Guilt vs. Compassion: Ethically Marketing Helping the Poor

Guilt and compassion are two motivating factors for helping others, though they are very different.

Here are some definitions from Merriam-Webster.

Guilt — feelings of deserving blame especially for imagined offenses or from a sense of inadequacy.

Compassion — sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.

I see multiple kinds, but often different non-profits stick to one or the other. There is an organization called Compassion International, and their mission statement is Releasing Children from Poverty In Jesus’ Name.

I’m going to quote you examples from different mailings I have received.

Carrying water from a source that was a mile and a half away was a daily chore for U****, a 38-year-old mother and farmer from Wondo Lemeche in Ethiopia. Even worse, the water that she carries and gave to her seven-person family to drink was still contaminated. After the [organization name] Community provided a well for her family, she said, “I am so thankful for this well. Now I can have more time to be at home with my family, and more energy for other work. I see smiles on my children’s faces when we are at the well because it is a source of clean water and life.”
Among them is a widow named R****** who is raising five children alone in Mayendit after her husband was killed during the civil war. She said she didn’t know how she would feed them. We’re thankful that we were able to provide her with the seeds, tools, and training she needed to start a garden. Now not only does her family have enough to eat, but they produce enough to supply some of their neighbors too.
Please keep starving children like O***** in your prayers, and give what you can today to provide the gift of lifesaving food to him and many more like him. Thank you for giving a gift that is worth so much — the gift of a saved life.

I do not believe that the desperation of the suffering poor is something to be taken lightly. Though I have never been poor, I have suffered immensely in my body due to a grave injury, and I would hate for someone to see how bad I’m feeling and then be indifferent. However, I believe that an organization inferring that it is your responsibility to save a child puts the feeling of guilt onto the receiver of the message, feelings of deserving blame especially for imagined offenses or from a sense of inadequacy.

I also think that giving out of guilt is a way to appease yourself, and can be somewhat selfish. You are blamed for this sense of inadequacy of not giving, but if you give just to escape the blame and relieve the guilt, that is not healthy, and is more to satisfy your own mind than to help the poor.

Let’s move on. Compassion is sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it. It sounds similar, you are faced with another person’s distress, and you just want it to go away; you wish you could end their suffering. If you donate or volunteer, the help that they receive will likely relieve their distress. I think a way that people gain compassion is through their own suffering. The feeling of “I know what it’s like, so I want to help others who are going through the same thing.”

I believe that compassion is a selfless motivation for giving. It is not save the starving children. Compassion International states

Compassion means “to suffer with” and is an emotional response of sympathy. But it’s not just a feeling. The feeling is combined with a desire to help. Because we have compassion, we want to take action and help the person who is suffering.
Notice the last word of the definition above — “with.” We are called to suffer with someone, to suffer together. This is what differentiates compassion from empathy.