Updated on 05.19.10

Guilt and Charitable Giving

Trent Hamm

Monica writes:

My biggest “financial leak” is charities. I constantly see people in need and I feel deeply guilty if I don’t help them, especially since I know I have plenty of financial resources with which to help them. The result is that I end up with less money than I expected and it’s hard to make ends meet. I still feel guilty, though. What do you suggest?

Giving to others is a great thing. Giving to the right charities can have a profound positive effect on many lives and it can also make you feel really good about yourself and the positive impact you have on the world. If you have the financial resources to give, I strongly encourage you to do so.

However, I don’t feel guilty about charities that I don’t give to. There are more good causes out there than I can possibly give my money to. Because of that, I know that I have to decide between various causes.

For us, that’s an important decision. We use a few criteria to determine what charities to give to.

The only charities we give significant money to are either ones where I directly sit on the executive board, immediate family members are deeply involved with, or we’ve been able to strongly certify how their money is spent. If one of those three are not true, we don’t give them money.

If a charity attempts to use a sense of guilt as a reason to convince me to give right now, I don’t like it, to the point that I resent the charity and actively do not give to them.

For one, if they’re using such tactics, they’re investing a lot of money and energy into marketing, not into helping the people they’re trying to help. If I feel guilt in response to a charitable plea, I know it’s marketing at work above all else.

My dollar to a charity very rarely goes 100% to a cause. Every charity has overhead in terms of hiring people to handle the donations, handle the taxes, and handle the distribution. However, but I want the vast majority of it to go to the cause I’m supporting. I also prefer to decide on my own what causes are most deserving of my money without guilt-based marketing pleas. Whenever I see a sob story, both of those principles are violated. When I reflect on it, I usually wind up irritated at that charity, actually.

Our solution is a charity budget. Once a year, we sit down and evaluate what causes we want to give to far away from guilt-based charity advertisement. We use sources like Charity Navigator to help us determine what charities will actually do with our donations and we make a pretty firm decision about our giving.

Whenever I see pleas for charitable giving, I simply remind myself that (1) this is marketing at work and (2) we’ve already given a substantial amount this year and have already decided what to spend the rest on. These two facts knock down any focus group designed charity marketing that we see.

Don’t feel guilty about charities you can’t afford to give to. Know what you can afford and plan it in advance. Recognize that the heart pangs you feel are just the result of marketing intended to make you feel that way. Walk away and make your decision with an unclouded mind.

Good luck.

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  1. Joanna says:

    This is a tough one, but I react more like you, Trent. I don’t want my money being spent on more mailings to me. The worst are when they send you the nickel in the envelope. I don’t give them anything, but I think it’s pretty low to use guilt. Your good cause AND your the good reputation of your not-for-profit should be compelling enough on their own without having to guilt people into giving.

  2. Kate says:

    I agree with you for the most part. I don’t like feeling guilted into giving away my money. Especially because I’ve been working for AmeriCorps for the last two years and don’t have much of it myself.

    However, I had one thing to add to your suggestion. I think sitting down once a year and figured out some donations to charities you want to support is a good idea. I support my schools and some of the volunteer organizations I’ve worked with over the years. I think it’s also a good idea to have an extra ‘miscellaneous’ charity pot as well. I’m often asked by friends to support the work that they do or support them on relay for life or things like that. In addition to wanted to support charities I also want to support the good work of my friends and family so I keep some money aside for these types of pleas. I usually only make a small $5 or $10 donation in these cases but I know it means a lot to my friends to have my support and it helps when it comes time for me to ask support for the places that I support.

  3. Katy says:

    What about capping your spending, but donating your time? That might eliminate some of the guilt and leave you with enough money to make ends meet! Obviously, this only works if you have time to donate, but I thought I’d suggest it.

  4. KC says:

    Personally I like to give locally. And I know if I give locally it helps me more (lower crime, higher education, better community, etc). I’m big on feeding people – especially elderly folks. I’m also partial to the local library and literacy programs since I’m a librarian. Chances are wherever I live they’ll always be a need to feed people and help the libraries (is there a library anywhere that is over-funded? doubt it!). So choose charities and causes that have meaning to you and consider how doing things on a small scale can really help.

    But still do your homework on the charity. I used to live in Memphis and they had a fantastic library system – not fantastically funded, but fantastically managed. I felt my money was put to good work. Then politics came into play and they fired the director of 20 years to replace her with someone with no library experience or even a master’s degree. Then the deputy director of 40 years (who promptly and wisely retired) was replaced with the mayor’s former bodyguard. Needless to say I stopped giving money to the library. So do your homework, don’t just take for granted that the local agency is a good one to give to.

