A New York Times essay on giving
asks where we should be spending our charitable dollars. While charitable giving increased a bit in 2010, according to Giving USA donations to organizations that address “basic human needs fell 6.6 percent.” While the author does not specify exactly where the giving has increased, she mentions that those with the deepest pockets and foundations with assets in the billions make different kinds of donations: “building museums to house their art collections; underwriting new wings in hospitals or halls named for them at their alma maters; using their money and influence to sway public policy and influence political campaigns; or seeking to solve problems in distant lands rather than in their own backyards.” It’s hard not to hear the judgment in the author’s voice. The take home message from the article is that our priority should be to give to Americans who don’t have homes and/or enough food to eat.
While the article includes a couple of quotes from those who challenge the either/or that the author sets up at the beginning of the essay between what she refers to as “checkbook philanthropy” (apparently a term used disdainfully) and what Doris Buffett (Warren Buffett’s sister) calls “S.O.B. gifts,” (donations that support “symphonies, opera and ballet”), these alternative perspectives are few and far between. Although she quotes Melissa Milburn from the Gates Foundation as saying, “We’re trying to move upstream to a systems level to either prevent family homelessness before it happens or to end it as soon as possible after it happens,” the article doesn’t delve into systems change work.
Given the greater need during a recession, it’s a tough call for philanthropists. Individuals need help, but the more individuals in need, the greater the challenge. When my son was nine and I took him to Boston for a couple of days, we passed a homeless man begging at the entrance to the T. I walked right by, inured to street begging from my years growing up in New York City and then living in Philadelphia, Boston, and Washington, DC. My son, however, had grown up in rural Maine, and while there is significant poverty here, he had rarely seen anyone living on the street; and he’d never seen me walk by without helping. He was horrified and furious with me for not helping this man. So we promised each other we would never walk by someone in need without helping. And he kept his promise for many years. Whenever we were in cities and he saw people begging, he gave money. But then one year, when he was 14, we were in Rome for a couple of days. There was simply no way to give to everyone in need. He had to make choices. Did the person have children or pets with them? Did they seem able to work? Did some of their clothes look new and pricey? Were they drinking or smoking? These were terribly difficult choices for him, filled with judgments about people he didn’t know, but as his Euros ran out, there had to be some criteria or else he wouldn’t give to anyone.
My son, now 18, is quite generous. Since eighth grade he has given 10% of his income (not profits) from his jewelry business and his summer jobs to charity. Which charity? I’m honored that he’s chosen the organization I co-founded, the Institute for Humane Education. He insists that this has nothing to do with supporting his mom’s work, but rather an assessment of the best place to donate his charitable dollars: he wants his money to work on systemic change. He wants to see the biggest “bang for his buck” in terms of solving problems. He believes that humane education (which he’s experienced himself) is an excellent strategy for creating real change that makes a difference.
We all have choices to make about our charitable giving. How will we go about making those choices? I know that for me, supporting the local food pantry and individuals in need is important. So is supporting the arts in my community. But these will always comprise a smaller portion of my giving than donations to create systemic change, because I want to give where I have the greatest capacity to create lasting change that benefits all.
The New York Times article sets up a false either/or that fails to deeply explore the challenge of giving strategically and in a balanced way; that might, for example, call more forcefully for local and federal government programs and aid to those in need so that philanthropists can spark social businesses and non-profit ideas for system-wide efforts that are not necessarily the role of governments. Judgment doesn’t serve this effort of finding ways to solve our challenges through philanthropy and giving; new ideas do.
For a humane world,
Zoe Weil, President, Institute for Humane Education
Author of Most Good, Least Harm, Above All, Be Kind, and The Power and Promise of Humane Education
My TEDx talk: “The World Becomes What You Teach“
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Filed under: changemakers, humane education, MOGO (Most Good), systemic change | Tagged: Altruism, charitable giving, either/or, Generosity, giving, helpfulness, humane education, Kindness, philanthropy, systemic change | 1 Comment »