Saturday, December 24, 2011


"At this festive season of the year, Mr Scrooge," said the gentleman, taking up a pen, "it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir."

"Are there no prisons?" asked Scrooge.

"Plenty of prisons," said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

"And the Union workhouses?'' demanded Scrooge. "Are they still in operation?''

"They are. Still,'' returned the gentleman, "I wish I could say they were not.''

"The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?'' said Scrooge.

"Both very busy, sir.''

"Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,'' said Scrooge.

"Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,'' returned the gentleman, "a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?''

"Nothing!'' Scrooge replied.

"You wish to be anonymous?''

"I wish to be left alone,'' said Scrooge.  "Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don't make merry myself at Christmas and I can't afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned: they cost enough: and those who are badly off must go there."

"Many can't go there; and many would rather die.''

"If they would rather die,'' said Scrooge, "they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.''

- Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Bieber fever

This time of year, there are a lot of donation asks out there. Charity mailings, food drives, clothing drives, toy drives. I saw a newspaper article urging me to “Cure a child's Bieber fever.” For a second I thought this was some tropical disease, but I was actually supposed to donate Justin Bieber-themed loot to the paper's toy drive.

A lot of these drives aren't even helpful. I've worked or volunteered in some of the places that receive the donations. The women's shelter had a garage overflowing with excess blankets donated by well-meaning people. The food pantry had some nourishing food but also a lot of junk like gravy mix and diet drink powders — things the donors didn't want anymore. Well, the food pantry clients didn't want them either.

If you're done with your coat and there's still use in it, go ahead and give it to a thrift store or coat drive. But if you want to help a child this winter, don't buy canned goods or Justin Bieber posters. Try a mosquito net.

See also: Charities need your money, not your random old food

Friday, December 9, 2011

New recommendations from GiveWell

GiveWell, my favorite charity evaluation site, has published its top-rated charities for the year. Their picks: Against Malaria Foundation and Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (please don't ask me to pronounce that).

They explain their process, so you can see if it makes sense to you.

Interesting that both their choices, like last year's top choice, have less-than-great web design. More proof that a good marketing department does not equal a good charity.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Cold research

I just watched a film of Steven Levitt (co-author of Freakonomics) giving a speech at a charity fundraiser.  He explains his personal connection to the organization - he adopted his daughters from China, and this is a charity that aims to improve Chinese orphanages.

After praising the charity's mission, Levitt asks, "Does it work? It sounds great, it's a nice story, but how do we know it really works?" He goes on to explain he'll be conducting a rigorous academic study of the agency's effectiveness.

I can imagine some people's reactions to that.  "Jeez, these economists.  How can he be so cold?  How can he analyze the effectiveness of comforting orphan babies? Can't he just see that it's a good cause and let it be, especially when it concerns his own child?"

But I'm guessing he's doing this study because the topic is so close to his heart. Yes, it's great that some kids out there are getting a better life. But are we doing the best we can? What if there's a better way to help them? If it were his daughter still in an orphanage, Levitt wouldn't just want well-intentioned help for her.  He would want the best help for her.  And that's exactly why research matters.

For another take on this, see Holden Karnofsky's "Reason versus emotion."

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Does altruism matter?

The other day on the subway, I gave up my seat for an older woman. Afterwards, I thought about why I had done it. Some was out of what you might call altruism, an actual concern that her feet probably hurt more than mine did. Some was to maintain my community as one I want to live in. When I'm pregnant or old, I want people to give me seats, so I'd better do the same for such people now. And some was because I want people to see me as a good person, the kind of person who gives seats to old ladies.

Some people like to analyze whether altruism is real. "Aha," they say, "there's no such thing as pure altruism! You're really doing it out of selfishness!" The woman who got my seat on the subway doesn't care.

You can help other people because you think it's morally right, or because it feels good, or for the tax break, or to impress your friends. The result is the same. Do it for whatever reason works for you.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

How much?

The people who get the most media attention for giving are very, very rich. Bill and Melinda Gates seem to have started a trend, and now sixty-nine billionaires have signed their pledge. This is great, and I commend them.

If your grandpa leaves you a fortune, congratulations. But most of us are fresh out of inheritances or billion-dollar companies.

A few years ago when I was hired at a nonprofit, I asked if I could decline some employee benefits so the organization wouldn't waste its money on me. The HR representative looked surprised and said such a thing couldn't be done. “Are you independently wealthy?” she asked, frowning. I guess she couldn't imagine that anyone would turn down benefits unless they already had more money than they knew what to do with.

This is the kind of mindset I'm trying to change. You don't have to be rich to be generous. It might be easier for people with heaps of money, but those of us who have to think about rent and groceries can still do a lot. My grandmother donated 10% of her income for as long as she controlled her own money, even when she was living off social security checks.