  5. brad says:

    golf clap for your strong commitment to giving, trent. not a bad quality to have.

  6. Johanna says:

    It seems logical that lower overhead costs would imply a more responsible charity, but that’s actually not true – especially for charities working on complex issues like developing-world poverty. When a charity spends some money (and/or staff time) to figure out whether its programs are actually working, that cost counts as overhead. Responsible charities don’t shy away from evaluating their own programs. Irresponsible charities that skimp on such expenses might look better to donors, but they also often end up doing work that does more harm than good.

    To add to Trent’s suggestion of a charity budget: You could also formulate a concrete plan to increase your charity budget as your financial situation improves (as it hopefully will). In my case, I increase my monthly charity donation each year by 1/3 the amount of my annual raise. So I know that even though I’m not doing as much as I’d like right now, I’ll be doing more in the future.

  7. Anne says:

    Great points, Johanna.

  8. Chelsea says:

    If you actually budget for charity, you’re sort of missing the point. You shouldn’t be treating it like an obligation or burden, giving should be an honor.

  9. Nicole says:

    Good post.

    I agree that budgeting for charity is key. There are so many good causes it is impossible to fund them all. Give money and time according to your predetermined ability to do so.

    I also like Johanna’s suggestion about planning ahead of time for charity increases. Even if you wish you could give more now, you may not be able to, but you will be able to give more in the future.

    Personally I’m a soft touch for specific charities (breast cancer, food banks, natural disasters–would rather but can’t give blood, pet rescue, education), but the amount I give when someone comes asking on top of my regular giving varies by how much I’ve already given for the year.

  10. Honey says:

    My boyfriend and I only give to charities that benefit animals – NEVER human beings. That’s the way we feel we are doing the most good, helping those that can’t help themselves. We also try to actively do good rather than assume money is the best way to help.

    Recently, for example, we found a pregnant beagle who had been abandoned. We kept her at our home until we were able to work with a rescue that could take her. Since she couldn’t get spayed or have her shots until after her pups whelped, we told the charity to contact us with the best way to donate to cover the veterinary expenses of that particular dog. We don’t like to give into a funnel.

    I also tend to wait for a particular campaign I agree with – like donating to PETA after Katrina.

  11. Caitlin says:

    My church asks that we pay 10 percent of all our income to them and I have been greatly blessed for it. No matter who you are donating to though, it might help to do something similar and set aside the same percentage every month or every paycheck to give to some good cause. Once you have met that percentage, stop giving your money! Find other ways to serve your community and charity organizations other than monetary donations. Give what you can and don’t be so consumed by HOW much you give.

  12. Johanna says:

    Another thing: As Eleanor Roosevelt said, no one can make you feel inferior without your consent. I think the quote is just as true if you replace “inferior” with “guilty.”

    It’s certainly true that some charities present their causes in ways designed to tug at the heartstrings. But if you feel *guilty* because of it, that feeling is coming from inside of you. The charity didn’t put it there all by themselves.

    Nobody says you have to donate to every charity that comes along and asks for your money. But to say, “Charity XYZ made me feel guilty, so I will never, ever donate to them, not even if they’re doing good work on a cause that I value,” strikes me as counterproductive and kind of mean-spirited.

  13. Kathryn says:

    Oh, i SO agree on the marketing thing. We gave a goat thru a well known charity not too long ago. Checked Charity Navigator prior to that & the numbers (what goes out to the folks vs. admin/marketing) looked good, so we did. Then we started getting LOTS of marketing mail from them telling us how “great the need” continued to be & they continued to need our money. At least once every six weeks or so what was sent was a very expensive, high-glossy mailer. I was incensed.

    I wrote them several times telling them to take me off their mailing list. No response. Finally i called & said 1. If i have the money i will send it, 2. don’t waste my money marketing to me because i already know about your cause & 3. if i EVER receive another mailer they will NEVER donate to you again.

    While i do believe the cause is good, i hesitate to donate to them again because i don’t want to get back on that merry-go-round. Beyond some support to our church, i generally choose the charity first hand to know where the money goes.

  14. elizabeth says:

    You can even take the premium you pay for organic fruits and vegetables, locally grown foods, foods from independent vs. corporate producers, etc., and put it in the charity category. It’s not something I sit down and calculate, but it’s something I feel strongly about and want to support and it seems like a win-win. Versus giving my money away to various charities and then not being able to afford to eat in accordance with my values.

