Incentives for Charity: Does the Motive Matter?


Emily Myers GSWLA junior

Emily Myers


While in AP English a few weeks ago I came across a prompt about whether giving incentives for charity drives sacrifices the “spirit of charity.”The prompt went as follows:


A weekly feature in the New York Times Magazine is a column by Randy Cohen called “The Ethicist,” in which people raise ethical questions to which Cohen provides answers. The question below is from a column that appeared on April 4th, 2003.


At my high school, various clubs and organizations sponsor charity drives, asking students to bring money, food, and clothing. Some teachers offer bonus points on tests and final averages as incentives to participate. Some parents believe this sends a morally wrong message, undermining the value of charity as a selfless act. Is the exchange of donations for grades O.K.?


My answer is yes. When discussing ethics behind charitable ventures, it is more important to donate than to refuse a donation because of an ‘improper’ motive. The ultimate goal of a charity drive is to collect a certain yield for a cause. Teachers who give grade incentives gain support for the cause and might educate and inspire students about donating to charity drives in the future. A charity drive incentive may also entail that classes compete to raise the most donations for a prize, which creates an even greater sense of unity because a class is coming together support a cause.


The charity is not for the students who are donating. It’s for the hungry families. Is refusing to donate without “the spirit of charity” worth sacrificing a meal, warm coat, or Christmas present for a child who would otherwise get nothing? If one is trying to “do good” by making sure students are acting in “the spirit of charity”, they are not “doing good” by ultimately decreasing the yield of donations. Parents can complain about donators not acting in “the true spirit of charity”, but nonetheless there are mouths to feed.


In my science class, my teacher gave a five-bonus-points-one-the-test incentive to donate to the can and bottle recycle drive, which the environmental club recycles. I am busy and, this drive was not on the forefront of my mind, though I am willing and able to donate. The incentive brought the drive to my attention and I donated. Also, my teacher gave a twenty-points-on-the-final average incentive to donate to the blood drive. This is a prime example of why using incentive is more important than selfless charity because each donation can save up to three lives.


According to Time, “tainted altruism” is the idea that benefiting from charity is bad. They used the example of a man who raised three hundred and five million dollars for AIDS research and made four hundred thousand per year for himself. When people found out about his plentiful salary, his organization went out of business. Rather than seventy one million dollars of donations from a charity fundraiser with the said man in charge, the sum fell to eleven million dollars when he was not. The article then poses a question of whether the man or his critics were immoral.


I can understand parental concern that their children will learn to give only to get in return, but incentives on a school can drive are not going to affect a student’s moral development. At the end of the day it’s the parents’ decision to instill their moral beliefs about charity onto their children, and if a parent doesn’t agree with a teacher’s decision to use grade incentives there are plenty of opportunities to perform selfless acts of kindness and charity around the community every day.