Is Giving To Charity Actually A Bit Selfish?

Facebook wants you to donate your birthday to charity so all of your friends can give to a good cause...is this peak clicktivism?

facebook birthday donation

by Vicky Spratt |
Updated on

This is your weekly instalment of WTF is going on because, these days, a lot can happen in a week…

Facebook doesn't just want you to say happy birthday to your friends anymore. Facebook wants you to say happy birthday to them, to show them how much you care and what an all round great person you are, by giving money to the charity they've chosen to donate their birthday to.

My birthday is approaching and what I think we can now all agree is the world's least favourite social network has asked me if I would like to set up a donation page to honour it. Spoiler: I won't be doing it. However, recently, someone I know did just that. A Facebook friend of mine in her mid- twenties asked her cyber pals to celebrate her by making a donation to a homelessness charity. When I saw this, I balked. It wasn't because I don't think housing is an important cause (see my previous work) or that I'm not aware of the important work that Shelter do (see my previous work). It was because I felt shamed and coerced. It was that creeping feeling of guilt that I (and I imagine you) feel when somebody stops you in the street and asks you to sign up for a monthly direct debit to SAVE THE TIGERS. All you're trying to do is pick up some new socks and get back to the office and, in truth, you know can't really afford to make a regular donation to charity.

The birthday charity donation might be new to Facebook but it is hardly a revolution. Back in 2010 Will and Jada Smith asked for donations to charity: water instead of gifts. In 2012, Justin Bieber did the same to mark his 18th. But, let's be real, these celebrities are a) very wealth and b) have enough followers to actually make a difference by 'donating' a birthday.

Just as nobody enjoys being asked to give money to Save The Children when they're rushing for my train in the morning, we don't want to feel shamed into making a birthday donation when we log into Facebook to see what sort of lurid clickbait (dog videos) other people are sharing.

I asked a friend how she would feel if the donation birthday became the norm. She thinks 'at first' it would be 'kind of cool' but confesses that she thinks the 'novelty would wear off'. After all, she points out 'you'd start to ask who people are really doing this for?'. Is asking your Facebook friends to make a donation to a charity you've selected a little emotionally manipulative? Does it say more about them or about you? What is the intention behind doing it? After all, who doesn't live for the likes these days and nothing says 'like me more' than a display of compassion or, perhaps more accurately, a passion for social justice.

Studies have proven that generosity really does make you happier. Generous people seem to be in better health to the extent that it has even been found that spending money on others is as effective at lowering blood pressure as meditation or exercising. Helping other people, quite literally, reduces stress.

This is all great but these are rather selfish reasons to get involved in altruism IMHO. It might feel good but the truth is that donating to a charity isn't always the best way of making a difference. Charities tend to work on alleviating the symptoms of injustice, they are a sticking plaster not a healing solution.

In fact, some great thinkers have even argued that giving to charity can be a substitute for fighting for real change. It's easy to give money to a good cause, it's difficult to fight the fundamental injustices that are built into our society. Charities have picked up the slack of the state. Their very existence is symbolic of our wider failings. You might feel good when you give them money but how far does it really go?

Will donating your birthday on Facebook become the norm? The latest form of clicktivism?

Perhaps all of this will have the opposite effect? If you don't like someone enough to see them in real life or even write on their wall, perhaps you'll feel awkward enough to give money to the donkey sanctuary that's clearly so close to their heart. As if it wasn't consuming enough trying to decide whether to post 'happy birthday' or a far more nonchalant/pass agg 'HBD' on the wall of the person you once hooked up with on and off for three arduous years, now we have to figure out whether we're close enough to our Facebook friends to donate money to their charity of choice and feel publically shamed if we decide we don't want to.

Vast swathes of people may be outraged by the suggestion that you can ever care too much about worthy causes. After all, living online there's no avoiding just how many people around the world are seriously underserved and left wanting because our late capitalism and consumerism on steroids (and that's before you even start thinking about all the stray dogs). But, is a £2.50 Facebook donation to celebrate the girl you sort of knew at University going to solve all that?

Asking people to donate to charity for your birthday is ultimately selfish. In trying to make a statement about something bigger than yourself you inevitably end up saying volumes about who you are or, rather, who you want people to think you are. Doing a Facebook birthday fundraiser says 'hey I'm the kind of person who always remembers to turn the tap off when I'm brushing my teeth, has already gone fully vegan and only buys clothes from charity shops through choice not necessity'.

I don't always remember to turn the tap off, I really like meat but I'm trying and I buy new clothes regularly. Am I a terrible person? I'd like to think not. I give money to causes when I feel it will make a real difference (see [Giving What We Can](https://www.givingwhatwecan.org/can.org/)) and I've lobbied politicians, but I've done it in my own time and not always felt the need to share it with others. In any case, we can't all be perfect all the time and surely your birthday is the one day of the year when you're given license to be a bit selfish.

Rihanna, after all, goes hard on her birthday but was named Harvard University's Humanitarian of the Year in 2017 because of the charities she's supported and founded. If she hadn't won this award would we know about the scale of her work? Probably not, she rarely self-promotes…I mean…speaks about it. She just gets on with it. She doesn't need to donate her birthday to charity, she thinks about other people all year.

By all means give to charity, sign petitions, march for what you believe in. It really does make a difference. So, by the way, does writing to your MP but I know that's far less Instagrammable. But, if you are going to succumb to a Facebook charity birthday, know this: as with your private data, nobody really knows how much Facebook itself creams off from these donations. That's right, as ever with social media, nothing is quite as it seems. Facebook takes a standard 5% fee from donations, according to CNN, for 'processing' costs.

You'd probably be better off quietly making a donation privately, directly to a charity and then getting on with your day. But, if you really must use your special day to support a worthy cause on Facebook and let everyone know that's what you're doing, it's OK. I understand. Nobody's perfect, I'm just here for the dog videos.

Follow Vicky on Twitter @Victoria_Spratt

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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