Thursday, September 06, 2007

Charitable Ambivalence

I'm embarrassed to admit how ambivalent I am right now about my charitable contributions. I have $180 earmarked for charitable giving right now, and nowhere I feel compelled to put it to work. No Donor's Choose project strikes the right chord; I'm not ready to commit to a political candidate yet; I've given money to my alma mater and to the organizations with which I volunteer already. And then I start thinking, too, about how little $180 is to a big charity, or even a little charity, and how much it is to me. And I start wanting to hang onto that $180, save it, or use it to buy some fall clothing so I don't feel so shabby. I've given $898.45 in charitable contributions this year. That's more than many people give in a year, let alone people my age or who make the kind of money I make.

Feeling this way makes me feel terribly stingy. At the beginning of this year, I felt such an overwhelming sense of obligation, and now I'm reneging? Religious people who tithe don't stop giving when they get tired of it, and that was the model I was originally emulating. There are obligations here--I believe that intellectually and viscerally. And then I start feeling like, look: I give my time (I even take vacation days to volunteer!), I've given $900 this year already, and I need a break. But I also believe that obligations don't come with breaks built in--that you fulfill them because you have to, not because it's fun.

So I'm quite torn. I'd appreciate my readers' thoughts on the subject.


krystalatwork said...

Wow, that's a lot to have contributed to charity this year! I know that you said you volunteer as well, but if you feel obligated to contribute to charity, perhaps you could look at volunteering more of your time to make up for the $180. I personally don’t donate much … probably less than $50 in total this year … but I do volunteer a lot of my time, and I think that’s more valuable to any organization than just getting handed some money.

Ms. M&P said...

I know how you feel...I've donated about $1300 this year, which is far less than my goal of 10%. I think of all the places I could be spending my money and it holds me back. At the same time, I wouldn't want a dime of my money back if I had the choice. I know how little amounts can add up for an organization, and I know that the charities I give to are spending the money on people who need money much more than I do. I give to groups that help the homeless in DC. I pass homeless people every day and it reminds me of where my dollars go, which makes me feel like it's worthwhile.
PS do campaign contributions count as charity? I give to campaigns, but have never counted that...just wondering.

Grant said...

I hope that you realize that that's a great quandary to be in - you have this money and it's up to you how to spend it (I think a lot of people find themselves facing much more desperate financial decisions).

Does your "total donated amount" include the time you volunteer? If not, perhaps you could justify keeping the $180 by monetizing your time (how much is your billable hour?) and adding that to the donated total. Time is money after all!

Also, if you lost work hours because you were volunteering, you essentially donated that money too.

Good luck!

Anonymous said...

You should take a look at It is an interesting way to use your money. It is not considered a charitable gift (not tax deductible) because technically you are giving a loan, but it is a cool idea and microloans are a Nobel prize winning concept.

simonjh said...

I agree with Ashley! Kiva is a great way to put a small amount of money to great use.

SJean said...

Kiva sure is popular in the pf blog community, but I think it is important to realize that the people getting the money are being charged interest on the money.
Your donations are impressive, I've managed less than 50 so far and have a goal of another 200, but never seem to meet it. I donate time, but it is much harder for me to donate the cash.

Personally, I'm looking at but am looking for more information about how efficient they are.

Anonymous said...

Yep - is great.

HC said...

Whenever I feel like my donations might not be doing good, I pick out a disaster relief project.

I know the need is immediate, I know that even a small donation can go to medical supplies or emergency shelter, and I know the agencies I donate to will use the money for its intended purpose.

That said, you HAVE given a lot this year, and if you're really feeling pinched, maybe you could trim that $180 to a round $100.

HC said...

On a brighter note, did you see Feist on Letterman?

It's 1-2-3-4 as a Canadian musician employment project! (BSS, A.C. Newman from the NP, etc.)

Anonymous said...

$170 will let Doctors Without Borders treat 40 children with antibiotics plus two suture kits to repair minor shrapnel wounds.

I love Doctors Without Borders because even though they're large they are extremely fast-moving. They are usually the first ones in to a disaster area and one of the last groups to pull their personnel out if political situations get iffy - which is when local residents usually need the most help. They've won a Nobel Prize, too, if that helps convince you.

Sense to Dollars said...

