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The Long Chain of CareThe Long Chain of Care

The Long Chain of Care

Imagine that you are the crew of a ship sailing from Italy to Hamilton. You arrive in Canadian waters only to discover that complications related to the sale of your vessel means it is stuck in limbo in Hamilton harbour and you along with it. Who will look after you in this strange turn of events? The common good that makes our lives both possible and enriched does not happen by chance.

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The Long Chain of Care November 28, 2016  |  By Milton Friesen
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You can download and read Milton Friesen's latest paper, Charity and Social Capacity, on the Cardus website.

Imagine that you are the crew of a ship sailing from Italy to Hamilton. You arrive in Canadian waters only to discover that complications related to the sale of your vessel means it is stuck in limbo in Hamilton harbour and you along with it. Who will look after you in this strange turn of events?

This happened to the crew of the 9,000 ton Italian freighter, Ardita, in April of 2016. The ship is still here. The owners and employers of the vessel naturally carry the primary responsibility for the crew who are free to come and go and are being paid. Beyond this primary care are all the other less tangible needs that remain. In this case, members of a charitable organization that is older than Canada, the Mission to Seafarers organized in 1856 in London, has stepped in to help out the crew of 14. At its founding, the organization recognized the many and varied needs of sailors, and sought to bring comfort, hope, and material support to that most intrepid of work forces. In the case of the Ardita, the long chain of care stretching from 1856 reached the crew of the ship and offered them phone calls home, internet, recognition of their plight, and other supports required to wait out the legal entanglements.

The common good that makes our lives both possible and enriched does not happen by chance. We organize ourselves in order to learn, care for our needs, provide health care, worship, express ourselves musically, artistically and myriad other ways. One of the forms this organizing takes is formally registered charities.There is a lot of interest these days in social innovation and social entrepreneurship. A great deal of the activity in those spaces is exciting and welcome. The danger, however, is that these new expressions of concern for more than the bottom line suffer from a near-total absence of memory about what preceded them. And what precedes them is a deep history of common care expressed in part by the formal legal structure that in Canada we have come to know as registered charities.We all have good intentions but intentions mean much less than actions. Charitable organizations are one of the most important means we have of moving human intention to action at a scale that makes a difference – charities are a vital means of expressing the common good in organized form. A great deal of charitable work in Canada attends to the ordinary and even mundane needs of people that arise in the course of life’s uncertainties – they also provide for deeper social and cultural needs.

It would be difficult to imagine the degree to which my life would be impoverished if I had not been nurtured through and among these remarkable social structures. Just this past week, I travelled to an academic conference hosted by a registered charity – the Computational Social Sciences Society of the Americas. We explored how genocides happen, how public pressure shapes voting behaviour, what drives social change, how to measure social connections, and how disease spreads. These are important things to understand and we did it from and within a largely charitable organizational context. While at the conference I visited the New Mexico Museum of Art, another charity, that provided an important aesthetic, cultural and historical perspective on human expression and interaction in the American South West. Whether taking time to consider the enigmatic beauty of “Seated Navajo Woman” by R. C. Gorman or the incomparable black on black pottery of Julia and Maria Martinez, I derived a powerful benefit in being able to experience these works in a space that did not include price tags on the works.

I also took time to sit quietly at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Frances of Assisi, deriving great benefit from the Spirit and Song music and liturgies on healing and care for each other. The interior enabled these reflections and revealed by design, pattern and expression that I was in New Mexico, not Hamilton. My brief sojourn was in stark contrast to what the building itself communicated – others were here long before me and would be here long after me.

Charities are legally structured to prevent a single individual from controlling, owning or disposing of common organizational goods. Built into this structure is a legal technology premised on collective, public benefit decision-making. These social technologies are important and reflect the social ingenuity required to address challenges of scope, scale or time that individuals on their own cannot. It is immensely important to remember that we have learned over time to create rules and structures that allow the accumulation of goods and resources devoted to care and non-monetary enrichment. Charitable work is a significant democratic expression, the synthesis of individual contributions and intents that can add up to something that is greater than the sum of our various parts.

We don’t need a legally registered charity to organize a meal for a new mother or help a neighbour dig out a car after a snowstorm. But many forms of caring and cultural enrichment need lots of people working over time to be fully realized – e.g., organizing an art gallery, establishing a library or building a cathedral. For these projects, charitable structures can provide the framework that enables a multiplying of the common good effect and a tenure that promotes continuity.

Charities don’t just exist because of a legal description or a formal endorsement by the State or Crown. Collective care existed long before encoded laws and bureaucrats. We have taken that impulse and turned it into a legal form, not the other way around. To mistake that logic would be the same as assuming that art only came into existence when the first formal gallery was opened.

Care for others is a primary impulse that we then turned into legal entities and draped with legal and public duties. In so doing we gave charities economic clout and the power of conferring tax credits to those who supported them. Legal recognition of charities provided a mechanism for people to get credit for doing good, but it never was and should never be understood as the generator of that impulse.

Functionally our charitable work is vital and active. Public perception, however, would suggest charities may have a public relations challenge. The ratio of what they do compared with the attention they receive is dismally small. Like the bees that pollinate the plants that give us our food, we really only pay attention to them when they disappear and we feel the effects directly.

Amid the widening have-have-not gap, intensifying global pressures related to violence, scarcity of resources, and unemployment, we will become collectively miserable if our charitable sector is diminished in the process. Charitable work means the difference between surviving and not surviving in some cases but it means much more – it represents the difference between being alive and living a rich and full life.

Canadian society needs to talk a lot more about the charities that comprise our civil society. We need to greatly improve our ability to describe them, to see where they are, what they do, and what they need. Deliberation about the structural place they occupy in contemporary society should also be an element of conversation along with the power dynamics that impair or support them. Finally, we need to increase our ability to reflect together philosophically on what charity means in our time, why it matters, what happens of this part of the social ecosystem erodes, and what it would take to increase the reach and impact of the “doing good” that we hold in common through charities.

The absence of charities would mean the presence of greater desperation and the dimming of our most significant human aspirations. We can’t be good – in the richest sense of that word – as solitary humans, however well supplied we are personally. Through charities we may yet remember that we can strengthen the oft-contested greater good we seek.

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