How to give money to charity
You have money, and you want to make the world a better place. So what do you actually do?
I realize this post has an odd title whose answer could be summarized as "go to the website and enter your credit card information."
But at least in myself I generally find there's a gap between "I think X is a good thing to do" and, you know, actually doing X, and I find it helpful when people nudge me in the right direction and give actual steps I can follow, so I'm writing this in the hope that this could maybe be that nudge.
If you want a nudge but don't want to read multiple options or all my thoughts, go set up a regular donation you can afford with an organization that does good work, such as one of these!
If you want to read more complicated options/opinions because this is a pretty big deal, in this post I want to expand on five things I wish I understood earlier:
Giving to charity, if you are able, is not optional.
Prioritize regular, planned giving over one-off donations.
Careful budgets can help you find the right amount to give.
Not all charities are created equal, so put in the effort to find good ones.
It's okay to feel happy about your donation! (With a few caveats)
I tried to write them independently enough that you can just pick one you're interested in if you don't want to read the whole thing -- I think number 4 is most likely to be "new information".
(Also -- perhaps this is an odd thing to be writing about during Coronavirus season! If you're in a financially difficult spot, then it's probably not the time to be adding even more bills to pay and this post is not aimed at you and I'm not sure you should read this because I really really do not want you to feel like you need to be doing more. But I think for people (like me) whose employment is pretty stable for the next year or two, the crisis produces even more reason to be generous with what we're lucky to have! I don't really have strong opinions yet on where good places to donate for COVID-specific aid, but Givewell says they're working on it!)
1. Giving to charity, if you are able, is not optional.
I can only write about this point from a Christian perspective, because it's the one I think is true. The argument if you're utilitarian should be pretty clear, but I'm not willing to write a million versions of this section to include every possible ethical system. But the point I want to get across is that sometimes people tell me they feel like giving money to their local church is "required by God", while donating other places is "optional."
(I should also maybe be clear early on before people stop reading: this isn't limited to financial donations --- our mandate to love those who suffer can include physical actions like visiting people in prison, or working for charitable organizations, or political organizing, and indeed the more good we do the better! If you reflect God's love by working at a soup kitchen, then I don't need to convince you that this is a wonderful thing. I am not trying to argue that financial donations are always better than other ways of serving our brothers and sisters (because I don't believe that's true!), but I am trying to argue that some sort of service to and love for the less fortunate is a mandatory part of the Christian faith.)
Something I've been learning to see more and more clearly over the past few years is that God has what some theologians call a "preferential option for the poor." To ruin a profoundly beautiful biblical theme by condensing it into a few sentences, the point is that God is deeply aware of, and indeed deeply hurt by, human suffering. God's love for the oppressed and the poor reveals itself both in the promises he makes of a future (post-apocalypse) where these deep societal wrongs have been made right, and in the absolutely scathing indictments he gives of those living in comfort while their brothers and sisters starve.
In Isaiah 58, God (mediated by his prophet) is confronted by those complaining that he has not heard their prayers, "as if they were a nation that does what is right." In a terrifying passage, he notes their acts of prayer, fasting, and repentance, but discards them as completely worthless. Rather than make grand shows of faith, he says, they should be pursuing physical justice for the oppressed in their midst in the form of freeing prisoners, feeding the hungry, and housing the homeless. Only then, God says, will he relent from the punishment they face.
In Luke 16, Jesus tells the story of a rich man who "lives in luxury" while a homeless man named Lazarus lives outside his gate, ignored. As a result, the rich man goes to hell, where he lives in (presumably unending) agony.
In Mark 10, a rich young man approaches Jesus and asks him how to get eternal life. Jesus asks if he's been following God's commandments, and then man replies that he has. Then, "looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him and said to him, 'One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.'" The man is deeply saddened and leaves.
(I could keep going, there are a lot of these)
But the most explicit of these is Jesus' teaching on how he'll judge us on the last days. I'm just going to quote it in full, from Matthew:
“When [Jesus] comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
The language here is completely clear: our stance before God, and even our eternal fate, depends heavily on how we treat people who are suffering, especially those our society prefers to ignore.