I personally feel like the spirit with which money is given counts for alot. Money donated is money donated, of course, but if it is costing you alot emotionally to give $180, you shouldn't give that amount. Maybe split that $180 in half and do something for yourself this time. It's a comfort level thing--finding that amount which seems like 'enough' vs. 'too much.' For me, for now, that amount is $50 per month, with the goal of giving 10% in the future. (It's like 401K contributions, I'll gradually step the amount up so I don't notice the difference). Maybe you are overstepping your comfort boundaries.

Even a little bit helps...and is better than not giving at all. If you feel bad about donating, you will resent it and be less likely to give as much in the future, ya know?

Sense to Dollars said...

Also, look into local charities. Smaller amounts make bigger differences there. It helps me to see the difference my $$ makes. For example, my friend is building an orphanage in Mexico with his church. Donating $50 allowed him to buy pillows for the orphans. I'll get pictures of the kids and the finished product.

Also, my boyfriend's mom just died of breast cancer. I'm sponsoring one of his family members in a fundraising event for the cause.

It's nice to be able to say, 'I helped in THIS way.' and that feeling encourages more giving.

Good luck!

Caroline said...

You also pay your taxes. Charitable giving used to be a necessity (not that it still isn't) before there were taxes for the upkeep of the local area.

MEG said...

Save your charitable contributions until you know where you want to give them! Giving is important to me, too, and I have 5% of my income budgeted for giving. But that doesn't mean I have to give it monthly!

I put that 5% in a separate savings account every month--one I will NOT touch. I use this account for sporadic giving (like when I come across a sudden need or desire to give). I also used it earlier this year to fund a volunteer trip to Peru. But the final destination of the funds in that account will be to start my own charitable foundation one day long in the future. Or to give a huge and meaningful lump sum to some cause that I have yet to feel compelled to support.

Single Ma said...

You should give because you WANT to, not because you feel you HAVE to.

"Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver."
2 Cor 9:7 NIV

With everything going on in the world, I'm sure you'll find something else to support eventually.

Paul said...

Although I'm not religious, I really like SingleMa's idea. Why not keep it in a "charity" fund that earns compound interest? Then you can "save up" to donate an even larger amount.

Also, donating isn't the only option. If volunteering is really your thing, save up the money as rec'd above, and then use it to start a volunteer program at some undetermined time in the future. That or some other good-natured entrepreneurial venture--something you can "own" so-to-speak. Best of both worlds.

Granted, it takes some discipline, but I think you have quite a bit of potential. Saving for a rainy day can open up opportunities.

cheevey said...

I feel the same dilemma, too. I recently found a program that is really effective and a small donation ($30) goes a long way. It's to help Darfur, which is in such dire straits right now.

Currently, families in the refugee camps in Chad, over the border from Sudan, are provided with basic food supplies from relief organizations, but the food is not ready-to-eat. In order to cook it, the women must search for firewood outside the camp, leaving them vulnerable to attack and rape.

A $30 donation supports one family with 2 solar cookers and pots. The women and girls are also trained in how to use and manufacture the solar cookers by hand, giving them earning potential.

Maybe you or others who read this will be interested, too.

k said...

@ english major:

I am right there with you. I don't always walk the walk with respect to donations, either, and I feel crappy about it when I don't, even when I feel like I can justify it to myself. I think it's like going to the gym: easy to procrastinate or avoid altogether for a period of time, but it makes me feel surly to do so, and once I get off my ass and do it, I feel much better.

@ sjean:

Yes, the people who receive microloans through kiva are charged interest. The interest they are charged is at much lower rates than the borrowers would otherwise be able to get, and at least a portion of the interest going to pay the operating expenses of the local organization kiva has partnered with to administer the loans and collect the loan payments. That overhead is not chump change, considering that we're talking about places where due to a variety of constraints, these transactions have to be made face-to-face, not administered from a cushy office or, say, over paypal.

I don't work for kiva, but I've loaned money through them, and before I did so I researched the hell out of them and was quite pleased with what I found.

@ ms. p&m: political donations are not tax deductable, but I include them in my charitable donations budget line because I believe the candidate or lobbying efforts I'm backing would be a social good. said...

Put the $180 into your retirement account. It will grow to a large amount by the time you retire. You will then know if a) you are well off enough in retirement to donate a large amount to charity, or leave the surplus to charity in your will, or b) need the money yourself in retirement. There's no point given money to charity now, only to need charity yourself later on.