  15. chacha1 says:

    My giving depends on my personal circumstances, current events, and perceived need. When I was out of work, I wasn’t giving at all. Now that I’m re-employed, I’m giving mostly to support the wild places in our state, for which public funding is fast evaporating. When I have a larger amount to give, I’ll be back with my standbys: Heifer International, Habitat for Humanity, Planned Parenthood, and Nature Conservancy.

  16. JMiner says:

    I find AIP (American Institute of Philanthropy) to be a better yardstick than Charity Navigator, as it does independent, unbiased research on charities, rather than using data provided by the charities (as does Charity Navigator). They grade based on different categories, advise how much is given to the actual charity versus marketing and salaries, and they advise the salaries of the top management within the charity.

    I work as part of a group who controls funds that must be dispersed to charities and AIP has been instrumental in weeding out groups we may have otherwise believed to be more productive than they actually are (at their cause, not at marketing and advertising).

  17. ChrisD says:

    Personally I feel that to get best value for money I want to donate to charities working in the third world, e.g. Oxfam. They are providing life saving help to solve problems that just don’t exist in rich countries.

    I feel I can help at home by donating my time.

    A third way to help is to convince other people to give, particularly governments. All rich countries have pledged 0.7% of GDP to help development programs to end the very worst of world poverty. Belgium, the Netherlands etc are already reaching this target. The UK and the US are not. (According to Sachs Americans tend to assume the US is giving generously when it really isn’t). Find out what is being donated and find out if there is a shortfall between what we are giving and what we have pledged.

  18. Lorne M. says:

    Sometimes it’s difficult to cross the main square without feeling like Herod. But you should be aware many of them (especially those you see on lucrative places in big cities) can earn more than you! If you want to calm down your conscience, buy them a sandwich or a burger. Most of them will send you to hell, but sometimes you can meet interesting person with great stories – and than it’s ‘value for money’

  19. Sara says:

    I also have a charity budget and stick to that. I personally prefer to donate to organizations that attack the root causes of a situation – like Planned Parenthood (preventing unwanted pregnancies, thus helping keep people out of poverty) or Habitat for Humanity for homelessness — or local organizations such as our high school community scholarship fund.

    Whatever the rationale, decide what you can afford, decide where you’ll designate, and feel comfortable telling others “I already support certain charities of my choice”. The only other thing I’ll do is donate $10 or $25 when one of my friends does a charity run or walk.

    Since I’ve retired I had to cut back the amounts that I gave before, but I feel ok about it — when I was a higher earner I gave more generously.

  20. Doug says:

    ChrisD (#10) – Convincing “government” to give is not really charity. Having my government “give” money means money was taken from productive citizens without their consent.

    The US leads the world in charitable giving in raw numbers. As part of government programs, we give a lot. As part of private charities that people freely give to (without government coercion) we give even more.

    Perhaps a better way to encourage people to give is to live my example, rather than try to lay a guilt trip on people because their government doesn’t confiscate even more of their wealth.

    Remember, government doesn’t have any money of its own; it only has money that it takes from its citizens.

  21. Doug says:

    Guilt is an interesting emotion. Why does one feel guilty for his success? Why does one experience guilt when she has lived her life well?

    It is my experience that “guilt” is a unique emotion, one that has no rational reason for existing within the human psyche except for the explicit reason as an indicator of when we have done something wrong.

    If I steal a cookie, I feel guilty when my mom asks where all the cookies went. If I stole no cookie, why should I feel guilty that she gave me a cookie? And yet, this is where most feelings of guild emanate from. Other people impose guilt upon us for their own reasons, when the target individual has done nothing to warrant “guilt.”

    Excellence makes people uncomfortable, which translates to jealousy. This jealousy is projected outward, in an attempt to make the excellent person feel guilt.

    If one has done nothing wrong, the only feelings of guilt that exist are those that are imposed upon us from external sources. In that case, why act on it? Sorry, but you’re not gonna get money from me by trying to impose your own negativity upon my psyche.

    FYI, SoldiersAngels and the Project Valour IT (Go Navy!) are an oft-overlooked charity.

  22. Rosa says:

    I find that the charity budget item works the way any other budget item works – it’s a fallback against split second decisions. When we get phone calls or people knocking on our door, we can say “No, we have a budgeted amount to give to charity and it’s all allocated.” It’s a lot easier than making a hundred individual decisions.

    It’s also a really good way for me and my partner to clarify our values and goals when we’re budgeting – and that’s what budgets are for, right?

  23. ChrisD says:

    #11 Doug

    Convincing “government” to give is not really charity. Having my government “give” money means money was taken from productive citizens without their consent.

