Exploring the cultural roots of philanthropy

Despite rapid economic growth, abject poverty persists among millions in India. But western-style institutional charity doesn’t fit naturally into the culture, according to  UWM Professor of Anthropology Erica Bornstein. (Photo by Manu Sobti)

If you donated to a humanitarian project, would you expect something in return? A letter telling you how it helped the organization? A small gift or token of appreciation from the recipient? Odds are, in a Western culture, you would. And Erica Bornstein, Associate Professor of Anthropology, says that can be a good thing – that our society uses reciprocity and accountability to build relationships between givers and receivers.

In India and Hinduism, though, there’s another kind of giving called “dan.” The word implies an impulsive, free gift – typically to the poor and needy – which is given with no expectation of reward, but which carries the spiritual consequence of merit and eventual freedom from the material world. This gift cannot be reciprocated or accounted for, or else it is no longer considered dan.

Photo by J.R. Mohan

So what happens when Western givers encounter non-Western receivers? And how does a nonprofit organization operate in a society that has different notions of what philanthropy is?

Bornstein first addressed these questions in her book “Disquieting Gifts: Humanitarianism in New Delhi,” in which she relates the Indian culture of charitable giving through individuals. Recently, she has also been researching the culture of Indian nonprofit organizations and government, concluding a sabbatical dedicated to that purpose at the end of the summer of 2013.

Her research comes at a time when India, already one of the world’s largest economies, is showing the potential to develop into a major world power over the next few decades. As governments, private industries, and investors become more intertwined with those in India, cultural understanding will necessarily grow in importance to ensure successful international relationships.

But as an anthropologist, Bornstein isn’t as interested in quantitative indicators as she is in the people and culture they represent.

“I talk to people. I watch what they’re doing. I don’t try to quantify what they’re doing,” said Bornstein.

She added, “I love learning about why people who are passionate about what they do, do what they do.”

Understanding dan on an individual level, for example, sheds light on why the Indian government does not grant tax incentives for religious charitable donations or organizations – because the dan that was intended would be spoiled by creating a monetary reward for offering it.

Even in situations where dan is not the issue, Bornstein has noticed cultural differences between ways Indians and Americans approach charity. For instance, while Americans typically favor giving to organizations over giving directly to homeless and needy individuals, Bornstein encountered the opposite sentiment in India.

Photo by J.R. Mohan

She quotes a man in Disquieting Gifts saying, “In India, people do charity directly and locally. Organized charity is not the way. You do it and forget it.”

Many people she talked to were suspicious that their money would be misused due to corruption and wanted to make sure that their gifts went to the right place and to good ends.

She writes, “Before supporting an NGO [non-governmental organization], donors asked questions such as, ‘Where does my money go?’ and ‘Are the recipients worthy?’” In November, Bornstein was awarded the Outstanding Book in Nonprofit and Voluntary Action Research for Disquieting Gifts from the Association for Research on Nonprofit and Voluntary Action (ARNOVA).

Now Bornstein is organizing her notes from the year’s worth of interviews, experiences and observations she collected from her recent sabbatical in India. During that sabbatical, she volunteered in a New Delhi nonprofit advocacy NGO writing reports and tracking government policies – a research approach called “participant observation,” or in other words, learning about a culture by actively taking part in it.

The Indian government, she says, is trying to tap into the powerful voluntary movements that exist formally and informally among its 1.2 billion citizens. Organizations already registered with the government are lobbying in response and trying to reform some of the laws that regulate charitable giving. Consequently, she calls her current research “an ethnography of regulation.” She expects to be writing and doing additional research for the next several years before she can publish her findings as her next book.