It is seldom that people give without the expectation of a return. With a birthday or Christmas gift, we expect “thank-you,” a positive reaction, the feeling of satisfaction in knowing that a gift is wanted or appreciated. Research suggests that philanthropists experience a high when they give a gift to an organization; further, they typically expect the organization is accountable for such a gift, by putting it to good use.
The potlatch in west coast indigenous culture is an example of giving at the extreme. A community essentially would bankrupt themselves in an effort to overwhelm another community with a large gift of food, weapons, crafts and other desirable items. The objective there was to give so generously that the possibility of a return – or exchange – was effectively eliminated. This practice was of interest to mid-century anthropologists and others since it removed the practice of giving from the economy of exchange.
Conversely, there are those whose wells of generosity have dried up – they have neither the motive nor resource for giving gifts. Those who simply take and do not give: it is commonly understood that such behaviour is selfish.
But people who are incapable of giving gifts may simply be unable to accept them without placing them within an economy of exchange. In this economy, the received gift creates a sense of obligation or guilt and the perception that it requires reciprocation.
The equality inherent to an exchange seems like a promising notion until it becomes clear that such exchanges are antithetical to the gift. Gifts, by definition, are not subject to the laws of exchange: gifts are given, not exchanged. Exchanges are transactional, since a value in one category has an exchangeable value in another category. Conversely, gifts generate asymmetry, since there’s nothing that can be exchanged for a gift fairly given.
What this suggests is that true gifts are actually quite rare. And the research bears this out: statistics suggest that less than 25 per cent of Canadians make charitable gifts on an annual basis. It would be interesting to speculate on why this might be the case. But the organizations who have done some thinking on this would suggest that giving is actually a learned behaviour.
Those who give do so because they were taught how to do so.