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Giving to others is a great thing to do even if it takes a nudge.

Charity is defined as voluntarily giving help, typically money, to those in need. It’s a romantic notion of piety, the height of selflessness. But often it’s more about guilt, pleasure, or making money.

When Hurricane Katrina hit, thousands of organizations stood ready to take our money. To aid that process, Congress created a temporary tax break, which allowed cash donations to offset up to 100 percent of a person’s adjusted gross income in 2005. Although some nonprofits were frustrated that this was just a short-term solution, this was American charity at its best -- selflessness with a tax break.

Conscious donations are morally one notch above those in which the act of giving is mostly an afterthought. If you have a chance to wear an expensive outfit and show how much you can afford the $250-a-head dinner, perhaps something other than altruism is the main motivation. When the PGA Tour came to the Livermore Valley Wine Country Championship at Wente Vineyards in March, you can bet that some of the high-profile sponsors who got a chance to putt next to the pros were thinking about golf and prestige. Mostly, it all sounded like a nice reason to take a day off.

Giving to someone you don’t know is okay, but giving to those you are close to is bad. Take, for example, Oakland City Councilwoman Desley Brooks, who came under fire for paying her boyfriend’s daughter $5,000 a month to work as a summer aide. Or what about UC President Robert Dynes giving hundreds of millions of dollars in stealth compensation to high-level campus execs? Surely those folks were “needy” compared to their generous benefactors.

Sometimes when people talk about charity, they assume a lot of moral pomp and circumstance. California Patriot writer Shalev Ben-Avraham says that America’s charity is to bring “the soapbox, the jury box, the ballot box, and the ammo box” to the world.

Perhaps the least desirable motivator for charity is guilt. Eighteen years of going to church on Sunday might reinforce the notion that contributing to the weekly breadbasket is a sure path to heaven. Even if you fall outside this category, you can still be saved if your loved one happened to sign up at for step-by-step instructions on how to quickly, and painlessly, repent.

Charity is a good thing, of course. Without it, many of the organizations that serve a multitude of good causes would be unable to survive. And if they occasionally have to resort to guilt or hedonistic pleasure to get your donation, so be it. -- Kathleen Richards

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