There's a very natural part of me that's like "yeah, but the rich young ruler was rich! I'm just a grad student"
I think the poverty-related language that sometimes gets used to describe grad students as a whole does a disservice to the subset of students (and others) facing real financial hardships. I currently make a little under $30,000 per year, and this is significantly more than I need to live on, and I think references to myself as a "poor grad student" are completely unfair to my peers trying to raise families or support sick relatives or any number of other things on the same stipend.
But more than that, I think this sort of language risks blinding me to the immense privilege I have: I can afford to buy pretty much all the food I want, go out to restaurants once a week, live in a fancy apartment (we have in-unit A/C and a dishwasher) with only a mild amount of budgeting! I have, by far, a more comfortable lifestyle than almost every person who has ever existed.
And so I think, for my situation personally, I have no place to criticize the rich younger ruler or the rich man in the Lazarus story for not giving some of their wealth (fancy cloaks? Rampant feasting comparable to how Americans eat anyways?) to the less fortunate if I'm not willing to do the same with mine. Your situation is almost certainly different, and you'll have to figure out what works for you. Maybe you work for a tech company and can afford to donate absurd amounts! Maybe you have a shoestring budget but plenty of time and can afford to volunteer at a local shelter or soup kitchen. Maybe you have neither money nor time because you're in a really rough patch and in that case maybe God isn't calling you to this right now, and that's okay too --- God's anger is against those who can help and don't, not people struggling to make ends meet.
2. Prioritize regular, planned giving over one-off donations.
This is something it took me a while to figure out, so I apologize if I'm beleaguering an inherently obvious point. But for a long time, my model of giving was that every once in a while I would
I definitely don't want to imply that sporadic giving is bad, because it can be a wonderful expression of generosity! But there are at least three reasons I think regular giving can be more effective:
a) You can end up giving more money
There are two ways this happens: the first is that if you decide to donate (e.g.) 10% of your income, it usually ends up being more than the sporadic amounts you might otherwise choose to donate. See point (3) below for more on this.
The second I think is mostly relevant for people like me, whose future income will (hopefully) be significantly larger than my current one. If I make a habit of donating (say) ten percent of my post-tax income now, that's about $2400 per year, or enough money to buy a child about 40 years of life (see (4) below for more on this number.) This is a good thing! But if someday I'm making closer to $72k, then without having to make any new decisions I'll be able to donate enough money to buy 120 years of life --- in other words, I'll be saving a life every single year. On the other hand, if I continued to only give money when I thought of it or when people asked me, I don't think my giving would track my income very well --- it would probably continue to be at sort of the same level.
b) You can give to more effective charities
This is a big one! See point (4) below for some thoughts on choosing effective charities, but in general I think we'd all like to support charities that do the best job doing things we think are good. And we can discover such organizations by doing careful research (or trusting other people's careful research) into what they do and how well they do it.
But when I give money to someone or something off the top of my head, it's usually not because I've made a careful decision that this is the best use of my resources. It's usually because something struck an emotional chord of some sort with me! Which is not a bad thing: darkness in the world should cause us to lament, and a natural part of lament is wanting to help make things better, and giving is a wonderful and selfless way to do that.
But optimizing charities for "ones that make me feel a certain way" is (almost by definition) different from optimizing for "charities that are actually doing a good job," so by switching to a more pre-planned, evidence-based approach we can move from "doing good things" to "doing even better things" with very little financial cost.
c) Some organizations prefer regular donations
I don't want to overstate this point because I think it very much depends on the organization. But in some cases, knowing that they'll receive a $50 every month from you means that an organization can plan around that money -- maybe they buy slightly more food each time to hand out, or maybe that's the slight bump they needed to hire a new staff member. A sporadic $100 donation is still good --- there's usually plenty of stuff it could be spent on --- but the irregularity of it cuts off a few potential avenues of use.
(I really want to be clear that a sporadic donation is still a genuinely good thing -- when I was running homeless outreach from my dorm room, the occasional donations people gave were really, really helpful, because we didn't have a regular source of funding and it often turned into "ahhhhhh we're almost out of socks oh ok someone venmoed me fifty bucks maybe we can do this". (The friends who run it now managed to get regular sources of funding and now it runs a zillion times better as far as I can tell.))
3. Careful budgets can help you find the right amount to give.
This is again maybe something that's obvious to everybody except me. But I think one of the most effective ways I've found to help myself more money is keeping a careful budget using a budgeting app (I use Mint.)