    Um my point was if you want your country to give some of your hard earned tax-money to the third world you should go ahead tell the government so that they can get on to it.
    The US has the biggest economy in the world with the most rich people. Giving a lot in raw numbers is not enough.
    The point I was making is that people overestimate how much the US does give and that you should look into it because you might find that if you knew how much was donated you might want more (of your tax money) donated.

    Live by example: I absolutely agree. The country that uses 25% of the worlds energy could really do a lot to show the world the way.

    Interesting statistic, the US has given more money to Israel than to the whole of (sub-saharan?) Africa.

  24. deRuiter says:

    Agree with Doug #11, All U. S. A. taxcpayers are already GIVING all over the world and in America, through the confiscation of our productivity, which is then distributed to the non productive locally, and to nations which do not insist on good and honest governments, where most of the money and goods are funneled to the leaders of those countries which then keep it for themselves. I support animal resuces, particularly local. PETA’s NOT on my list because of the high rate of euthenasia of “rescued” animals. Large charities are often quite generous with your donations when it comes to salaries of employees: United Way president 2003 $423,709., Red Cross president 2003 $468,599. The board of the United Way of Central Carolinas paid, in 2007, $2.1 MILLION to their president. Giving to your local animal shelter means the money does more work and has less waste. In America, our government hemoraghes confiscated tax dollars to anyone who asks and also, along the way, to all those non productive government “workers” who have the fun of doling out the hard earned cash of workers.

  25. deRuiter says:

    Sorry, transposed figure, it was $1.2 million to the president of United Way of Central Carolinas.

  26. Kallista says:

    It’s good to hear everyone’s common sense comments. I also donate to animal related charities (and human ones, too, but prefer the animal related ones). I also donate to just people who I know are having a hard time but trying very hard to make their lives better. For example, I have a dear friend who has tried so hard all her life and worked steadily. She never seems to get a break! So when I am flush, I send a chunk her way. It just helps her some with home repair, fixing the dryer, getting new tires. I do believe charity begins at home.

    As to animal related charities, CorgiAid.org is great, nearly 100% of the money donated is available to corgis in foster care for their medical needs. The money is dispensed fairly and wisely. They even won Pedigree’s Animal Rescue fundraiser of the year in 2007. LabMed is another good one.

    If you are inclined to donate to HSUS, you need to be aware that 1/2 of 1 percent of the money donated goes to help animals. The rest is used for very high salaries, fat retirements and fundraising purposes. Check out humanewatch.org for more information about that.

    Unfortunately, PETA isn’t any better, they also seek to remove companion animals from us as they believe that domesticated animals are “wrong”. Do some reading up on this.

    If you are going to help animals, donate directly to your local shelter as HSUS is NOT doing so!

  27. Kathleen says:

    We have a “charity budget” as well, and set aside about $1100 per month in a separate checking account for all charitable donations. Some of it is pre-allocated ($400 to church; $300 to a Christian international aid organization that we know is extremely well-run; $150 to an animal rescue organization). That leaves about $250 per month in “mad money” for any charity of our choosing. Most of the time, it goes to animal welfare organizations, but sometimes we use it to help out a friend or family member going through a rough time. It’s nice to have that flexibility.

    Like some of the posters here, I tend to view “charity” more narrowly than “what the government will classify as a 501(c)(3)”. In my perspective, a charity is an aid organization that helps those who can’t sufficiently help themselves, whether it’s third-world feeding, education and jobs training programs, or animal welfare organizations. So while it’s nice to give to “the arts” and such, I don’t see that as charity per se.

    We’re expecting our first baby later this year, and I’m so excited to teach him or her all about the wonders of giving. As a kid, I constantly saw my parents engaged in charitable efforts, through donations of both money or time. Modeling that for a little person will be such fun. Trent, have you ever done a column on teaching kids about charity?

  28. Jane says:

    I find it hard to give to big national charities once I find out what their CEOs and presidents make. I certainly think they should be paid fairly and even generously, but the salaries that deRuiter list are out of hand.

  29. Samer Forzley says:

    There is no way you can give everyone that asks, there are way too many charities looking for your help. Especially at Christmas, it can be overwhelming, so you cant feel guilty about it.

    I am involved in a couple charities, and I am proud to say, that where I work, the company is committed to fund raising for charities. So I would say this. Everyone has the duty to give, and is able to give. If you cant give with money, give with your time. Any help goes a long way, even 3 hours a month helps. Go peel carrots in a soup kitchen, get on a phone line and fund raise, join a local charity and help them organize an event, etc… Many charities are desperate for help, many can get more funding and do more good work if they had a helping hand.

