Who you are still guides what you do
What matters to a charity actually matters
It is not a novel observation that the vast preponderance of charitable activities and institutions which have served all-comers over recorded history have been motivated by and founded upon Christian belief. We in Australia think this notion of helping people in need regardless of where they come from is normal; it isn’t. Caring for your own family, your own people – that is what other non-Christian traditions would see as normal.
This is clear from the first recorded cross-border international aid and development in the first century after Christ, when the apostle Paul, in response to a famine that ravaged Palestine in AD 46-48, conducted his own decade-long international aid program earmarked for poverty-stricken Palestinians. Wherever he went, he asked the Gentile churches to contribute whatever they could to the poor in Jerusalem.1 The notion of providing assistance for foreigners somewhere else in the world, and not only your own people, was new.
This is a story not of theoretical ethics, but of life-transforming action
In 2006 a feature story in BRW aimed to focus upon the role of the charity sector in the Australian economy. The story was a kind of take on the Richest 200 List that we have come to know, but listing the Richest 200 charities. As my day-job involved providing legal services for much of this same sector, this piqued my interest! So we put together a Top 25 charities list. The standout feature of it was that, if we excluded2 educational institutions (universities and non-government schools), 19 of the 25 in Australia were Christian. One of the others, YMCA, started life as a Christian movement, but had since lost this part of its identity.3
A decade later, our analysis shows the impact of Christian charitable endeavours in Australia is still marked. Of the largest 25 charities by revenue in 2015,4 16 are Christian, in name and practice.5 Size is not important, but it provides an interesting marker, not only of scale but also longevity.
Why does this matter? Because this is a story not of theoretical ethics, but of life-transforming action; not only of motivation, but of deep identity.
Even some prominent charities such as Red Cross and the Benevolent Society began with overt and intentional Christian purposes, only to discard them later, with equal intentionality.
The founding of the Red Cross by devout Geneva Christian Jean Henri Dunant resulted from his personal experiences of assisting the wounded soldiers at the Battle of Solferino in 1859, a battle that didn’t even involve his own countrymen. This led to his advocacy for, and establishment of, the five-person International Committee of the Red Cross and the Geneva Conventions that followed – deliberately choosing the Christian symbol of the Red Cross. Dunant was awarded the first Nobel Peace Prize in 1901.
The Who and the Why – the identity and purpose of an organisation – informs the What and the How
The first charity to be formally established in NSW was the NSW Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and Benevolence in these Territories and the Neighbouring Islands.
The Benevolent Society, as it became known, was officially set up in 1813 by men who had mainly served with the London Missionary Society. Significantly influenced by William Wilberforce (the serial philanthropist who was influential in the abolition of slavery in England and its colonies, the establishment of the RSPCA, and the promotion of prison reform), it ceased operations by 1815. In 1817 the Bible Society was established under the patronage of Governor Lachlan Macquarie – thus becoming the oldest continuous charity in Australia – and the same people kick-started the Benevolent Society back into action in 1818, to focus on benevolence rather than evangelism.
So what? What if organisations that were once founded by Christians, are not identifiably Christian anymore. Surely they are doing good works!
Well, it matters because the Who and the Why – the identity and purpose of an organisation – informs the What and the How. It informs what an organisation will do – and what it won’t do. At the heart of our Christian identity is a desire, nay a command, to proclaim the Good News of Jesus and show God’s love to his creation. And that means maintaining with great vigilance the Christian motivation of our charitable services.
Anne Robinson is the Deputy Chair of Bible Society Australia
1 John Dickson quoted in Driven by Purpose: Charities that Make the Difference. Judd Robinson and Errington, HammondPress 2012.
2 We included all charities as commonly understood – that is, not churches, schools or universities.
3 Young Men’s Christian Association.
4 Based on ACNC data from 2015 Annual Information Statements, excluding churches and religious bodies themselves; education (schools and universities); government entities, and foundations that fund other charitable organisations rather than doing the work themselves.
5 Likewise, of the largest 50 charities by revenue in 2015, 28 are Christian.