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Thinking Aloud

Overcoming the barriers to giving

This season, let's examine whether we give enough, and in time, to those really in need

Christmas is a time for giving, sometimes extravagantly so. Every December, the same conundrums surface of what to buy and how much to spend - and, inevitably, what to do with the umpteenth package of cookies or scented toiletries that we receive.

Caught up in the festive spirit, rarely do we ask other questions: Are we giving to the right people, and in the right ways?

When those doubts emerge, they can be piercing. At least that was my experience this year, when my social media feed started presenting a jarringly schizophrenic view of the world in the days leading up to Christmas.

Juxtaposed against the usual festive ebullience - gift ideas for people who already have everything, indulgent presents for your pets, extended mall hours for shopaholics - were the literally ashen faces of Syrian civilians trapped in crumbling Aleppo, and their anguished pleas for attention and rescue.

One particularly haunting video featured a group of children gathering in front of the camera. Sweaters pulled over their puppy-soft bellies, woollen hats and scarves framing chubby cheeks, they fidgeted like carollers about to burst into song.


ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

Then one of the older children, a girl of 10, started speaking. "Hello! This might be the last day that you see me and hear my voice."

She introduced the 47 kids around her - all orphans, she said, trapped in what was reported to be the last intact orphanage in Aleppo. They were sending a message from the once-thriving Syrian city, now a key battleground in a debilitating civil war that has lasted more than five years, claimed tens of thousands of civilian lives and displaced millions. As outgoing United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon put it in his last news conference last week: "Aleppo is now a synonym for hell."

Like any other kids in December, the children in the video had wishes for Christmas. Their requests were at once heartbreakingly simple and seemingly impossible to fulfil: to "get out of Aleppo and eat and drink", to "live in peace like the rest of the world", to be allowed to play outside without fear that a game of tag could suddenly turn into a real-life flight for their lives.

Since it was released about a week ago by the Syrian American Medical Society, a non-profit medical and humanitarian relief foundation, the one-minute video has garnered millions of views.

Yet the primary reaction of many commenters was not to open their own wallets to help these children. Most instead seemed resigned to their powerlessness, or cynical about the authenticity of the children's plight.

"Please someone help these kids!" said one commenter. "If I had the money, I would find a way to help," added another.

A large number of commenters poured scorn on the video, calling it "staged propaganda". One quipped: "They were all handed a McDonald's after for good acting."

These two responses - helpless sympathy and jaded distrust - are probably the most common mental barriers that prevent people from giving to good causes.

Surveys show that the reasons most people cite for not donating to charity are that they can't afford to give enough to make a difference, or that they don't trust that the funds would be efficiently and properly used. There are ways to get around these - to volunteer time instead of money, or to rely on official lists of pre-screened charities- but not everyone bothers to take that next step.

Many would-be donors also suffer from the bystander effect: the belief that they don't have to step up because someone else will do so. But if this view was universal, donations would completely dry up.

Even among those who readily give to the less fortunate, there are other psychological blind spots. For instance, donors tend to give more in the aftermath of natural disasters than during wars. One theory is that they believe, even if subconsciously, that victims of natural disasters are less to blame for their plight.

Another giving bias is the logical fallacy provoked by empathy, as psychology professor Paul Bloom noted in an article for The Wall Street Journal earlier this month. Donors, he said, will give more towards a single detailed sob story than to a larger but faceless group of victims.

And despite the increasing trend of consumers breaking down big-ticket purchases into multiple manageable instalments, donors seem to be resisting that urge. Most prefer to give larger one-off sums than commit to smaller recurring payments, even though the latter provides more predictability and security for recipient organisations.

Compared to one-time donors, those who set up recurring donations also give about 40 per cent more on average, and are more likely to make repeat donations.

Unsurprisingly, when it comes to personal gifts, our biases seem to go the other way. More often than not, we have to be reined in from over-giving.

On my Facebook news feed, not far from the video of the Aleppo orphans, there was another post about children at Christmas. It advised parents to be "frugal" by buying only four gifts for their kids: something they want, something they need, something to wear, and something to read.

Now that I am myself an overindulgent parent, I can understand how that four-gift rule could already represent restraint. I would merely suggest adding one more to the list: something for someone else.

A colleague recently shared how to do just that. He and his wife worked with their toddler son to set aside some of his toys and books, so he could donate them to needy kids.

I thought it was a terrific example of starting charity at home, which I'm planning to copy. I hope my husband thinks so too, because his Christmas present this year is a donation in his name - not large, but a recurring one - to his favourite charity, the Cat Welfare Society.

Perhaps the only common link between giving to our loved ones and giving to strangers is that both take a dive in an economic slowdown. Christmas spending is expected to drop by 13 per cent this year compared to last year, according to a United Overseas Bank survey earlier this month. Likewise, this newspaper reported last month that donations to a variety of causes have dipped this year due to a gloomier economy.

In this season of giving, it may be worth spending some time to explore the ways we give and the people we give to - and whether we can give enough, and in time, to those who really need it.

The orphans in Aleppo got the help they asked for, but nearly too late. Unicef said on Monday that the 47 children from the video were safely evacuated to a neighbouring province, although some arrived "in critical condition from injuries and dehydration".

I hope they can, at least, spend Christmas with some peace of mind. That would be the first step for the rest of us to do the same.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 25, 2016, with the headline 'Overcoming the barriers to giving'. Print Edition | Subscribe