With another holiday season come and gone, so too are the ringing bells of the Salvation Army and the many other charity drives which asked us reflect on the holiday spirit, dig into our giving hearts, and donate what we can to make a difference.
Many of these charities garner a large portion of their donations during the holiday season, particularly food banks which rely on the annual boost to stock their shelves.
Four years ago, this annual bump in donations came together as #GivingTuesday. Started by a group of non-profits and corporate partners in the United States, this tech-savvy campaign aims to “encourage and amplify small acts of kindness” by using the power of the Internet to connect potential givers to nearby causes.
“It’s a counterbalance to that extreme consumerism that we see on Black Friday and Cyber Monday,” said Marina Glogovac, CEO of Toronto-based organization CanadaHelps, in a 2015 interview with British Columbia’s The Province newspaper.
The campaign though, and many like it, is rooted in the consumerist language of giving, emphasizing the importance of the individual giver in addressing large-scale social problems, like poverty. By framing the problem this way, it’s only a matter of getting more people to give, effectively obscuring the deep-seated assumptions which that language reflects.
Adam Vasey runs Pathway to Potential (P2P), a Windsor/Essex-based non-profit dedicated to raising awareness and working collaboratively to reduce the number of local individuals living in poverty. While his end game is to work himself out of a job, he also works alongside many organizations which rely on the charity of individuals to address the current needs of the tens of thousands of people living in poverty in Windsor & Essex.
“There are far too few organization who have a mandate or feel comfortable advocating at a systemic level to talk about what the root causes of the issue are. It’s far easier for us to feel good about a charitable response,” he says, quickly pointing out that’s not an insult to those important organizations offering a helping hand. “We know we have to provide these services, but we also have to recognize that we’re more or less addressing the symptoms of the problem.”
We use language to boil down a complex issue, like poverty, into something understandable. It’s comforting to know that we can feed someone through a donation at the grocery store, or put a roof over someone’s head by buying a toque. We don’t feel that same comfort, or ability to make a difference, when faced with the daunting complexity of poverty and its causes.
These shortcuts make it easy for charitable organizations to communicate and market an apparent solution to a single facet of complex and systemic issues. In a highly-connected and competitive world of charitable marketing, the simpler the message, the easier the sell.
Even politicians avoid delving deeply into poverty, instead using “positive” language which doesn’t fully convey the scope of the problem. Let’s talk of prosperity, creating jobs, and growing the economy, but not of the many people struggling to make ends meet in the face of rising costs, stagnating wages, and an ailing social welfare system.
“To an extent you do have to face the uncomfortable parts of the problem if you really want to address it,” Vasey says. “That might mean talking with people with lived experience with poverty, [learning] from them to understand how diverse their experiences are, how they’ve experienced stigma, and felt excluded from society.”
And that’s when language matters most. Not when it boils down problems into catchy slogans and hashtag solutions, but when it’s used to convey that there are real people at the heart of this “problem,” and that their multitude of experiences should matter, regardless of how uncomfortable that conversation might be.