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Bragging About Charity Will Not Bring Absolution

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Bob Dole was unequivocal when it came to charity. During a meeting late in the 1996 presidential election cycle, when the former Kansas senator was trailing Bill Clinton in the polls, a group of us working on his campaign were trying to figure out how to close the gap. A few staffers in the room suggested we start promoting Dole's personal philanthropy to contrast his long and substantial history of charitable giving with Clinton’s donation of used underwear for a tax deduction. 


“No,” was Dole’s response. I do not recall precisely what else he said but it was along the lines of, ‘That’s not what charity is about. You don’t talk about it, you do it because it’s the right thing to do.’ But Bob Dole’s view on charity appears to differ from today’s prevailing attitude. There’s a growing sentiment that charitable acts are something to brag about. We call it virtue signaling and it’s increasingly encouraged. 

Writing on LinkedIn, Kids Rise Fund President & Inclusion Action Officer Whitney Stohr advises people to, “Humble-Brag Away: Why You Should Always Share Your Stories of Giving.” Stohr makes the case that boasting about charitable giving can encourage others to follow suit and raise the profile of organizations that benefit from charity. This is not unreasonable. It’s actually strategic. 

But there are caveats to this strategy. The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania reported in 2015 that researchers found distinctly different reactions to boasting about charitable activities. Through a series of experiments involving “perceived generosity,” it was revealed that, “bragging only pays in situations for which bragging provides new [information]. So if a person’s reputation is not so generous, bragging can help.” 


These experiments also showed, “if a person’s reputation is already generous, then bragging doesn’t provide any new information. It only signals that the motive isn’t pure, [and] that the motive is to improve one’s reputation.” A few years later, these same researchers wrote,“Ironically, this means that virtue signaling is a more successful strategy for those with less virtuous reputations—individuals who are not expected to do good deeds in the first place.”

I’m not certain how much of this is true but one clear takeaway is that these and similar perspectives reflect a secular worldview. Charity is examined through the lens of strategy, reputation management, perceived munificence. 

Others have a different worldview of charity. In Islam, bragging about charity abrogates one’s generosity. The Qur’an instructs believers, “do not nullify your acts of charity by boasting about (doing people a) favour and by causing (them) hurt, like the one who spends his wealth to show off before people.” 

Judaism drills down into the motivation behind charity. While some circumstances may support charity in pursuit of honor, Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir cautions, “the Talmud tells us that giving charity in order to boast about it is actually a sin,” suggesting a dim view of strategic charity. “The donor is exploiting the recipient's state more than he is trying to alleviate it,” writes Rabbi Meir.


Jesus Christ taught a less ambiguous lesson on charity. “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them,” He preached in his Sermon on the Mount. “When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret.” 

There’s also the notion of charity being its own reward. In writing The Acts of the Apostles, Luke recalled, “Remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” 

Two thousand years later, the International Journal of Research in Marketing published data showing that Jesus was right. Researchers found that, “among people with ‘high moral identity’ - people who strongly base their self-definition on their moral values - unpublicized gifts brought roughly 16 percent greater happiness than publicized gifts. For those on the other end of the moral-identity spectrum, there was no significant happiness difference.”

Giving time or money to a good cause is a good thing. But whether someone boasts about their charity or remains silent can be revealing. A person may choose to be a quiet giver like Bob Dole. Perhaps one privately recognizes a “less virtuous” inner defect or some flaw in their reputation, and are seeking absolution through bragging. It might be a combination of other things. It’s hard to tell. 


The crux of the matter may reside in the giver’s moral identity and on what it is based. Not having a secular worldview, I don’t know whether reliance on temporal things can lead to greater happiness for boastful philanthropists. Maybe it can. But scripture and science tell us that faith in God can and does bring the quiet joy that comes with not sounding our charitable trumpet. 


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