Glow: Charity and the Symbolic Power of Doing Good, I explore the role that charity (by which I include everything from the day-to-day small donations of “ordinary” people all round the world, the service-delivery and policy advocacy work of voluntary organisations, and large-scale philanthropy) plays in enabling people to present themselves in certain ways. Borrowing shamelessly from James Andreoni’s famous article on the “warm glow,” “Impure Altruism and Donations to Public Goods: A Theory of Warm-Glow Giving” (1990), where emotional rewards and the positive feeling of a good deed done can be a motivation for giving among “impure altruists,” the book examines the social side of charity. Starting from the relatively uncontroversial thesis that we tend to think positively of those people whom we perceive to be altruistic, kind, and go out of their way to help others, the book argues therefore that such people and acts are imbued with a certain symbolic power or symbolic credit – the good glow – that can be operationalised in all manner of ways.
To see how this occurs and works in practice, Washington Post journalist David Farenthold’s reporting on Donald Trump’s charity work and donations before he became president of the United States reveals one truly extraordinary example. Farenthold recounts how despite Trump claiming that he had given over US$102 million to charity, little to none of this came from Trump’s own pocket. Rather, such donations included free rounds of golf at his courses, lifts in Trump’s plane and gifts from his charity, the Donald J. Trump Foundation, to which he gave none of his own money between 2009 and 2014. Farenthold writes: “Although Trump had spent years promising to give away his money…. I couldn’t find much evidence he’d actually done it. In fact, after trying 450 charities, I’d found only one gift to charity from Trump’s own pocket in the years between 2008 and 2015. And it was for less than $10,000.”
The most egregious example comes from an event in New York in 1996, where the nonprofit organisation Association to Benefit Children held a ribbon-cutting event to celebrate a new nursery for children with AIDS. Donald Trump, despite never donating to the charity, walked into the event, sat on the dais, and soaked up the symbolic credit of looking like a generous donor, when the real donor, Steven Fisher, was stuck in the audience. Farenthold concludes that Trump’s personal marketing strategy is to promise big results and rely on the public’s assumption that because a charitable promise was made clearly, publicly and “bigly,” that it will be kept.
Being seen to be charitable, to Donald Trump, is more important than being charitable. And because he’s on that dais, because all those children and all the audience are looking at him, assuming him to be one of the wonderful donors, we understand that Trump gets to use the symbolic power of charity for his own ends. The authority of charitable spaces – the automatic assumption of goodness – allows people to take advantage of it. Trump understands that being seen to do good or even just looking like you’re doing good, can be an integral part of building one’s public image and constructing a philanthropic biography. In fact, the latter may not actually be instrumental to achieving the former.
Such misuse of the charitable imperative is at the centre of many recent critiques of large-scale philanthropy, especially those from authors such as Anand Giridharadas and Linsey McGoey. Such critiques, tied to a wider argument about the unequal structures of modern capitalism and the power of billionaires, express the view that charity and philanthropy are being used as reputational laundering machines, where malfeasant corporate practices and terrible employee working conditions are forgotten about or glossed over because of a generous multi-billion dollar donation (or promise to donate).
But the good glow that surrounds the very notion of charity functions in other ways as well. While different studies present slightly different pictures (for example, those from Edelman and nfpSynergy), charitable organisations are generally trusted more than private sector organisations, the logic being that an organisation not “in it for itself” is driven by purer motivations and therefore a “hero by default” (though this belief may be eroding, given various scandals in the sector). As the chief executive of a charity for people with learning disabilities in Sheffield told me, “There is, sometimes, an element of ‘you can do no wrong’ in a charity setting, and you absolutely can.” Such an assumption of goodness on behalf of charities and their actors is not something we would want to do away with, but at the same time a failure to properly think through its consequences means that academics often think of and analyse charitable action as abstract from wider society and trends, a failure of sociology in my view.
A lot of this analysis is not new. I will admit to not being the keenest student of history, but one does not need to look far to find scholars assessing how charitable acts enable individuals to present themselves in certain socially desirable ways. Peter Shapely’s analysis of Victorian Manchester reveals the local eulogization of the benevolent elite who used charity to acquire and reinforce their symbolic capital in order to become local dignitaries of the highest class. Susan Ostrander’s work exploring how upper-class women used their charity and their centrality to their communities and service to arts and philanthropic organisations to reinforce their class privilege, demonstrated that philanthropy could be used to keep their husbands’ wealth untouched by taxation and their families connected to power.
