The Ethics of Charitable Giving

Most of us would agree that sharing our good fortune in the form of charitable giving is an ethical thing to do, maybe even an ethical requirement. If we’re blessed with more money than we need, whether by hard work, good luck, or a combination of both, we ought to lend a helping hand to those who need it. Right?

But what does it mean to have more money than we need?

I was struck by a letter to the New York Times’s ethicist this week. Someone who regularly gives substantial financial aid to a close relative in need had discovered the relative was tithing. The letter writer wondered if it was appropriate to object to that.

The ethicist, Chuck Klosterman, had a good answer (if you’re going to give, don’t attach strings), but I was more intrigued by the recipient who donated a good hunk of her meager funds to charity. What were her motivations and thinking?

Charitable giving is a subject I often think about. As a volunteer tax preparer for the low-income and elderly, I’m frequently surprised by how many people who have little still give away a lot. The bulk of those donations tend to go to a church, and there may be complex reasons for the commitment, but I’m still impressed that people who have little voluntarily live on less.

Certainly there are plenty of wealthy people who donate a lot—people like Michael Bloomberg and Bill and Melinda Gates, to name a few—but a lot of relatively well off people do not give much. Should that be a strictly personal decision? Or is turning a blind eye to the less fortunate an unethical act?

Princeton University Professor Peter Singer, in his lectures and books, especially The Life You Can Save, tries to understand not only why people give or don’t give, but also where they should give to have the most effect. The two questions are inseparable because some people don’t give because they’re not convinced it will help or because they can’t see it helping.

Singer often uses the classic example of the drowning child. Imagine you’re walking along and you see a young child struggling to stay afloat in a nearby swimming hole. You look around for parents or a babysitter but see no one, so you wade in and pull the child to safety. In the process, you’ve ruined a $200 suit and an $85 pair of shoes. But so what? You feel great for having saved a life. You’ll gladly fork over $285 to replace the damaged items.

But would you just as quickly and easily write a check for $285 and send it to feed starving children in a nation 5,000 miles away?

You may, but all the evidence indicates that we’re more likely to help when we have personal contact with the person in need. The farther away, the more abstract, the harder to see the results—all these things make charity a less likely outcome. Why do charities use the telephone to solicit help? Because even though we all hate those night-time calls, we’re more likely to say yes to a human being on the other end than we are to respond to a piece of mail.

Those of us in the United States and other developed countries are in a particularly strong position to help those most in need. According to the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), about 2.5 billion people of us are “affluent” –defined as having money to spend on non-essential items. An equal number, according to the OECD, live in abject poverty, without adequate food, clean water, or protection from preventable diseases.

Singer notes that it wouldn’t take much of a sacrifice for those of us in the affluent category to cut our spending by $2.50 a day and donate that money to charity, and $2.50 is about what it takes to feed a family in many parts of the world. We might spend $2.50 a day on an expensive drink, for example, when we can just as easily drink tap water Or we can go to ten movies a year instead of twelve, or eat out twenty times a year instead of twenty-five. None of these would be a huge sacrifice. Still, relatively few of us are willing to do it.

And even if we do, how do we get the $2.50 to the other side of the world in a way so that it really serves its intended needs? That turns out to be a lot harder than it sounds.

To help with this problem, several groups spend a lot of time studying charitable organizations. Charity Navigator is relatively well known for its work in ferreting out those groups that are efficiently run, with low overhead and minimal waste. But that doesn’t address the effectiveness of their programs. Give Well tries to do that, picking a couple of charities at a time and actually funneling money to them from donors. That gives Give Well more access to the inner workings of the charities they pick and more influence over how they are run.

That’s helpful and important. If we’re going to give, we want to make sure our money is going to really help. But it still leaves the question of whether and how much to give. Ultimately that’s a question of personal conscience, and yes, personal ethics.

How do you decide how much to give and to whom?

7 thoughts on “The Ethics of Charitable Giving

  1. I once knew a man who refused to give to charity on the grounds that he would be harming the recipients by making them dependent on others and unable to help themselves. I thought this was a very bad excuse and I discounted a lot of other things he said.

    • I agree, Mike. There is obviously an important debate about the most effective ways to make donations but a blanket denial of this type isn’t helpful. You don’t have to get into the politics of food stamps or whatever to accept the fact that in many cases, people need a helping hand before they can even begin to think about helping themselves.

