Doing the Gifting My Way

We in America give a lot to charity — more than $358 billion last year, nearly three-quarters of it from individuals. This, of course, includes very large donations from very wealthy people, mostly to large nonprofits that will put their names on what they fund.

They presumably don’t wait till December. But a lot of us apparently do — or at least, make our final donations then. If past is prologue, charities will receive nearly a third of our donation dollars this month.

Over the last month or so, I’ve noticed a spate of articles on how to give — most quite similar. But the recent stream also includes one New York Times column that challenges the advice of the rest and another that seems to point toward a third way.

The main theme of most advice is to give where you’ll get the biggest bang for the buck. We’re enjoined to practice effective altruism — to “think scientifically rather than sentimentally.”

An oft-cited nonprofit — GiveWell — does the number-crunching. So we learn, for example, that less than $3,350 will save the life of a child in some poor part of Africa by supplying the family with an insecticide-treated mosquito netting for his/her bed.

No donation any of us could conceivably make — let alone one so small — will literally save the life of a poor child in America. So do we all just click the Donate button on GiveWell?

A recent column in Parade magazine says not necessarily. What we need to do first is decide what two or three causes we’re most passionate about, then choose our geographic scope.

Then we somehow identify specific organizations that seem to suit. We can consult Charity Navigator, though the column doesn’t mention it. Then comes research — the nonprofits’ revenues and expenses, operations, ratings, etc.

Here too, we’ve got online sources — the financials on GuideStar, for example, and the annual reports some larger nonprofits post, as well as ratings on several sites. But we shouldn’t rely on what we can find on the Web, the Parade columnist says.

We should also talk with a board member and actually visit the services site or volunteer there. Alternatively, we should see what causes a business leader or foundation we admire supports and do the same.

Note that we’re still in the effective altruism mode — merely relying in part on the “homework” of other practitioners.

Professor Jamil Saki, author of one of the New York Times columns I mentioned, argues that “dismissing sentiment” from our giving choices is wrong-headed. “Emotion — especially empathy — adds a powerful, positive spark to philanthropy” because the good feelings we get when we donate can prompt us to give again.

And we’ll even feel less stress and anxiety in our daily lives. Studies cited for both prongs of what he calls the “feel-good school of philanthropy.”

We do, however, he adds, have to “turn our sympathy to those most in need,” rather than rely on our feelings for those who “look like us or whose sufferings are well-publicized.”

Something in both approaches troubles me. On the one hand, we surely want to know how much of our money would go to salaries for top-level officers and for further fundraising. And we want to give to nonprofits that have an impact.

Yet measuring results, if feasible, is costly — far costlier than recording activities, e.g., number of grocery bags distributed, number of poor youth trained for jobs. So the bang-for-the-buck focus will tend to favor large, amply-funded organizations.

Similarly, we do want to avoid basing our donations on heart-tugging ads (also costly) or how readily we identify with the prospective beneficiaries. (There but for the grace, etc.) But deciding who’s most in need seems to assume that suffering is somehow measurable.

And not only that. It seems to assume that we should aim only to relieve the immediate causes of suffering — hunger, for example, or homelessness. Yet these causes have causes rooted in the operations of our private markets and public policies.

And public policies can uproot them — or at the very least, offset their impacts. The President of the Ford Foundation seems ready to move his very large source of funding for human needs in this direction.

“‘Giving back,'” he says, “is necessary, but not sufficient. We should seek to bring about lasting, systemic change.” He’s clearly speaking here to very wealthy people and their foundations.

What he has in mind for them isn’t altogether clear, beyond “listening to those most affected by injustice,” seeing “through a diversity of viewpoints” and learning from past successes and failures — much of this apparently through high-power data analyses and other uses of technology.

We thus seem to have a new phase of effective altruism in the making — one that would seek to “disrupt the drivers of inequality” so as to help birth “a world that makes philanthropy unnecessary.”

This is all well beyond such extra income as I have to “leverage” social change — not to mention the resources need to figure out how, according to the envisioned model.

Yet I welcomed his column because it opens a space in the advice-giving realm for donations to charitable organizations that focus on policy-relevant research, analysis and advocacy.

Or at least, that’s how I choose to view it because the alternatives effectively ignore the role such organizations can play in alleviating suffering. A handful dominate my end-of-year giving list.

I don’t need an online tool or business leader to choose them. And they’d be hard put to document results, i.e., to show that their activities alone achieved policy changes.

I know them because I rely on their analyses and information they share with the like-minded for my blog posts — and the self-education that lies behind and beyond them. So I feel I’m “giving back.”

And I feel good about my philanthropy, if we can call it that, because I witness how they help bend the arc toward justice by working strategically, persistently and collaboratively for policies that will alleviate the hardships of poor people in the U.S. and, in the fullness of time, make them unnecessary.

 

 

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