A reader asked me if I could break down my ideas into a handful of principles. After some careful thought, I came up with a list of fourteen basic “rules” that summarize my money and life philosophy. I’ll be presenting these as a weekly series.
Charity – in fact, giving of any kind – is often hard to explain in a general sense. Many people fail to see the purpose of giving. “What does it gain for me?” they’ll ask, and it’s difficult to point to how charity brings you a discrete, specific, calculable return.
Instead, giving is a reflection of what truly matters to you in the world. It’s your opportunity to actually make a tangible difference in an area that matters to you. Seeing that your effort has created change in someone’s life – or created slight change in a lot of lives – is incredibly powerful.
This comes back to your central values. What’s important to you with regards to the outside world? Perhaps you’re impassioned about the environment and wish to take action to reduce carbon emissions. Perhaps you want to protect animal habitats. Perhaps you’re fueled by a desire to help people in famine situations – or in natural disasters. Perhaps you’re committed to childhood education. Or maybe you just want to help out disadvantaged people in your own community. There are countless other causes that different people find valuable – yours may or may not be on this list.
Sometimes it can feel overwhelming – there are so many things out there that deserve a gift that it’s easier to fall into “analysis paralysis.” You can’t decide, so you choose to do nothing at all.
Just because a reason to give is worthwhile doesn’t mean that it’s the one you have to give to. Spend some time figuring out what matters the most to you. Is it the environment? Is it education? Is it famine and world food distribution? Is it poverty in your community? It could be any of these – or something else.
Once you’ve figured out what matters most to you, look only at ways to give in that area. For example, if I’m concerned about poverty in my community, I might dig into Habitat for Humanity and the local food pantry. If I’m concerned about education, I can get involved with the local school district.
People often argue that the small amount that they can contribute won’t make a difference. If you’re in that situation, look for ways where you can see that your small gift can make a change.
Give $10 worth of food to the local food pantry, then volunteer there. See for yourself that the food you purchased is going to a family that really needs it. Your gift directly put food on the table for those children.
Take $30 and use it to plant a tree in a park somewhere (obviously, after getting permission). Water it yourself and watch it grow. That tree will help clean the air and will provide shade and natural beauty for the people in the park, and you can see with your own eyes how it benefits others.
Keep a $20 bill in your pocket and wait until you see someone who’s really in a pinch, then just put that $20 in their hand. Watch what happens next – their emotional reaction, the story they tell you. You made a difference.
Give your time, too. Spend an afternoon building a Habitat for Humanity house in your community. Spend two hours volunteering at the food pantry in your community. Spend a Thanksgiving afternoon at a homeless shelter.
Giving has a profound secret: when you give to something that truly matters to you, you feel incredibly good. That good feeling radiates throughout your life. People pick up on your good feelings and they respond better to you.
Your gift also contributes to the happiness of others. Children and families enjoy that tree you planted. A family makes a dinner out of your donation to that food pantry. A family is able to finally have a home of their own thanks to your labor on the Habitat for Humanity project. A family is able to sustainably eat because you gave them chickens via Heifer International.
Someone’s life becomes better. Their outlook moves just a bit higher. They make a few better choices in their life: the family decides that a family afternoon in the park is pretty nice because of the cool shade and decide to do it again. This family bonds a bit more and, later on, their child will make a difficult, positive choice because of that closer bond.
Life is full of these little chaotic effects. Our actions cause many, many things to happen, many of which we don’t see. Giving of ourselves freely in a positive way sends out ripples of good events, and over time, those ripples come back to you and to everyone you care about. You might not see the direct effect, but those indirect effects echo throughout your life.
Give what you can, without regrets. The positive benefits echo throughout your life, the lives of everyone you care about, and lives you’ve never crossed. Walk away knowing that the work of your life has gone to truly make the world a better place.