Choosing Charities

There aren’t too many people who seek and enjoy awkwardness like Pete the Planner. Pete’s a personal finance rockstar who also has a huge heart for causes and challenges folks to think harder about their giving.

On his latest radio show, we discussed ‘choosing charities’ and here’s where it got awkward…

Essentially, knowing that there are homeless people and homeless animals, how could someone ‘choose’ animals? Put another way, when it’s -20 degrees across most of the country, and many are going cold and hungry…why would someone choose to donate to an art museum or the symphony? Here’s why…

1. People do choose human needs over arts and culture, especially in a tough economy

The folks at Giving USA measure giving every year (cool job, huh?) and it’s clear that year after year, ‘Human Services” receives a bigger share than ‘Arts & Culture’ of the $300+ billion donated by Americans.  From 2007 to 2008, when the economy tanked, Arts and Culture organizations received 18% less – a significant drop.  Then, as the economy returned, things leveled out again.

2. Underlying issues

Specifically, when it comes to the homeless animals vs. homeless people choice – some would make the ‘deserving poor’ argument – meaning they think that all animals are innocent, cannot help themselves and deserve support. Whereas some people make poor choices that lead to needing help, thereby removing part of the compelling nature of the choice.  This is often why nonprofits that serve the homeless, address drug addiction, drop-out recovery, etc. struggle to find support. (Note: this is an incredibly dangerous assumption – as causes to these issues are multi-faceted, environmental, generational, etc. and rarely can you blame the individual).

3. ‘Cause’ doesn’t always come first

Have you ever been influence by a peer? Bought Girl Scout cookies? (Tagalongs!!)  Sponsored a friend’s 5k?  Helped someone after a home fire? It doesn’t mean you’ll spend every philanthropic dollar available on the leadership development of young girls…or that you’ll be a lifelong supporter of whatever causes your friends ask you to support.  Peer influence is incredibly strong in philanthropy.  Additionally, many people (more than you want to know) donate to causes in order to be associated with elite social circles or to ‘buy’ social  or business influence – think tables at charity galas, symphony tickets, high-end art museums, cause marketing etc.

4. In the end, it’s about what’s ‘right’ for you.

No, you don’t want to donate to a nonprofit that is ineffective but beyond that, it’s more about what YOU want to do with the resources you can share.  Do you have a personal experience (cancer, fire, mentoring) that drives your giving?  Do you have an intellectual curiosity (whales, micro-lending, economic development) that drives your giving?  Or is it about the approach (problem solving, band-aid, prevention) that you’re interested in? What frustrates you most about the unequal society we live in? And, therefore, what are you doing to fix it?

Instead of choosing between two impossible choices, think through your philanthropic priorities and make a plan to spend the resources you have to make the biggest, best difference possible. Then, like anything else, evaluate the effectiveness of your approach, tweak your plan and repeat.  You’ll have a much more rewarding philanthropic journey.

3 thoughts on “Choosing Charities

  1. Thank you for addressing this subject.

    Peter Singer, the Princeton University bioethicist, wrote an op-ed piece in The New York Times last month. In it, he essentially accused donors to the Make-A-Wish Foundation of murder for not supporting life-saving causes instead. Singer’s accusation is, in my opinion, unethical. His reasoning is grossly flawed. Unfortunately, your blog post reveals that Singer is not necessarily alone in his thinking regarding philanthropic choice. It’s very sad.

    I explore the issue of donor choice in my analysis of Singer’s article: .

    I agree with you. The person who has the money should choose the appropriate use of the money as they see fit. It’s our job in the nonprofit sector to make sure they have the information donors need to make informed decisions.

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