In the US we categorize our charities under a statute and with charitable status, the government allows charities and the people who give to them special tax breaks.
For these purposes “Charitable” is broadly defined as being established for purposes that are religious, educational, charitable, scientific, literary, testing for public safety, fostering of national or international amateur sports, or prevention of cruelty to animals and children. (Taken directly from the statute)
This broad definition means that charities do considerably more than you would expect and more and different charities are occurring all of the time.
Having a positive outcome
To be a charity there must be some sort of positive outcome. For example, most community choruses will have 503c status. They don’t really put back into the community in the way the Red Cross does, nor do they provide us with a watchdog as Greenpeace does. But they do educate a sector of the community and they do provide a deeply educational purpose.
Alert us to changing outcomes
The world moves really quickly around us and often government is simply not able to keep pace with the speed of change. It is often here that a charity will bridge the gap. It may be a short-lived thing which dissipates and loses its status when its proposed task is achieved.
An example of this is a charity set up by the grieving parents who lost a child accidentally and decide to establish a charity to change the law and educate others about the situation until the law catches up.
The story of Alex Brown is exactly that – a tragic story of a young woman driving and texting who experienced a fatal accident. The way in which her parent’s loss is given any meaning is by channeling their efforts into stopping it from happening again
Charities often lead the way in research
There are some hot buttons which are so politically volatile that an administration will be reluctant to step in but to follow them would be in the public interest. Charities can look into work on stem-cell research for example. Or they can look into the use of nanoparticles in the treatment of cancer.
At this point, especially with regards to nanoparticles, the research is as yet unproven but the researchers are optimistic. Once the research is properly proven then it is a legitimate use of tax dollars, until then we rely on charitable dollars to take us further.
Charity is no longer an 18th Century concept
In the past needing charity was something to be avoided. The phrase “as cold as charity” sums up exactly what the past was and how charity and society interacted.
Now we need charity and we need the work that they do, because more often than not, they are filling a need we could not fill in any other way. Charitable organizations have changed too. Now they are transparent and direct. They have to be. I believe it is because of the essential work they do.