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In my corner of the professional world, much time is invested in Giving Tuesday, the Tuesday after Thanksgiving. It was established in 2012 as a day “to do good.” It’s a creative idea. With our bellies and shopping carts full after a Thursday of feasting and a Friday (and now Monday) of shopping, on Tuesday we redirect our focus outward in a continuation of the Thanksgiving spirit. 

But Giving Tuesday is also “a large global movement co-led by entrepreneurial changemakers around the world . . . unleashing the power of radical generosity.” Replete with a staff of 19 and its own governing board, Giving Tuesday is now an ambitious nonprofit “dedicated to unleashing the power of people and organizations to transform their communities and the world.” 

What happened? Somewhere the modesty and simplicity disappeared. Giving Tuesday, which might have been a day of personal charity, has become a day of galactic philanthropy. In his book The Philanthropic Revolution: An Alternative History of American Charity, author Jeremy Beer distinguishes “charity,” with its deep theological and spiritual roots, from “philanthropy,” a relatively modern concept that champions outcomes and systems-level change. 

While charity is about love and support for human beings as individuals, philanthropy focuses on mankind in general. Charity, from the Latin (caritas) for “love,” prioritizes the local, the concrete, and the ordinary giver’s heart. Philanthropy is rooted in the Greek for “love of mankind,” but in contemporary usage, it refers narrowly to the financial giving of wealthier individuals and institutions. “Philanthropy” today searches for root causes, optimization, and ROI in order to effect social change. Charity evokes a local soup kitchen. Philanthropy? Think Davos. Dostoevsky captured the tension here in The Brothers Karamazov:

“It's just the same story as a doctor once told me,” observed the elder. “He...spoke as frankly as you, though in jest, in bitter jest. ‘I love humanity,' he said, ‘but I wonder at myself. The more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular...I have often come to making enthusiastic schemes for the service of humanity, and perhaps I might actually have faced crucifixion if it had been suddenly necessary; and yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone for two days together, as I know by experience. As soon as anyone is near me, his personality disturbs my self-complacency and restricts my freedom. In twenty-four hours I begin to hate the best of men: one because he's too long over his dinner; another because he has a cold and keeps on blowing his nose. I become hostile to people the moment they come close to me. But it has always happened that the more I detest men individually the more ardent becomes my love for humanity.'”

The shift from charity to philanthropy has, as Beer notes, transformed our understanding of voluntary giving.

Consider Giving Tuesday's definition of radical generosity: “Giving Tuesday recognizes that we each can drive an enormous amount of positive change by rooting our everyday actions, decisions and behavior in radical generosity—the concept that the suffering of others should be as intolerable to us as our own suffering.” Sounds good—except that charity is more about our duty of mercy, justice, and love for the needy person with a name in our line of vision, and less about measurable data of positive social change. We won’t be judged by our effect on global economic outcomes; we’ll be judged on what we did or didn’t do, and for whom, with the dollars in our pocket. We can’t outsource the obligation of caritas. Let’s love man in particular, even as we wonder at God’s perfect love for both mankind in general and each particular man.

Giving Tuesday is a project with admirable intentions. But its vision is not the Christian vision of charity. Nor is it the American one, as the United States remains far and away the most charitable nation on earth. What’s lost in the Giving Tuesday focus on philanthropy is the personal, and often sacrificial, investment that caritas demands. Words like “systemic change,” regrettably but too often, have a subtle odor of policy and politics, both of which imply the application of power from above, and neither of which is a synonym for charity.   

So spend today in acts of charity—out of a desire to serve your neighbor in a spirit of gratitude. For our part, instead of launching a Giving Tuesday campaign, we’re devoting today as a day of gratitude to you, our readers. Thank you for being a part of the First Things community. 

Carter Skeel is director of development at First Things.

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