The word charity was derived from the Latin word caritas (precious, costly), an attempt to translate the Greek word agape in the New Testament (1 Corinthians 13:13), a word that is hard to translate, but the phrase “extravagant selfless love” gets the flavour of it. It is a far cry from the simple alms-giving that we normally associate with the word charity.
It strikes me that the polarisation of the reactions to Family First (and Greenpeace earlier this year) losing their charitable status, is due to this slow degradation of meaning of charity. If we still saw charity as a giving of ourselves to others in need, we would not be confused about the status of organisations such as Family First and Greenpeace who provide strong advocacy, but little in the way of support of personal need.
To be charitable in any meaningful way, an organisation (or person for that matter) must be involved directly in supplying personal needs. It is not sufficient to claim that you are bettering mankind by lobbying for government action – you have to be bettering mankind directly yourself to be charitable. Anything less than this is merely a monetary donation to a “cause” – possibly worthy, but a far cry from truly loving your fellow man.
Any government, of course, likes to foster charity by providing tax incentives to the donors. So long as the organisation involved is truly charitable (i.e. provides a service) then that is one less service that the government does not have to provide. Allowing advocacy groups charitable status, provides no benefit to the government financially and leads to lobbying groups being partially funded with taxpayer dollars taken from people who vehemently disagree with the lobby in question. This is manifestly unfair.
A cause should only be backed by those who believe in it. If I like Greenpeace’s advocacy for the environment, I am at perfect liberty to sponsor them. If I agree with Family First and their take on the world, I can support them. Those who say that removing charitable status from advocacy groups deters free speech are drawing a very long bow. If a cause has support in the community, it will find backers.
It comes as no surprise that the Greens are producing a bill to change the definition of charity to include advocacy. These are, after all, the same people who want to force me to fund their election campaign (with tax dollars) despite the fact that I disagree with almost all the policy they have ever produced. Including advocacy in the definition of charitable status will soon have political organisations, unions and political parties trying to take advantage of tax deductibility.
Not all advocacy should be denied charitable status. Many organisations who are clearly charities provide a great deal of advocacy. Barnardos and The Salvation Army spring to mind immediately. These are organisation whose purpose is charitable works but who find themselves, from time to time, forced into advocacy for their charges. This is perfectly acceptable. But groups whose charitable works form a minor part of their activities should be viewed with suspicion.
Family First are an advocacy group, not a charity. There is nothing wrong with this but people donating to it should not be having their donations subsidised by the taxpayer.