The problem with ‘giving back’.

Mansi Goel
6 min readApr 30, 2020

In 2006, I spent a few months in India to help launch Google’s sales offices. It was a thrill to return as a professional to the homeland I’d left when I was nine. One day, I was excited to see a street vendor selling a favorite childhood snack. He charged me 12 Rupees for which I offered him two Rs.10 notes. He had no change. It was only a few cents and I urged him repeatedly to take both bills. He demurred and excused the two rupees as a gift.

Street hawkers in India sitting on the ground selling their wares
Street sellers in India

I walked on feeling sorry. He was thin and wore faded clothes. He had a soft voice and a dark face with brightly shining eyes. He was obviously very poor but he wasn’t begging. He was selling a small thing he made for a small income he earned honestly. I felt I had cheated him of that. I made change at the next corner and returned to offer the coins. He looked at me with disappointment. I can’t translate his elegant rebuke exactly, but:

“It was with an open heart that I wanted you to enjoy it yet you insist on paying me. Is generosity just for the rich, then?”

I could not hold his gaze. I wanted to throw away the coins, cast off my possessions, and dive into some forgiving grotto. This man had looked into my eyes and seen the heart of the matter — a petty, patronizing obligation felt by a person with money toward a person without it. I had beggared him after all.

Charity as noblesse oblige

‘Giving back’ is the fundamental model of charity I’ve inhabited since childhood. Whether as a preteen with a little cash from a summer job or as a 20yo starting my career, I donated part of my earnings to those less fortunate. I didn’t question this model of charity. It pervades common language and feels intuitive that those with more should give to those with less. As I mature, though, I have a better understanding of the limitations of this model. It separates people, disempowers us, and locks in a system of inequity.

I notice that, troubled and confused by the arbitrariness of my abundance and others’ lack, my heart takes solace in ‘giving back’. I feel relieved of some pressure and relax a bit on my seemingly safer perch. I can keep some distance from others’ suffering rather than step closer. ‘Giving back’ is also easier and simpler to do because it usually addresses immediate needs. These are merely symptoms of larger problems but probing for systemic causes is overwhelming. The same system that works horribly for many others does, after all, work well enough for me — materially, at least. Engaging with the complexity of this truth is uncomfortable at best, dangerous at worst. But by ‘giving back’, I can justify my safe perch rather than agitate for a change that might risk my own safer place in the system.

It has dawned on me in recent years how much this ‘giving back’ mindset is a modern iteration of noblesse oblige. That principle obligated aristocrats with responsibilities toward the lower classes and a pernicious effect of it was to give aristocrats the sense that by fulfilling their self-defined obligations, they had earned the wealth they were born into — they deserved it. Noblesse oblige helped to lock in the very system that caused the gaps to begin with, much as the ‘giving back’ mindset can do. If I have unearned advantages, by ‘giving back’ I can earn them; I don’t have to overhaul the system that advantages me.

While this bourgeois dynamic may help us cling to material security, its hubris robs us spiritually. Humans are wired for connection but this bargain separates us into “a condition of want beyond personal needs”, as James Hillman put it. We view each other through the narrow lens of Givers and Takers, the full humanity of both sides squeezed into small parts. We don’t access all of ourselves, perhaps as Giver excluding our humility or as Taker excluding our dignity. Connection happens only through the narrow pipeline between small parts so our togetherness doesn’t express its full potency. Smallness suffocates the human spirit and disempowers us.

Charity as fellowship

Over the years, I have been growing out of the mindset to ‘give back’ and into one to ‘share with’. In my mental map, I’ve started stepping across the divide to stand on the same side. When I stand beside someone, I can see the world from their perspective. I am no longer a Giver helping a Taker — or vice versa, as I wrote when offered ‘white allyship’ — I am a partner. When we’re not negotiating across a divide but on the same side, the question changes from ‘what do you need?’ to ‘what do we need’. We are a fellowship with shared interests and visions. We can act together with collective resources, some of us offering material ones (money, etc.) and others intangible ones (insight, etc.).

Paper cut-out of figures in a line holding hands

This shift in stance expands my sense of self and brings me into a deeper connection that is empowering. As a partner, I become a member of a network of shared causes and networks are more resourceful and resilient than individuals. But it isn’t easy or without complications. It requires that I step farther from my own safety and closer to someone else’s suffering. I must allow myself not only to be moved by it but to be changed.

An obvious example of this is Frederick Douglass, who not only owned nothing but was himself treated as an owned thing. Yet it was not charity that prompted northerners to fuel his celebrity, it was the benefit they received from his brilliance. His keen insights and oratory shone such a clear light on the moral impoverishment of America’s wealth that abolitionists clamored to partner with him.

The old adage of “give someone a fish and you feed them for a day; teach them to fish and you feed them for a lifetime” is incomplete. We must do both and still more: we must sit beside someone to understand why they lack what we have. Whatever conditions account for this disparity must become a matter of mutual concern.

‘Giving back’ isn’t enough today

The shared devastation of the pandemic has laid bare both our interdependence and the moral hazard in inhabiting a noblesse oblige model of charity. We need to partner with those we might have sought just to ‘help’. In partnership, we necessarily engage with complex systemic causes and structural issues, not only with the symptoms we might address in just ‘giving back’. Charity must be less a matter of obligations and more a matter of justice — because, as St. Augustine warned, “charity is no substitute for justice withheld”.

My own journey into this shift started with the mirror that that street vendor held up to me. To be honest, I had expected some gratitude for discharging the duty he had exempted me from. But he refused to play along and challenged the power dynamic I presumed. He claimed an inherent dignity I wasn’t mature enough to understand.

If we met today, I’m sure I would still press him to take both notes. But when he refused, I would accept his generosity with gratitude instead of guilt. I would tell him how his snack brought me back to a long-lost delight from a childhood before I changed countries, languages, even parents. I would honor his gift by sharing my joy — which, I now understand, is what he had wanted more than my money.

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