    If you are an employer, get involved, let your staff know its ok to volunteer, take on a task and do it with them. Sponsor a local event, Put on a group activity and cycle and a company for a cause, etc… If your company does not participate, ask and initiate.

    So please find a cause near and dear to your heart and give not just with your money, but with your time

  30. kristine says:

    #11 and 15

    Taxes are not without consent, unless you do not vote. Your vote is your consent; your representative represents your wishes, and if they do not, vote them out. If you are not happy with the choices of candidates, you have to fund yours, or run.

    Chris D- Israel has the 5t or 6th largest nuclear arsenal in the world, the tech and materials from France and South Africa.

    Nuke Power/aresenals
    3-France or China
    4-France or China
    5-Britain or Israel
    6-Britain or Israel
    Israel may have more than Britain, but the Brit nukes are more powerful.
    South Africa dismantled theirs at the end of the apartheid era, and the parts were destroyed.
    Germany and Japan choose not to participate in the race!

    Source: Military Historian and noted author, with Fellowship at West Point and membership in the UK’s Royal Historical Society-tons of connections and primary sources at his fingertips (also my hubby!).

    In any case, Israel has long been our remote military base in the Middle East, which is why we are so generous with them. It’s a simpatico relationship, but Israel is far from sycophant, and does not always behave as the US would like.

  31. Charles Cohn says:

    I refuse to give to charity. The botom line on charity: if you refuse to pay your taxes, you go to jail, but if you refuse to give to charity, nothing happens to you.

    OTOH, I do give blood frequently. After all, blood regenerates but money doesn’t.

  32. Robert says:

    I give to others who I know really need help and actually deserve help. charity organizations are tuff, you really don’t know who is legit and if most of the money actaully makes it to the people who need it. unless you go thruogh a lot of the work trent does.


  33. alilz says:

    I give to charity, not as much as I could but I like to give to charity.

    I’m trying to use my grocery shopping habits (taking advantage of buy1 get 1 free and other deals) to buy extra food to donate to a local food pantry.

    There are several charities locally that run thrift stores and so that’s where I take my stuff when I want to get rid of it.

    Basically I like helping people and I know I’ve been lucky in that I’ve always had family to help support me when I needed it but I could have easily been someone who had to rely on disability from the government or needed assistance from a charity so I enjoy giving and helping.

  34. Joni says:

    One thing I used to do is give them an honest reply like, “All my charitable donations go to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention; that is our family’s focus for our charity budget.” That way you are showing them you have charitable feelings, have spent some time in deciding who to give money to and that is that.

    Now that I have become disabled and unable to even buy groceries, I can’t give anything to anyone and it drives me nuts. People say well, donate your time, but I am stretched to the limit with my time already and I’m not taking care of my own self properly. So now I just say, “I’m unable to donate at this time” and let it go at that.

    Like you, if someone tries to guilt me into giving, I will more than likely not even consider their cause. And when people ask me to donate food when I don’t have any in my own house, that upsets me terribly.

    I’ve learned I have to be my own favorite charity. It sucks because I want to give, give, give, but I have to take care of myself and if there is money left…then I decide who to give it to. Guilt is NOT a good motivator (even though it worked for our mothers.) ;)

  35. Carla says:

    Our family has struggled to make ends meet these past couple of years, but we try to help those less fortunate than us. I take a few extra dollars with me when I go to yard sales. I look for diapers and baby supplies for the Crisis Center, coats and blankets for the homeless shelter, teen clothes and personal supplies to go to the Life House for homeless teens and unopened toys for the toy drive. It may not be much, but we feel good helping our local organizations.

  36. Claudia says:

    I too give locally, where I know that the staff is volunteers and overhead is the actual cost of raising the money. I currently work for a non-profit and worked for another for a short time a few years ago. The job I quit; all the funds came from gov’t grants. They took the staff out to lunch constantly, provided free soda, snacks, wasted money buying equipment that some people wanted, but wasn’t really needed (like 4 copiers for a staff of 15) etc. and paid the execs high wages while those who really did the work, got lousy wages. The director hired her 2 brain-dead daughters for high paying jobs. I just couldn’t handle the hypocrisy.
    I have also given directly to some people I know to be in need. I do so anonymously of course, so as to not embarass them.

  37. Letitia says:

    Yes! I am Treasurer of a 501 (c)(3) charity and agree. Give where your heart/spirit positively leads. Give to organizations you know personally and know what they actually do with their resources.

