Doing the Gifting My Way

December 23, 2015

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.



Holiday Gifts To The Givers

December 22, 2011

I’ve given up sending “thing gifts” to my brothers and their families. As I said last year, they’re well enough off to buy what they want — or at least, to buy what they want that I could afford.

For awhile, I sent things they wouldn’t know they wanted. But I knew this was a crapshoot — as would anyone who’d gotten some of the gifts I have. (No, brothers and sisters-in-law, I’m not referring to yours.)

About five years ago, I decided to instead donate in my family’s names to nonprofits whose work means a lot to me. And now, like other last-minute shoppers, I’ve got to choose.

My e-mail box has been full of holiday appeals from nonprofits whose mailing lists I’ve gotten onto in various ways. So all I need to do is click. But for which?

On the one hand, I feel impoverished. There’s no way I could give to all the nonprofits that I know are doing worthy work in this world.

On the other hand, the plethora of choices makes me feel rich — not, of course, monetarily, but in hope. And, frankly, that’s a commodity I need these days.

I’m continually buoyed up by the sheer number of organizations that are addressing the critical needs of low-income people here in the U.S. — as direct service providers, advocates and both.

I’m buoyed up by how they stay buoyed up enough to keep at it. So many dreadful personal situations the service providers encounter every day. So many defeats on so many policy fronts.

And I’m buoyed up when these organizations work together — both through formal coalitions and through linkages formed for some specific cause. I’ve seen these collaborations overcome high odds.

We’ve got networks stretching across the country — and within some states and cities as well. They can — and do — reach out to engage communities most directly affected by the policies we have and might have, for better or worse.

There’s a wealth of energy, compassion, intelligence and just plain true grit in these organizations and the struggling people they represent. I’m constantly impressed by what they do — and how much they do with what are in many cases quite limited resources.

So as I mull over my gift list, I think how the people who staff and volunteer for these organizations are giving every day. And how they are a gift to us all and to me personally.

Because they’re inspiration and a ray of hope in what we all, I think, agree are very difficult times.

Making My List, Checking It Twice

December 23, 2010

Most members of my immediate family are comfortably well-off. This used to make holiday giving very challenging. If they wanted something, they already had it — or didn’t because it was beyond their means and thus mine as well.

So I’d look for something I thought they’d like but didn’t know they wanted — a nifty kitchen gadget, hand-woven baskets, a lovely new recording of the Messiah. I personally think you can’t have too many of those.

But I came to suspect that most of my gifts turned out to be just one of those things they didn’t have because they didn’t want, even when they got it. One of those “well, it’s the thought that counts” things.

So about four years ago, I hit on a different strategy. I started making donations in my family members’ names to nonprofits whose work I knew and cared about — mostly those whose budgets are small enough for modest donations like mine to make a difference.

And I’d write the benefactors about the organizations — how I knew them, what they were doing that my family members would also care about, etc. Our values are close enough to make this easy. Don’t know what I’d have done otherwise. But holiday gifts would have been the least of the problems.

Choosing organizations isn’t easy. But it’s a good occasion to reflect on those whose work I observe — and in some cases, benefit from and/or participate in as a blogger.

So I’m making my final choices and writing this because my solution my suit you and at least some of the people on your gift list. One thing’s for sure. It will make you feel good. A whole lot better than desperately scanning the crowded store shelves I’ll bet.

And if your recipients are anything like mine, they’ll feel grateful because you’ve relieved them from the challenge of finding the right thing for you too.

Nothing really original about my solution, of course. In fact, I’ve just discovered a website that urges us to “redefine Christmas” by exchanging gifts to charities.

If you’re so inclined, you can send your friends and family e-mail cards asking them to donate to your favorite. A little forward for my taste, but then family traditions are different.

Another newly-discovered website lets you buy gift cards so that your friends and family can choose which charities to benefit. There’s a charge for the cards and a small processing fee when they’re used.

Still, it’s quick, easy and gives you a nice selection of cards you can personalize — not all Christmas-themed. And it lets you give the pleasure of making a list to people you care enough about to gift at this holiday season.