Start where you are. Does 10% feel terrifying? Start with something lower. What would $100 feel like? What would 1% feel like? What things could you shift around to make that possible? An average American income is $32,000, so 1% is $320. Enough for a nice phone, or for saving about one life.

Whatever we're used to starts to feel normal after a while. After trying a year of 1%, you may find that 2% or 5% feels doable. And beyond that – who knows how far you'll go?

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Counting our blessings

Several studies have found that if you get people to write down things they're grateful for, they report better mood and more satisfaction with life. (This is compared to people who wrote down gripes, or people who did some other unrelated task.) One study assigned people to write and personally deliver a thank-you letter to someone who had been kind to them but had never been properly thanked. The letter writers reported increased happiness for a month afterward — and I imagine the recipients felt good, too! A gratitude journal, in which participants daily wrote down three good things and what the causes had been, had even greater effects. The journal writers experienced increased happiness and decreased depression for six months afterwards.

You don't even have to be some kind of naturally grateful person. Counting your blessings makes you happier even if you do it just because some researcher asked you to. It doesn't have to well up spontaneously — make it a habit. Part of the childhood bedtime routine I had with my parents was listing things we were thankful for, and now that Jeff and I are married we do the same before falling asleep.

And what does this have to do with giving? If you enjoy what you have, you're less likely to clutch at more. It's easier to let go.

It being Thanksgiving Day, I'll close with a table grace that's popular in my family:

Thank you for this food, this food
This glorious, glorious food!
And the animals
And the vegetables
And the minerals
That made it possible.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

How to get charities off your case

Okay, so you've made your plan.  You don't want to be the kind of donor who donates based on random mail and phone calls.  If you do, you're choosing charities based on who has the best marketing department instead of who is doing the best work.  So you've decided not to give to any random organization with a nice brochure.

Maybe you've never made a donation in your life.  But maybe you made a donation to a charity a while back . . . and now you're on their mailing list, and somehow a bunch of other mailing lists as well.  Then there are phone calls, and emails, and people standing on the street with clipboards.

Sorry, I can't help you about the people with clipboards.  But I used to work at a large nonprofit, and I do have some advice about the other things.

First, what's good for a charity is not always good for you.  From a charity's perspective, it does make sense to email, mail, and phone their donors (or people they think might become donors).  Even if it seems all that junk mail couldn't be cost-effective, it is.  And if it helps them raise money to save lives, I understand why they do it. So don't think it must be a terrible organization just because they have annoying marketing practices.

What to do:
  • Any charity you've ever given to is probably renting your name and address out, unless you've told them not to. Contact charities you've given to and ask them not to share your information.
  • Most charities can limit the number of mailings and emails you get. If you want to get the monthly news email and one mailing a year, they can probably do that. But you probably can't choose when in the year they send it.
  • The Direct Mail Association has a service that will (supposedly) get you off commercial and charity mailing lists.  It's worth a try.
  • If someone calls you, ask to be taken off their phone list. Telemarketers seem to screw this up a lot, so if you keep getting calls, contact the charity directly.
  • If you keep getting calls from a charity's number and you never pick up the phone, they will keep calling. Pick up and tell them you want no more calls.
  • The "Do not call" registry does not apply to nonprofits. It will not help you here.
  • If you're getting multiple pieces of mail addressed to different people at your house, or different versions of your name, let the charity know so they can merge the accounts.
  • I've heard people advocate using all kinds of threats - "I'm recording this call, and if I get another piece of mail I'll report you to the attorney general", etc. Understand that charities do not have some kind of nefarious plot to thwart your wishes. If you've asked before and it didn't work, it was probably simple incompetence. The person you spoke to may well not even work for the charity, but a fundraising company or an answering service. Call or email again and you'll probably get a different person who can be more helpful.
  • Understand that it takes about two months for most mailing lists to update. If you're still getting mail, understand that, just like at a restaurant, the person you're talking to probably isn't the one who screwed up. Let them know about the mistake, but don't be mean to the person on the phone.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Why you need a plan

I know a lot of well-intentioned people who give haphazardly. A check to some charities they get mail from, a pledge to the organizations that call them, a few dollars in the Salvation Army kettle, change to homeless people.

(The most extreme case I've seen, from my days working at a nonprofit, was an elderly man who sent $3 checks to 75 charities. Since it costs more than that to process a donation, this poor guy was spending $225 to take money from his favorite organizations.)

That's not to say you have to pick only one cause to donate to. Maybe you want to give to organizations that benefit you, like your public radio station or place of worship. Maybe it warms your heart to give that guy on the street corner a few bucks. Maybe your daughter's school is doing a fundraiser and you want to support her.