  38. The way I see it, we should all pick a charity (or two) and give generously.

    And do not feel guilty about all the other needy people, because they are everywhere.

    Unless you’re loaded, you can only give so much

  39. Doug says:

    ChrisD, asking government to give my tax dollars is really just forcing everyone else to pay. Why don’t you contribute your own money to whatever cause you wish, while I can contribute to whatever cause I wish?

    You can send your own money to the third world. I’m sure they’ll appreciate it. I’ll send my money to SoldiersAngels, thank you very much.

    It’s awfully cavalier of you to decide where and how other people should spend their money. Last time I checked, you didn’t have any impact on my skill in earning that money, which means you shouldn’t get a vote in how I spend it. If I wish to hoard it all, that’s my right as the earner. If I wish to give away every dime, that’s also my right.

    As for the US giving, the US gives far more than other countries, both as traditional foreign aid, and as voluntary charitable contributions from private citizens. On top of that, the US can provide an immediate response to disasters due to our military. Take the Haitian earthquake. While all your money was appreciated, the Navy can set up an aircraft carrier to supply 400,000 gallons of clean water, best-in-class trauma centers, and an airfield so that all those emergency supplies can actually make it to the people who need it most.

    Let me put it another way: I don’t think you have the aptitude to direct my charitable contributions. I’ll put my money (that I earned) where I wish, instead of you forcing me to pay for things that have no value to me (sorry to tell you, but sub-Saharan Africa isn’t even a blip on my charity radar screen).

  40. kristine says:


    You had me up to “the US can provide an immediate response to disasters due to our military”. The military is hard up for recruits these days, and manpower is stretched thin. I still do not, and never will, understand Katrina. We’ve had swifter response in foreign lands, and our own people died for lack of water not even 100 miles from the nearest slurpee dispensing 7-11. I know that did not fall under the auspice of the military, but FEMA. I guess that just struck a chord, and I hope we react better in the future…oil spill?

    We have enough people here who need help. I would prefer the government spend the majority of it charity spending to help its citizens. Private donations can bear the larger portion of international giving. But yet, I am also conflicted on that, as we use up the largest share of the world’s resources, destroy the most habitat indirectly, and do it all on the backs of the people in poorer nations for our cheap goods. Not to say that I do not enjoy being a Roman, I do. I am grateful for my accident of birth every day.

    I guess I am trying to say there is no right or wrong answer. Tithing is a good tradition, no matter where you put it.


  41. John Wilson says:

    “Sob story” cases make me nervous as well, especially if the whole thing smacks of tactics and ploys; however, sometimes things are only “sob stories” because we’re used to hearing about them or seeing them. I can become hardened to commercials about starving children, but the fact is: there are starving children who cannot help themselves.

    The comment above about “NEVER [giving to] human beings” based on the helplessness of animals ignores the fact that many charities go to people who are literally incapable of helping themselves–World Vision being a prime example. I love animals, too and I give to animal charities as well as human charities–the more humans being helped can mean more to help the helpless animals as well as helpless people.

    It’s difficult to determine in every case whether the money is always going somewhere. I can be cynical about the guy on the corner with a sign because he ‘might’ have this as a full-time job and he’s just lazy. The fact is: he might not. Is it worth it to me to not give this guy a couple of bucks or buy him a sandwich because I’m arrogant enough to ‘know for sure’ he’ll use it for booze? No. But even if he does that doesn’t mean this other guy will. Cynicism can be a major hindrance to genuine help.

  42. Doug says:

    kristine, we do not “do it all on the backs of people in poorer nations.”

    Those people line up for jobs when manufacturers come to town. They operate on the same principle you do: Offer me more money than I can make elsewhere and I’ll work for you. People living on a subsistence level are more than happy to take a job that pays $2/hr, because they used to make $0.50/hr farming dirt.

    The United States uses up a large share of resources, yes. Why? Because we pay for those resources. We do not steal them; we don’t take them by force; we don’t cheat others out of those resources. We say “here’s how much money we will pay for your goods,” and other countries agree to sell those goods to us.

    “Destroy the most habitat indirectly” is a wonderful way of saying “we can’t actually measure it.” As I was told by a long time auditor – If it isn’t written down, it didn’t happen. Let’s see some actual data to that claim. Until then, I’m going to continue “destroying” the habitat of my pasture to make my garden, because I do love my tomatoes.

    Katrina? Here’s the rub: A government is filled with nitwit bureaucrats who care more about checking a box than actually helping people. Private companies (like the dreaded WalMart, and Home Depot) were there helping before government organizations could finish filing a travel request.

