Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Do not your alms before men

Charitable Giving- To give secretly or conspicuously?

Arguments for Secret

Arguments for Conspicuous

· 3 Ne. 13: 1
1 VERILY, verily, I say that I would that ye should do alms unto the poor; but take heed that ye do not your alms before men to be seen of them; otherwise ye have no reward of your Father who is in heaven.
· Matt. 6: 3-4
3 But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth:
4 That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.

16 Therefore let your alight so shine before this people, that they may see your good works and bglorify your Father who is in heaven.

... be thou an bexample of the believers, in word, in cconversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in dpurity.

· If others observe your charitable giving, they are more likely to give charitably themselves.
· If people give charitably because they observed your giving, they will themselves reap the research-identified benefits of charitable giving:
- Increased wealth
- Increased health
- Increased happiness
· “Giving is one way that we identify qualities of leadership in others.” In one experiment, “Eighty percent of the time, the person who had contributed the most to the other members of the group was elected. The biggest givers were also the most popularly-chosen partners in follow-up tasks.” -Brooks
· The net amount of charitable giving increases, thereby benefitting the charities themselves: “giving openly also provokes mimicry by others, and thus a public gift can multiply itself.” – Arthur Brooks
· For more in-depth arguments, see “Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compasionate Conservatism Who Gives, Who Doesn't, and Why It Matters” by Brooks

I used to be secretive about my charitable giving. After hearing Arthur Brooks, I described my charitable giving on Facebook. Now I'm considering removing that description. Help me decide!

Cast your vote by commenting below.

(18 Feb 2010) - My decision is "secret." My justification is that the counsel not to do alms before men is more narrow than the same-source counsel to "let your light shine" and "be an example." I esteem the scriptural conclusion above the secular one (which seems to suggest conspicuous).

Thanks for helping with the decision!

Subsequent note (July 2010) - Whether people will help someone that is in need depends more on whether they are in a hurry/preoccupied than whether they recently pondered the Good Samaritan story. (look at minutes 1:00 to 2:30).   


  1. Secret - God will notice and that's all that matters. Others should be contributing because they know it's right - not because they see you. God can prompt everyone individually to contribute and that will be much more powerful than anything we can do...

  2. "God will notice and that's all that matters." Perhaps. At least, God's notice may be all that matters to maximizing the reward account of person A. If what matters, however, is 1) the net quantity of charitable giving and 2) the benefits to person B and C and D as well as A, then the notice of B, C, and D also matter.

    The argument about persons B, C, and D (others), is less sound. Sure, others SHOuld be contributing because they know its right, but the reality is that they quite frequently don't. The reality also is that person B is more likely to give charitably after observing person A. So, persons B, C, and D don't reap the benefits of charitable giving (increased wealth, health, and happiness) nor do the coffers of charities fill with donations until persons B, C, and D decide to give. I agree that God can prompt everyone individually to contribute, and that prompting might cause more charitable giving by B, C, and D than person A's example. However, whether He actually DOES prompt everyone individually affects charitable giving infinitely more than whether He CAN prompt everyone individually. (If you're hungry and CAN eat a sandwich but don't actually eat it, you're still hungry). Therefore if He can prompt but doesn't, then person A's example will of course cause more charitable giving by persons B, C, and D than will God's inaction.

    Most human behaviors are learned by mimicry, and charitable giving is no exception. The research indicating how powerful is the effect of person A's conspicuous giving on person B's giving seems to evince the latter scenario- that God does not frequently intervene to individually prompt charitable giving directly, despite His abundant ability to do so.


    I posted the debate above in the MPA lounge this week as a poll- voters could choose either "secret" or "conspicuous." When I first placed the poll on the wall I put three ticks in each column so it looked like the vote was tied. At first, a few votes came in for secret. Later, I learned, several students debated the issue and then some votes came in for conspicuous, as well as the addition of a couple scriptures to the arguments in the "conspicuous" column. For instance, "be thou an example" and "that they may see your good works." I hadn't thought of these countervailing scriptures, which seem to bolster the conspicuous side.

    The end vote? 7 secret to 5 conspicuous.

  4. I have considered this same dilemma before too! Great minds I tell ya...

    So, in addition to the 'what does God expect of me' aspect of this dilemma I sometimes add the repurcussions of how others perceive your best attempt to act. In some cultures you risk others judging your motives, in either choice (maybe thats why I feel a pang of self consciousness if it comes out that I did my visiting teaching that month. Am I supposed to keep that a secret too?).

    However, I don't think these need to be mutually exclusive. Marry them! Secrespicuous! Its not what you do, its how you do it.

    Example 1: An fb status update of "Decided to give to the MS Foundation today because it sounded like such a good cause! If any of you want in, let me know." is way different than a status of "I just gave $75 to charity" or "Sorry, can't come the dinner Sally--gave all my discretionary cash to the Lighting the Way Foundation and can't afford to pay for McDonalds--only day old bread". Kinda like the "Kiss me. I voted" stickers you get during elections--it is reinforcing for the wearer and a reminder for the observer, but no one knows how you vote. Let people see you give, without advertising the extent of the hurt involved, whether it be $50, $10, or your last mite.

    Example 2: Tell a socially conscious networker who will tell everyone for you. Someone who who will likely mention it to 2-12 people by the end of the day. I know a few people like this, so if you decide to go secrespicuous one day, let me know:).


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