  2. I think we all have an ethical obligation to make the world a better place in some way, but I don’t think donating to charity is the only (or even the best) way to do so. There have been times when my budget was really tight and it simply wasn’t possible for me to make charitable donations if I wanted to eat or put gas in my car that month.

    But you can still volunteer your time or skills, run errands for someone who has trouble getting out of the house, offer a stranger your seat on public transit, etc.

    Although I have also noticed that people who have the least seem to be the most generous with what they do have. I wonder why that is so?

    • Absolutely. Volunteering can often be the most effective kind of donation. We give what we have to give and sometimes that is our time and energy. Perhaps those who have the least are more generous because they know what it’s like to go without or feel more empathy because they worry they may someday need the helping hand of others.

  3. I like what Lydia said about there being many different ways to donate, and I would add giving blood to that list. Personally, I feel that if you’re not living paycheck to paycheck, it’s a good idea to donate something. Anything, whether you think it will help or not. Because giving makes you look outward. Ultimately, you’re making yourself a better person by looking outward, even if you think it’s not enough to make a difference. Now, if you’re living paycheck to paycheck (or worse), you’re excused from monetary donations, though you may still volunteer. I think that by doing your best to handle your own financial situation, you’re “donating” by needing less assistance of your own.

    But if you live in this country, and are meeting your bills and putting some away, I believe you’re morally bound to donate money. Our economic system depends on keeping a large number of people in poverty. I don’t think changing that system is possible, not in the foreseeable future, so it’s up to us who are fortunate enough to make a living to give assistance to those the system has shut out.

    I also wanted to ask the assistance of you and your readers on an ethical question I’m facing right now in donating money, but on a less serious topic. I make a donation out of every paycheck, and half of them are to local concerns. Some are to things that are essential to life, some for things that are good for the soul. In the latter category, I’m a huge movie buff. We have a local drive-in theater – 3 screens, been in business for years. A great family destination, a great slice of Americana. I’ve been there with my son many times. They need three digital projectors, and they will probably need them before the 2016 season, or they WILL go out of business (in the next few years Hollywood will stop making movies on real film altogether, and so their film projectors will be obsolete). These projectors run about $70,000 each, and there’s no way they can afford them without help. They’re asking the community for help. A no-brainer, right?

    Except that for the past 10 years, it hasn’t been a very good place to see a movie. The screens, which would be a much less costly upgrade, have been neglected for as long as I’ve been going there. They honestly don’t seem to even put a fresh coat of paint on them each year, which would be a tiny fraction of the cost of new projectors. They don’t fit the dimensions of the film. Not much maintenance seems to go into the place at all. The bathrooms are revolting, and tiny for the audience they serve. They’ve never seemed interested in providing a quality experience before, and that’s why most of our trips have felt kind of obligatory. Like we have a drive-in, so we should take advantage of it. Not because we enjoy watching movies there. We never go there unless we’ve seen a movie already in a “real theater” or care more about sitting outdoors than we care about what we’re watching.

    So here’s my question (and thank you for your patience): Do I donate to save a local landmark whose owners don’t seem as committed to their customers as their customers to them? And what if they can’t raise enough money, and still go out of business (which I think is likely)? Isn’t that a waste of my donation? I don’t give much, but it’s a lot to me, and I want to get the best use out of it. But I also love movies, and think everyone should go to a drive-in at least once. Just maybe not this one. What’s your advice?

    • I believe contributions to the arts, whether a museum, a theater, or a symphony orchestra, are very worthy (as an author how could I fee otherwise?), but I would put them in a different category from giving blood or donating money to save a life. I wish we could do it all, but if we can’t, I have to come down on the side of helping people survive.
      Your problem with the drive-in seems a little different to me. No matter how much you want to keep it alive, you have to decide whether your donation will help or whether you’re throwing money away on a lost cause. If the owners don’t care and won’t even perform the basic service of cleaning the bathroom, it’s hard to see the point. If it’s really important to enough people, maybe there’s a way to find a buyer and bring the place back under new management. But if not and it were me, I’d use my money for more worthy causes, by which I mean an organization that is really in a position to achieve the desired goal..

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