As I pull up to the light, I notice a man dressed in grimy, ill-fitting clothes. He holds a scrap of cardboard with hand-drawn words: “Anything helps. Merry Christmas.”

I glance across the intersection. There’s another, similarly outfitted man, though I can’t read his note. A forlorn couple occupies the corner just to the right of him. One holds a tattered sign while the other holds a dog.

I’m surprised the last corner is empty, but then I see its tenant walking toward a nondescript van in the nearby parking lot. Lunch break.

If you drive through this particular intersection in downtown Manhattan often enough, you’ll observe more than the perpetual presence of panhandlers. You’ll see a van pull up each morning and drop off the first shift, clad in their shabby work attire. It returns in the afternoon with food and a replacement crew. This is business.

Clearly, there must be profits to be made. A quick Internet search reveals some professional panhandlers have five and six-figure incomes. But I balk at the idea of this kind of entrepreneurship. Are they providing anything of value to society? As soon as I voice the question, I know the answer.

Benefits for Givers and Benefits for the Community

This is, in fact, one of the criticisms of philanthropy. Some economists propose that it exists to meet the wants and desires of the donor.

What value is there in giving a dollar to a bum? Perhaps it is the warm glow the giver receives — the self-validation of a good deed done. Maybe it soothes a guilty conscience. What a dismal science, indeed!

But surely there is more. What of the social benefits of cultivating a society that values helping others? Many would agree this is a worthwhile endeavor.

Indeed, we now have an official day, Giving Tuesday, set aside to hail the end-of-year giving season and promote generosity.

Disconnected Giving

While I applaud these efforts to engender goodwill toward men, I have noticed a subtle change over the last few years in the year-end solicitations that flood my inbox and mailbox. Much like how I receive Black Friday flyers and Cyber Monday emails from companies I haven’t heard from all year (or perhaps ever), I now get more pleas for donations from organizations with which I have barely any association at all!

I understand nonprofits have a need to generate revenue like any other business, yet I can’t help but wonder if some of the value they produce in social benefits is lost when giving verges on becoming an anonymous, one-time business transaction rather than a long-term investment that fosters a personal relationship between the giver and the receiver of the gift.

St. Francis of Assisi is attributed with saying, “For it is in giving that we receive,” a sentiment we hear often this time of year.

What do we receive? Does it depend on why or how we give? If so, the method of asking could influence the act of giving and, consequently, what we receive. A truly caring society depends on building relationships and community norms. Impersonal, perfunctory giving may not effectively produce what we want charity to produce — either for givers themselves or for the community at large.