There's nothing wrong with spending money this way. It's like buying a magazine subscription, or lunch with a friend, or anything else that nourishes your spirit or your bonds with other people.

The problem is when you give some money here and there as the mood strikes you, and by the time you think about giving to something that saves lives, you think, "I've already done my part."

But random donations are not the same as effective charity.

$50 toward the utility bills at your church is not the same as $50 to vaccinate a child against a disease that may kill him. $500 to your alma mater is not the same as training a community health worker in Mozambique who can help her neighbors stay healthy. If your child were in danger, you know how you would choose to use the money.

So make a plan. Figure out who is doing good work in a field you think is important, and decide how much you're going to give in the next year or so. Then, budget a separate amount for feel-good giving.

That's something you can feel good about.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The most for your money

Let's say you periodically donate a certain amount of money, and you want to increase the good that you're doing. How would you do that? Well, the obvious way is to give more money.

If all charities were the same, yes, giving more money would be the only way to increase your impact. But there's a second way – you can change where you give.

Charity Navigator was one attempt to solve this problem, and there are other similar rating sites. They focus mostly on the ratio of program costs to administration costs. This is a good way to filter out the worst charities – I don't trust an organization that's spending only 6% of its budget on the actual work it set out to do.

But what about all those charities that spend a reasonable portion of their budget on program work? Charity Navigator lists 1,317 organizations with a four-star rating. Where to start?

Well, I can rule out causes I'm not interested in. If my goal for this donation is to save lives, I'm not interested in museums or colleges. But that still leaves hundreds. Should I just pick one I've heard of?

That's where research on effectiveness comes in. What we really want to know is not just how much money they're spending on programs, but what those programs are accomplishing. Sites like GiveWell and Giving What We Can have tackled this question.

Most charities don't have any evaluation of their programs that's available to the public. For example, one year GiveWell evaluated 83 charities that work in the US. 62 had no formal study of what they were accomplishing, 15 had studies that were badly done, and 6 had proper studies. Of those, 2 showed no impact, 2 showed partial or small impact, and 2 were actually recommended. Only 2 out of 83 were shown to actually work.

So if you've already decided to give $100, or $1,000, or whatever, it matters a lot where you give it. Take advantage of the research that's out there – you can accomplish more for the same money just by picking a better charity. It's the difference between accomplishing something unknown – maybe nothing – or something that's proven to work.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Good news: you're rich!

I'm a graduate student with no income. My husband and I live on his salary, which puts us a bit above the median household income in the United States. Pretty normal for where we live.

Worldwide, that puts us in the richest 3% of the world. We are 23 times richer than a typical person. How rich are you? You can find out with this calculator.

Meanwhile, let's look at what's going on elsewhere. 2.7 billion people - that's more than a third of the world's population - live on less than $2 a day. Eleven million children die each year from what I think of as "stupid diseases" - malaria, diarrhea, pneumonia. (Source) We know how to treat these things. It's not that expensive. It makes no sense that children are still dying for lack of them.

What do you feel when you think about those numbers? Guilty, maybe. But guilt itself doesn't help anything.

I feel angry about it at times. We, as people in the first world, should be doing better than this.

But how about hopeful? Excited, even? Because we can do better than this.

The cost of basic education for everyone in the world is less than Americans spend on cosmetics. For what we spend on bottled water, we could ensure safe water and sanitation for the one billion people who don't have it. (Source)

Have you saved any lives this year? Maybe, if you're a firefighter or doctor. But most of us don't do anything so spectacular. Here's our chance!

The best charities can save a life for about $380. (Source That's one person who didn't die of something stupid like tuberculosis. Someone who's still talking, working, singing. That's one family that didn't have to bury a loved one.

What are you doing with $380 that's more exciting than that?

Edited Nov. 4 to reflect work done with adults, rather than children.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

In which we begin

"Philanthropy and the good life"? What's that about?

My husband doesn't like the word "philanthropy". He says it sounds like something fancy people do. But I like to look at the origin of the word. It's from the Greek philos, “love” and anthropos, "human being". The love of people.

Giving is one of the most important things in my life. I do it because I believe people – all people, even far-away people – should not have to suffer and die needlessly.

And "the good life"? Doesn't giving away money make your life, um, worse?

Not in my experience. For the last several years, my husband and I have been giving away between 10% and 50% of our income. That leaves us with less cash, but not less enjoyment of life. The things we love most – spending time with family and family, making music, dancing, cooking, reading - are all things we can do on a small budget. If we gave less, we would spend more on ourselves but probably wouldn't be noticeably happier.

This blog is about how to do the most good you can. It's about the ways giving can be satisfying, even exciting. It's about the intersection of generosity and joy.