But what I hope my book does, in a novel way, is to collect such examples and codify their lessons into an applicable and usable theory, providing researchers with an extra tool with which to think through altruistic behaviours. Unfortunately, I believe it speaks to the rather paranoid times we live, where we have an obsession with what Immanuel Kant in The Metaphysics of Morals (1797) called “spying on the morals of others,” and cynically assume all gifts are given with the expectation of benefit or recompense. (“There’s no unselfish good deed,” in the immortal words of Joey from “Friends”).
Ultimately, while Andreoni’s work has done a great deal to help us understand the psychology of individuals’ giving decisions, and that rational decision-making doesn’t necessarily just involve financial loss and gain, my own discipline of sociology largely has failed to engage with charity over recent years. With the exception of some esteemed examples such as work from McGoey, Monika Krause, and Rob Macmillan, this has meant that we have neglected the role that charity plays in our perceptions of each other (and vice versa), our misrecognition of each other’s behaviours, and how our logics of charitable practice are driven by a multiplicity of social factors.
For example, social media provides a whole new sphere where giving behaviours can be misinterpreted. I conducted some qualitative work with young people, regarding their use and experience of social media sites like Facebook as fundraising platforms, to explore how the ever-developing “rules” of social media intersect with the fact we generally think more positively of the charitable. Drawing on Erving Goffman’s theory of the presentation of self, and the need to actively construct and edit one’s online presence, participants revealed how they are both frequently worried they may be showing off or annoying their friends and family through promoting their fundraising appeals on social media feeds, and similarly “judge” their friends who either fail to adequately support them, or those who they feel are only participating in some charitable activity to construct a “good giving self” online, as opposed to what they know to be a less altruistic offline reality.
The point of my argument in The Good Glow is not to undercut people who do great work for others and the charities that serve so many vulnerable people and communities, but to recognise instead that the symbolic element of charity always exists – in potentia, waiting to be put to work. The current coronavirus crisis demonstrates the ways in which we want to buy into other’s good deeds – how the mass sharing of stories of “good samaritans” and neighbourly mutual aid groups and everyday heroes has the power to inspire similar action in ourselves. The commitment of health service staff and volunteers, and the renewed social respect they have garnered as a result, shows the good glow being put to work in a positive way, used as a (semi-literal) shield as dedicated shopping hours for health service staff emerge as a way to prioritise their social distancing.
The fact that doing charity provides an aura of goodness means our choice is to recognise it or not, think about it or not, and analyse it or not. As a frame for thinking about how the history of critiques of philanthropy resemble those currently being made, it encourages us to think about not just the motivation of givers but how their perceived and actual receptions ultimately shape the design of the gift and gifts in the future, and how these perceptions and receptions ebb and flow given the social milieu of the time.
Jon Dean lectures in politics and sociology at Sheffield Hallam University in the UK. His research focuses on inequalities within the voluntary sector and youth volunteering, particularly in relation to social class, as well as charity advertising and homelessness. His research has been published in Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, Voluntary Sector Review, and elsewhere. He also serves on the steering group of the Voluntary Sector Studies Network, and the publications committee of the Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action. Jon’s research interests also include innovations in qualitative methodology, and his first monograph, Doing Reflexivity: An Introduction, was published by Policy Press in 2017.
Andreoni, J. (1990) ‘Impure altruism and donations to public goods: A theory of warm-glow giving’, The Economic Journal, 100(401): 464–77.
Farenthold, D. (2016) ‘Trump boasts about his philanthropy. But his giving falls short of his words’, The Washington Post, 29 October.
Farenthold, D. (2017) ‘The Daily 202: What Trump’s giving to charity – or lack thereof – foreshadowed about his presidency’, The Washington Post, 21 April.
Goffman, E. (1959) The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Kant, I. (1996) The Metaphysics of Morals, Translated by Mary J. Gregor, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kranish, M. and Fisher, M. (2016) Trump Revealed: The Definitive Biography of the 45th President, London: Simon & Schuster.
Mohan, J. and Breeze, B. (2016) The Logic of Charity: Great Expectations in Hard Times, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.