    Finally, in regards to the military. They are stretched thin by fighting two wars. They are not stretched thin by providing humanitarian aid. There are lots of recruits (at least prior to our current president assuming control, at which point I stopped hearing about it). The military never gets as many people as it wants, but it gets as many as it needs; that’s the way it’s always been, and it’ll stay that way since that the way it is.

    There is a right and wrong answer. The wrong answer is to depend on government to take care of you. People don’t want to live in government housing. People don’t want to live on social security income. People don’t want to live with government healthcare in the form of medicare and medicaid. They live with these things because they have to, not because they want to. The right answer is to look to yourself and your community. If the answers lead you to donate money to sub-Saharan Africa, so be it. If you’re driven to donate to the soup kitchen down the street, go for it.

    But don’t let someone else’s jealousy of your success make you feel guilty about the quality of your life.

  43. Debbie M says:

    The way I handle the guilt is to deliberately prioritize. I look at things like who needs the most help and how can the most help be provided and how to treat the cause rather than the symptom.

    I started with environmental groups that actually buy land to protect it rather than begging Congress to pass laws or sponsoring information campaigns. Now I give to groups that work with the current owners to encourage them to continue protective treatment of the land and to learn from them.

    I give to microlenders that help desperately poor people buy things (like sewing machines) that help them start a business to support themselves. And when that money is paid back, it is lent to more people.

    I looked for a group that would make birth control methods available to more people but was careful to choose methods that would fit in with the culture and that was just making it available, not pressuring anyone. Letting people have only as many kids as they actually want helps with poverty, the environment, and having happy kids.

    This means I am giving to groups I know nothing about. I am funding things I would be terrible at doing myself and about which it is too depressing for me to even want to become very informed about. None of the things I support are even local. I may be making mistakes with my money, and I don’t really know how much I’m helping, but I’m willing to accept those risks for the chance to make a difference to those who most need it.

    It’s not easy telling people that I don’t want to support my alma mater or the police force—which, the way they ask is what they make you say—but I can remember that starving people and choking environments need more help than most college students and police officers. I remember that we all have different priorities, and if we all give according to our priorities, than everything important should get some help, right?

    On the other hand, in addition to the 10% I give to the needy as outlined above, I also give back to those who have helped or are helping me such as public TV, public radio, my neighborhood association, and the local wildflower center. And it has occurred to me to spend an additional 1% on selfish things–things I would like to help me in the future such groups that work toward more bike lanes and sidewalks and a group that wants to build a planetarium.

  44. Johanna says:

    A glance at Doug’s blog makes clear that it’s not worth arguing with him about this, but for the benefit of everyone else:

    A big part of the reason why rich countries have achieved such wealth, and why we residents of rich countries have such great earning potential, is that we’ve been spewing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere unchecked for the past 150 years. The consequences of fossil-fuel-based industrialization are coming back to bite us, and they’re biting people in poorer countries even harder. Changing weather patterns mean that subsistence farmers are having more and more trouble making ends meet. People who can’t afford to move elsewhere are in danger of being flooded out of their homes, or even their whole countries.

    So that’s a very real sense in which rich nations’ wealth has been achieved at the expense of poor nations. And we haven’t adequately paid to compensate for the damage we’ve done (and are still doing), and we should. And if that payment needs to happen at the governmental level, I think that’s appropriate.

    Unfortunately, the way development aid actually ends up working, in the US at least, still poses a lot of problems. When aid is in the form of US-grown food or US-manufactured goods, for example, that helps US farmers and manufacturers, but it harms developing-world farmers and manufacturers by artificially lowering the prices they can get for their goods. So that’s a reason to continue to donate to NGOs that don’t have to answer to lobbyists and can therefore give more appropriate forms of aid.

  45. kristine says:

    Doug, I disagee with you on so many levels, it is pointless to argue. You sound like you may be libertarian, a viewpoint with which I find very little common ground.

    But just to note, I never said the military was stretched thin providing aid. It is the wars. But if they had enough recruits, they would not be recycling spent soldiers and using the reserves as a staple. We would not be paying massive bucks to hard-to-hold-accountable privatized agencies (mercenaries), which we are.

    And not paying a living wage for work is immoral, any way you slice it, even if desperate people line up for miles for the jobs. It’s the freemarket downside:conscience-free opportunism. Please watch the documentary film “The Corporation”.

    I do not feel guilty about my good fortune, but neither is my head in the sand regarding the effect my lifestyle has on people outside my own country.

