Giving Now Versus Giving Later: The Gospel of Wealth Versus Everyday Charity

We only have a limited amount of time on this wonderful Earth, and there are almost countless people around the globe who have far fewer opportunities for a pleasant life than we have. Thus, it’s natural for most people to eventually come to the conclusion that it’s quite important to share the wealth we’ve earned by sharing the resources we have with those that are less privileged in life. If we have an excess of resources while another person doesn’t have enough resources, it makes sense to share those resources.

When we cast our bread upon the waters, we can presume that someone downstream whose face we will never know will benefit from our action, as we who are downstream from another will profit from that grantor’s gift.
– Maya Angelou

Giving Now

Many people argue on behalf of giving money now. I disagree – one should never give money to charity if it endangers their long term financial future. There, I said it.

If you give money to a charity, especially amounts large enough to put your own financial future at risk, you risk having to line up and take back charity money for yourself later on. You’re far better off making your financial ship very sturdy – but that doesn’t mean rampant consumerism is okay. It means pay off your debts and build some long term financial security and independence, so that you’re never at risk of having to eat charitable money yourself.

That doesn’t mean you do not have gifts that you can give. Give your time. Give your talents. Give your youthful energy. Devote a few evenings and a weekend each month to working for a charitable group, giving them your ideas, your energy, and your effort to make sure that the group’s work is done. It doesn’t matter what charity you work for – just find one that can utilize your skills and makes sense to your own personal values.

Giving Later

Andrew Carnegie, in his famous essay Wealth, argues on behalf of giving later:

Individualism will continue, but the millionaire will be but a trustee for the poor; intrusted for a season with a great part of the increased wealth of the community, but administering it for the community far better than it could or would have done for itself. The best minds will thus have reached a stage in the development of the race iii which it is clearly seen that there is no mode of disposing of surplus wealth creditable to thoughtful and earnest men into whose hands it flows save by using it year by year for the general good.

In other words, the people who are already rich know how to accumulate wealth, and their best gift to charities is to keep using this knowledge to accumulate more wealth if, in the end, it is eventually bequeathed to the needy.

This philosophy is derided by many as being greedy, but I don’t see it that way. I think Carnegie is actually quite right, and I think he’s basically voicing the exact same philosophy that Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are espousing with the Gates Foundation.

To put it simply, if you have a gift for acquiring wealth, but you need those financial resources to earn more wealth, then you should not just sign over all of your assets to a charity while you can still use that gift. Instead, plan to bequeath what you have to charity once you can no longer use your gifts – in your dotage or after your passing. Alternately, you can devote time and money by bequeathing a large portion of your wealth to a charity then agreeing to serve as that organization’s treasurer, putting your wealth-building skills to work.

To me, this is charity in its purest form – people using their gifts, both monetary and non-monetary, to help charities.

Giving Both

My belief is largely this: give time now, give money later.

Early in life, the resource you have huge amounts of is time, not money. Thus, it makes sense for a young person to give their extra time to charitable work. Find a charity you actually agree with and spend some weekends and week nights working for them. Maybe you can volunteer to coach the community Little League team, or perhaps you can help hand out food at the food pantry. Maybe there are local committees that could use your input and attention, like a church council or a local school board or a political campaign.

On the flip side, younger people often don’t have as much money. They might be working at well-paying jobs, but they’re often facing huge debts from student loans and mortgages, and they also need to financially plan for their old age. Many are also loaded down with children who also eat into the pie and also need some planning for their future.

On the other hand, later in life, time is shorter. You might not be working and you might still be able to give your time and talents to charities, but you don’t have the youthful vitality of others. Often, your role is teaching others how to hold the reins.

However, late in life is when many people have the most wealth. It’s also the time when you can be setting up bequeathal plans, giving much of that accumulated wealth to people who may need it, both when you’re alive and after you pass.

Because of that, I generally believe that earlier in life, your time is your best gift, not your money. Your time can be used to provide all sorts of services, and your youthful vitality makes that time quite valuable, because most volunteer work really thrives on energy and focus. Take your money and do sensible things with it, ensuring that your family doesn’t have to use the charities, now or later.

Later in life, use that experience in both time spent volunteering and money saved to allocate some financial gifts. You’ll have a very good idea of good places for your money to go, plus you’ll have the experience to hand over the reins of your volunteer work to others in a sensible fashion.

Obviously, there’s no reason not to give a surplus of money now, nor no reason not to give a surplus of time later. The key is to look at what you have in terms of both money and time and give what makes the most sense, but never forget to give. There are many, many people not just in your community but in the world as a whole who could benefit from your help.

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