There's also no chance that your donations won't be just as needed and useful when you're retired - indeed they'll probably be even more need then than now.

Personally I don't give very much at all these days. I did when I was in highschool and uni (and was single), and also did volunteer work, but these days I figure that any surplus (cash and time) I don't end up needing myself will be put to good use by my kids and grandkids.

Penny Nickel said...

Obviously it's a very personal call, whether you want to amend your original plans. But you certainly shouldn't feel compelled to give that money right now to somewhere you're not excited about supporting. That feeling of obligation and wanting to give can come and go in waves. You'll get a lot more satisfaction out of giving when it feels right. Plus, there's something really exciting about saving up and making a big donation somewhere that you're really enthusiastic about... in some ways it's silly but I do get a kick out of seeing my name on one of the short lists of donors above $X to a place I care about.

Besides, if you keep saving it but are stuck for inspiration, you just know the requests and pitches are going to come pouring in at the end of the year, and maybe one of them will get you really enthusiastic.

(And a pitch for one of my favorites-- if you're not familiar with them, look into Oxfam when you get a chance.)

CC said...

I think it's great that you are giving so much to charity. And I also have felt disillusioned in the past, how can I make a difference in the face of so many bad things going on.
I think it is worthwhile to give to charity. I heard that the Dalai Lama talked about this, keep trying to do small positive actions, and even though part of them won't make any difference, you are contributing into a wave of positive actions.
If you want to give bigger amounts, you can always save the money until it is larger. You can look at making a yearly commitment to one organization that you really support. Some economists say that it is better to give only to one charity. Usually a one time donation of $500 moves you into a special category in a charity's list, so they may try to target you more aggressively if you give that amount.
If you want to give to a political cause, you can always give to the National Committee and not to one candidate. I saw something in that indicated that the most bang for the charitable dollar right now comes from AIDS prevention work in Africa. The Sudanese and Chadians also are in a crisis. Disaster relief is urgent. In your community there are probably a lot of people who need help, a local homeless group can probably stretch the money. Or a poor local school. I usually also feel a call towards conservation causes.
If you want to feel like it really makes a difference, a smaller charity might be best. If you want to feel like one of a crowd tackling a huge issue, a big charity may be better.
Good luck in your dilemma!

NewGirl said...

It's awesome that you've given so much this year. I think you're doing great, and I'm certainly not going to judge you negatively for not giving more! But to me it sounds like you've made an internal commitment to give a certain amount, and my guess is that you'll feel less than stellar if you change your mind for personal reasons rather than because you think your decision was actually wrong. If you push through and give the money anyway, you will probably get over the feeling of deprivation and feel glad that you accomplished what you set out to.

I also love Doctors Without Borders for small donations, because they really can do something life saving with that amount. Although I think you should avoid pushing yourself so hard that you burn out on giving, it's worth reminding yourself that if you wait and give this money later in life, even if it has grown, a significant number of people will have died of preventable or treatable diseases in the meantime. I don't agree with people who say the world will need charity more later than now. So maybe you can talk yourself into being excited about giving by thinking about the real people who you can help to live right now - even though you can save other people (maybe more people) later, these people won't be around later without your help now. Again, this isn't to moralize in any way (I'm sorry if it comes out that way) - it just sounds to me like you want to be talked into donating the money because you really think it's an obligation of living in a rich country.

Anonymous said...

Are you really an English major? You assume a hell lot, and are far too, umm, nice to be one!!

Anonymous said...

I, too, think it's a good idea to look at local charities, too, where $180 is a big donation. Maybe you could figure out the amount you're comfortable with (maybe $100 or so?) and then call up the charity and ask if there is a wishlist. You can buy things for them, which I think feels way better than just donating the cash, because you can see what your money is going towards and you can bring it to them.

Anonymous said...

If you are having trouble deciding where to donate, you should check out

It was started by a bunch of ex-hedge fund guys who wanted to bring the same results-based approach they take in investing to their donations to charities. They looked around and found no one doing analysis on how efficient charities were and where you get the maximum impact/social good for your dollar. As a result, they quit their jobs and started this website, where they analyze a plethora of different charities and recommend the ones which create the most impact per dollar.

Right now the focus is on saving lives in Africa and employment assistance in NYC, but they are working to expand to other issues.