This way, you can set as part of your budget a default amount to donate (say, 10%). If you find yourself coming in way over budget (or you only come in under budget by eliminating all your rainy-day savings), then maybe you budgeted too much and you should cut back a bit (this always feels really weird to me --- it helps a bit to frame it in terms of how much you're still donating and how much good that can do (if you're donating to AMF, divide by $5 and that's how many months of human life you can save!) rather than how much you're cutting back. Remember: the goal is to do good, and finding a sustainable way to do that is much better than sacrificing a lot for a few weeks and then completely burning out.)
On the other hand, if you're finding you don't have to sacrifice at all, you should probably double or triple check to make sure your budget is complete --- for instance, I have a monthly "travel" budget even though I don't travel every month, so that I don't suddenly have to find hundreds of dollars when I want to fly home for Christmas. (I had this issue my first year in that I forgot to budget ahead of time for Christmas gifts. I think it's wise to not cut rainy-day savings, especially as you're starting to budget more generous givings, because you can use them to cover budgeting mistakes you might make that would be severe otherwise.)
If it is complete and you have a solid rainy-day fund, you can start to slowly work down how much you spend in other categories -- maybe buy a few more thing generic-brand items, or switch to a cheaper meat option, or start eating PBJs for lunch instead of finding food on campus. (Remember being on campus??) If you're able to consistently come in (say) $10 under on groceries, then great! You can budget groceries down $10 and now you have $10 more to donate!
I personally found this to be pretty exciting (buying cheaper food to make the world a better place is fundamentally joyful) for a while, until it reached a point where finding more ways to cut seemed stressful and miserable. (If you're experiencing financial insecurity, you're much further past that point than I've ever been, and I want to reiterate that while it's very kind of you to read my writing, this post is not really aimed at you, at least in this stage of your life.) I guess that's a second part of budgeting -- when you reach that point, stop! You've reached the point where you're giving sacrificially, and you're allowed to feel good about that. There are plenty of others ways to work on your moral character and relationship with God, and you're allowed to focus on those.
4. Not all charities are created equal, so put in the effort to find good ones
Philosopher Toby Ord has a famous (and controversial) thought experiment, popularized by Peter Singer: suppose, after careful thought, you've found that you are passionate about helping people experiencing blindness, and you decide that since blind people need seeing-eye dogs, you're going to donate to an organization that trains seeing-eye dogs. This is a wonderful thing! For every $50,000 donated, the organization can train an additional dog that can have a real and lasting positive effect on a real person's life. This is unambiguously a selfless and loving use of your money.
But, says Singer, "if it is good to provide a blind person with a guide dog, it’s even better to prevent someone becoming blind in the first place, isn’t it?" So you start to look into organizations that prevent blindness, and you find that Seva claims to be able to do sight-rescuing surgeries overseas for only $50!
In other words, assuming we trust Seva's numbers, by choosing an effective charity, you were able to help a thousand times more people for the same cost! It's not that the first donation was bad -- on the contrary, it was a wonderful thing! But the second donation was a thousand times as wonderful.
To put it another way: I currently make $29,000 per year. If I tried really, really hard and made my life miserable, I could maybe somehow give away $12,500 per year, in which case I could buy a guide dog for somebody every four years. But I could also help the same number of people donating $12.50 per year to fund trachoma surgeries!
So if we want to make the world a better place, we should try to give sacrificially: donating 10% of my money accomplishes twice as much as donating 5%! But more than that, we should try to give effectively: donating to top charities regularly accomplishes 100 or 1000 times as much as donating to randomly-chosen charities. (And so if we combine them, we're up to 2000x as effective as before we started this exercise, which is a really, really high number! If you thought donating to the MakeAWish foundation was good, then you're right. Giving hope to sick children is a good thing. Now imagine that amount of good, times two thousand. That is unbelievably good!)
To be clear --- there are a lot of issues with this thought experiment, not least that I'm not convinced that you can prevent a case of blindness for $50. So this gets to the hard part of giving effectively: what kinds of donations are effective? How do you measure them?
The key questions to answer when evaluating a charity include:
What effects does this charity have? (Generally the flashy numbers on their website will be misleading, ideally you would like large, randomized-controlled trials to prove a real effect. )
Does the charity have room for more funding? (I.e. will your $100 mean the charity can accomplish more good, or will it just go towards something random? Disaster responses in particular get lots of donations, which is great! But it also means that your $10 might be better given to a cause with less visibility.)