  46. Emily says:


    Your opinions are valid, influential, and as far as I can tell always well-considered. Noting that, I’m asking you to please reconsider using low overhead to define an effective charity.

    Johanna’s first comment regarding what “overhead” really means to charities and nonprofits is spot-on: it means evaluation, infrastructure, and quality and quantity of staff. Charity Navigator actually stated that “overhead ratios and executive salaries are useless for evaluating a nonprofit’s impact.” This is a PDF of that press release: http://www.philanthropyaction.com/documents/Worst_Way_to_Pick_A_Charity_Dec_1_2009.pdf

    I’m not sure if you’re familiar with Dan Pallotta’s blog at the Harvard Business Review. He makes some very important points about the assumptions funders make, expecting nonprofits to save the world at bargain rates and with laughable infrastructure. I don’t agree with everything he says but I think his points need to be considered: http://blogs.hbr.org/pallotta/

    Personally, I have worked most of my short career in nonprofits because I believe that it’s important, worthwhile, good work. I also feel that our hands are tied by such ridiculous funding structures and expectations that I actually have some ethical qualms with supporting the sector through my employment there.

  47. ChrisD says:

    “There is a right and wrong answer. The wrong answer is to depend on government to take care of you. People don’t want to live in government housing.”

    Different countries have different feelings about this. Places like Sweden and the Netherlands pay high taxes and get a lot from the government. It evens out society and a flat society seems to be a happy society. Personally I prefer this kind of model.
    Secondly even if you dislike government and feel that everyone should do everything themselves, governments are actually pretty good for organising public goods, things like roads that everyone wants but which won’t work if you depend on voluntary subscriptions as the system will be taken over by freeloaders.

    Lastly Social housing has not worked in the UK and apparently the US, but in Sweden and the Netherlands it is very successful and people will go on years long waiting lists in order to get an affordable apartment in a nice part of town that would otherwise be unaffordable. (Luckily the not-so-nice parts of town are not dangerous, just boring). I have visited a friend in such social housing and the apartment was lovely (riverside with a boat included in the rent).

  48. Doug says:

    Johanna, glad you were able to visit my blog. Next time leave a comment!

    Kristine, you stated some stuff, I responded. If it makes you feel any better, I can’t understand why someone would want to be on the left side of the political spectrum.

    ChrisD, in the US, government-run housing is filthy, drug-infested, and crime-ridden. While the public housing the the Netherlands may be great, I don’t understand why someone else should be forced to pay my rent (via subsidized housing). But, that’s just me. Making others pay my rent via tax subsidies isn’t my idea of a good life, but again, that’s just me.

  49. Georgia says:

    I give in a budgeted way so I won’t forget. I figured what I could give and use that as my goal. Currently, although retired, I am giving about 14% and I have already upped it for this year. I give to the church, my alma mater (a christian university), 3 Christian radio programs, Operation Smile (for cleft palates), 2 children & their families that I adopted through our church. I also volunteer at the local food bank each month. I have learned God expects us to grateful for all our blessings in life and to share them with others, as a way to say “Thank You.”

  50. EJR says:

    Charitable gifts definitely need to be part of the family budget, especially for folks who care to pass on the value of philanthropy to their children. So why not budget as you do with anything else. As for marketing, we all learn about new things to buy — sometimes we resist, sometimes we don’t. When charities spend money to advertise what they do, they are offering opportunities to participate with your support. As with your response to any other kind of marketing, you can resist or not, depending on whether the cause is one that interests you. Again, as with household purchases, investigate the opportunity, check out what is being offered (on-line or in person) before you decide. Who knows what new doors will open, but you don’t have to enter all of them.

  51. Tony says:

    Like most of the commenters, I am enjoy the opportunity to give–mostly thru church and faith based organizations. As for guilt, it is common to feel guilty about our prosperity when others are suffering. I learned something a long time ago from a flight attendent that resolved many difficult choices.
    At the beginning of a flight, the attendent always explains about the doors and floatation and such. But remember the discussion about the oxygen mask? particularly when you are traveling with a child.”put your mask on first, then assist the child or others” … if you dont help yourself, you cant help the child. the point is–you cant help others if you distroy yourself by trying to help. So.. dont feel guilty if you are giving all you can. Just keep doing it! and if you are not giving all you can … shame on you.

  52. JuliB says:

    I give most of my money to the Catholic Church and recognized Catholic charities. The rest is split between some animal rescue ones, sponsoring a handful of friends in their various ‘walks’, and (MY FAVORITE!!!) ModestNeeds.org . You can pick the people you want to help. The non-profit does all the vetting for you. I cannot recommend it enough.

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