On Snow, Charitable Giving and Need

February 4, 2016

Can’t altogether put the big snowstorm behind me. For one thing, the city left the hard-packed drift behind my car. But that’s not what I want to write about. On the contrary. It’s why I wasn’t snowed in and anxious as all get-out.

Even before the snow stopped, I could open my front door, where it tends to pile up, and walk safely to my gate. One of my neighbors shoveled my steps and front walk twice during the storm and again the following day. Cleared the sidewalk in front too.

His wife had made a first pass at the walk as night fell — and snow swirled. She’d called in the morning to find out if I needed anything and again the next day. I mentioned my worries about a power outage.

Well, I should come over to their house, since they’d have a fire going. And power loss or no, would I like to join them for dinner?

Now, these are people I don’t know well — just neighbors whom I chat with when we chance to see one another. But they went out of their way to care for my most critical need — and to let me know they cared.

So did total strangers.

When the snow finally stopped and the sun came out, I decided I should start unburying my car. I knew I didn’t have to strength to do it all at once. (It was barely distinguishable from the drafts fore and aft.) So I planned to do it in stages.

Three young men in a truck pulled over and asked whether I’d like help. I told them I couldn’t pay them unless they’d accept a check. (I’d realized only after the storm started that my provisioning had omitted a trip to the ATM.)

No check wanted. They just pulled out their shovels and dug for awhile — enough so I could get into the car and out of my parking space should I dare to drive. (I didn’t.)

But I returned to the car task the following day. Up walked another young man. Could he help? He didn’t want to be paid, he assured me.

And he would have gone on digging even longer than he did if I hadn’t said we should call it quits — this so I could retreat to the house and get blood flowing in my fingers.

Reflecting on my snow days experience, I’m struck — and moved — by how charitable these people were. That’s the word that pops to mind when I retell the story to myself.

We’re accustomed to seeing it in the phrase “charitable giving” or its kindred “charitable gift.” These , of course, refer to donations of money or things of value to organizations that, in this country, have registered with the Internal Revenue Service as 501(3)(c)s.

But the word came into our language, through French, from the Latin caritas. Long before it migrated, it had come to mean selfless love for one’s fellow beings — the feeling that inspires caring acts, including giving alms to the poor.

But the love, not the donations was what qualified charity as a Christian virtue — in some Biblical texts and later teachings the greatest.

I’m not trying to convert my snow story into a sermon. I do, however, think there’s a lesson about giving and need.

We see people in need every day — and know about many more through our media sources, advertisements and the solicitations we receive, especially toward the end of each tax year.

Some of us may give money directly to people who ask for it as we pass them by on the street. I doubt many of us give to everyone who asks, though I’ve only my own conduct and what I see as evidence.

We who’ve got the wherewithal tend to respond to the needs of those we only read or hear about by charitable giving in the usual sense. But we, the American public, split when it comes to public policies. If we didn’t, we’d have a quite different set — and different elected officials making them.

Consider, for example, SNAP (the food stamp program). It’s supposed to address needs for food that poor and near-poor people can’t otherwise afford.

But as you read this, more than a million people are near to losing their SNAP benefits because they’re able-bodied, have no dependents living with them and can’t meet the work requirements Congress imposed when it ended welfare as we knew it. “Can’t” is the proper word here, given the barriers they face.

Conservatives like work requirements. And we don’t see much pushback from progressives — at least, not as a matter of principle. Trouble is poor people need cash or near-cash assistance to survive.

Now I’m not ready to argue that we should give free food, housing and the like to work-able people who purportedly laze about in comfortable hammocks.

But who believes that any able-bodied (and minded) adult without dependents would choose not to work at least half-time or participate in a job training program because s/he could get some free food — less than $2.00 per meal, on average?

We’ve got a modern-day version of the old distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor. Those who don’t work or prepare for work in some specified way can’t have their basic needs met — unless they’re too young, too old or too severely disabled.

Few basic needs met for the too young, however, unless their state exempts them from the five-year, lifetime limit on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits. Most states don’t.

Returning — thought I never would, didn’t you? — to me and the snow days. No one who helped me had decided I was a worthy sort. No one tried to ascertain whether I’d put my back into shoveling out.

They simply felt a charitable calling. Surely we could have more of that in our public policies without jeopardizing the work ethic of our poor fellow creatures.


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.