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Charity, for the Right Reasons and the Wrong Reasons

David Langness | Apr 27, 2016

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

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David Langness | Apr 27, 2016

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

Charity is pleasing and praiseworthy in the sight of God and is regarded as a prince among goodly deeds. – Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 71.

Today is the day of union and this age is the age of harmony in the world of existence. “Verily, God loveth those who are working in his path in groups, for they are a solid foundation.” Consider ye that he says “in groups”, united and bound together, supporting one another. “To work”, mentioned in this holy verse, does not mean, in this greatest age, to perform it with swords, spears, shafts and arrows, but rather with sincere intentions, good designs, useful advices, divine moralities, beautiful actions, spiritual qualities, educating the public, guiding the souls of mankind, diffusing spiritual fragrances, explaining divine illustrations, showing convincing proofs and doing charitable deeds. – Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West, Volume 4, p. 36.

For years my wife and I lived in Los Angeles; and for years both of us worked and volunteered in the charitable endeavors of that great American city. We witnessed enormous charity and generosity there. We met very poor people who sacrificially gave a substantial portion of their very small resources to others; and we met very wealthy people who gave huge amounts—tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars—to wonderful causes.

Sometimes, though, we saw the extremes behind the motivations for charity.

One day I met an extremely wealthy man—I won’t mention his name, although you would likely recognize it—who said he wanted to pledge a massive donation to a charity I worked with. We were about to conduct a televised benefit concert, with several notable artists and musicians performing, and our prospective donor asked if he could announce his donation from the stage. We knew, of course, that large donors often want this kind of public recognition—their name on a building, their face on television, their generosity somehow memorialized—so we agreed.

When the benefit concert happened, we noticed that our big donor brought along his own, three-man film and audio crew to record the event. The concert turned into a big success, and our donor, when he announced his largesse on stage, got a very appreciative standing ovation from the crowd. He beamed in the spotlights while the news and camera crews recorded the event for posterity.


Later, though, as the charity added up its receipts for the night, we realized that he hadn’t actually made any contribution—that he had only pledged one publically. So we sent a small, two-person delegation from the board of the charity to his home on the following day to ask for a check. When they got there, they noticed a very long shelf of film and videotapes from similar fundraising events in the past, all featuring our large donor announcing his generous contribution.

Needless to say, as you probably already suspected, we never received any contribution. Instead, we got excuses and delays, and finally, a few months later, we gave up.

During that same period, I met a little girl from El Salvador with a congenital heart condition. She needed expensive surgery to survive, and her poor family could not afford it. Someone told a popular disc jockey on one of the Spanish-language radio stations in Southern California, and he made her case into a fundraising drive. After he announced it, hundreds of cars lined up to contribute small amounts—five or ten or twenty dollars—for her care. We collected those donations, all of them anonymous and many of them from small children who broke into their piggy banks, with amazement and humility. The outpouring of generosity stunned us, especially when an obviously poor family gave all they could, with no wish or desire for any credit or public recognition, and only out of the purity and kindness of their hearts:

As charitable works become praiseworthy, people often perform them merely for the sake of fame and to gain benefit for themselves, as well as to attract people’s admiration. But this does not render needless the teachings of the Prophets because it is spiritual morals that are the cause of training one’s innate nature and of personal progress. Thus will people offer service to one another with all their hearts for the sake of God and in order to fulfull the duties of devotion to Him and service to humanity and not for the purpose of acquiring praise and fame. – Abdu’l-Baha, quoted in Mahmud’s Diary, p. 189.

The fundraising drive succeeded, the little Salvadoran girl got her surgery, and she survived and thrived.

We learned, from those two experiences, that those “spiritual morals” Abdu’l-Baha mentions build the true foundation of all service to others, and underpin all real charity.

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