Are there potential negative side effects to this charity's approach? (If your charity promises children can generate electricity for their town by playing, will this degenerate into child labor? If your charity promises to spread something like food or malaria nets via the "free market", will this exclude the people who can't afford it? And will your donation go to help establish this market, or to provide more profit to investors?)
Obviously these questions are really, really hard to answer. Websites like CharityNavigator that claim to rank charities don't even try, which unfortunately means they aren't really helpful for anything beyond weeding out blatant scams. I tend to trust Givewell for secular charities, and haven't found a system I'm super happy with for Christian charities. I think this means that, as Christians, we ought to put at least some of our donated money towards Givewell charities, and some towards Christian charities we're maybe more uncertain of. I started aiming for about a 50-50 split after reading this piece by Leah Libresco (which, now that I'm reading it again, actually is about something slightly different), but I can't say that split is anything but arbitrary.
(Part of me dreams of founding the Christian version of Givewell to try to answer these questions, but I really don't know how you could measure the effect of, say, an evangelistic group, without accidentally incentivizing groups to convert lots of people to a super watered-down version of Christianity for the sake of numbers. If you have ideas I would love to hear them!)
So yes: this is a really really big topic that lots of people study full-time. So far I tend to agree with GiveWell's analyses and I think the simplest option of donating to their top charities without any further thought is an easy way to do a lot (again, literally hundreds or thousands of times) more good at basically no additional cost! My favorite charity, the Against Malaria Foundation, saves a child's life for every $3300ish donated, meaning that every $5 you donate saves a (statistical) month of somebody's life! I find this really helpful in framing things to myself --- maybe an extra $5 doesn't feel like it's doing anything in the face of a frighteningly large malaria crisis, but a month of a child's life seems infinitely valuable when I think of my nieces and nephew! So even if you can only find an extra $5 in your budget, it's worth setting up a regular donation because this is doing real and measurable good!
If you want to go deeper into these questions, feel free to ask me for more detailed book or reading recommendations -- this is something that's really, really important to me!
5. It's okay to feel happy about your donation! (With a few caveats)
There's an obvious risk of feeling too satisfied about any sort of generosity (or really any good deed): namely, you can start to think "wow, I did such a good thing. It must be because I'm such a wonderful person! Better than so-and-so, who didn't do the good thing." and that can push you either to be more self-absorbed, or to "license" yourself to make morally questionable choices.
As somebody who generally struggles with self-centeredness, I think the fear of this pushed me too far in the other direction -- namely, the idea that giving should be completely mechanical and any sort of joy you feel is a sign that you're harboring selfish motives.
So, again at the risk of writing what everybody else already knows, I would like to affirm that while there are dangerous sorts of feelings around giving, there are also genuinely good ones! If you donate $5 to buy malaria nets and they (statistically) buy somebody a month of life, you can be happy that tragedy has been averted --- and indeed, it would be callous not to! (After all, God loves a cheerful giver!)
In general I have found two things helpful for understanding emotions surrounding giving:
a) Focus your emotions on others, not on you: this is surprisingly easy to screw up and I don't feel qualified to write anything in-depth on it, but one simple step is to make sure you're centering the people who will benefit from your donation: "Somebody I don't know has an extra chance at life" is uplifting and can encourage you to pursue good things, while "I'm saving African children" is condescending and self-serving, and will probably make you too defensive to benefit from outside criticism.
b) Don't decide where to give emotionally: This is sort of a repeat of a point from earlier, but you should decide where to give based on where you think the money will be most effective, not on who most effectively plays your heartstrings. (Effective causes, like malaria nets, tend not to be as sexy as Playpumps or even microfinance.) I think Christians are particularly susceptible to this trap --- it's not too hard to interpret "I had a strong emotional reaction to this cause" as "God wants me to donate to this cause", and soon you're ascribing the authority of the universe's king to things that may well be a coincidence or a manipulative fundraising campaign.
I feel like this post should have a conclusion, but I don't want to write a real conclusion because I don't think it should come with a sense of closure --- the closure should come when we take actions (including financial giving) to make the world a better place, not when we read blog posts about doing so. Here's the GiveWell link again, so you can set up a regular donation if you want closure. I am always happy to talk about this if you have questions or want someone to bounce ideas off of.