How to Choose Where to Give

I wrote last time about why we chose to give away 10% of our income even as we were paying down our debt. Now I want to talk about how to choose where to give. If we’re going to give away hard-earned cash, we want it to be used wisely. The organizations that will use it most responsibly are not always (in fact, I would say rarely are) those with sad commercials on the television.

So how do we choose where to give? I have a few pointers from my own experience.

Give to What Moves or Interests You

Are you involved in a particular organization, like a local church? Do you just love to  see plays and musicals? Could you eat Indian food every day of the week? Any of those interests, big or small, could be a great starting place for giving. Theatre lovers might support a local community theater troupes. Indian food lovers might use that as a basis for giving to charitable organizations that provide medical services to the poor in India.

A personal connection can help to you to feel excited about giving. Moreover, being connected to a group helps me to feel more comfortable giving, since I have a better idea of where my money is going. For instance, 10% of our giving goes to our church, not only because, as evangelical Christians, we feel that God has asked us to do so, but also because as active members we can transparently see where the money is going across the church’s staff and services, local missions, and global missions.

Give to Save a Life

If you struggle with having a desire to give (Mr. Steward is with you, there!), then there are some great rational arguments out there for why you should give simply because you live in the first world. Peter Singer, a utilitarian philosopher, has a book called The Life You Can Save. In it, he outlines the unique position that basically all of us inhabit as Americans or Canadians. We are so wealthy that we have the ability to save multiple lives over the course of our own existence, purely through giving away excess money that doesn’t serve to make us happier.

If you want to give and want to have the biggest impact possible, I recommend that you give globally. The amount of goods that a single dollar can purchase in some other countries is equivalent to a week’s wages in some cases. Global giving helps to ensure that you’re maximizing the good that your money can do.

Give to Reliable Organizations

Giving is important, but so is giving to trustworthy charities that will use your money wisely. Giving money to an organization that can’t manage it well is a waste of some of the impact your dollars can have.

For local organizations, such as a church or interest group, getting involved is the best way to see how the organization handles money. I have learned a lot more about how the Friends of the Library uses donations by paying the minimum to join and attending their meetings. I can feel confident about how my dollars are spent in part because I have a voice in making those decisions.

Global giving is a trickier proposition, since most of can’t fly to other countries at a moment’s notice to check up on an organization. Vetting these organizations can be hard, but there are a few websites that can help. Charity Navigator and evaluate charities based both on their financial stewardship (e.g. the ratio of money spent on program expenses versus administration and advertising costs) and on their financial transparency (e.g. how board members vote, donor policies posted on website). They can help you get a feel for whether or not a charity you might be interested in would do shady things with your money.

The downside of these websites is that while they can give you a sense of the transparency and fiscal responsibility of an organization, they can’t evaluate whether the work the organization does is worthwhile. In order to evaluate if that charity’s approach is the best approach or the most important need to be fulfilled, you’ll have to research the topic a little bit yourself. Overall, I think finding a way to give that makes real change in the world is a great payoff for a few hours of research.

How do you decide where to give? Do you use other resources to vet your giving?

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