Why giving to charity is hard


You are fortunate. If you are reading this—and I am profiling you now—chances are that you have all of your basics covered (food, shelter, clothing, transportation). You may not be wealthy or buying your own island or anything, but by non-status measures, you’re doing fine.

There are a worrying amount of people out there who aren’t doing fine. Can anyone argue with this? There are obvious signs, such as wandering past a soup kitchen and seeing the line stretch around the block, but there are also those who suffer in secret: the working poor. These people only show up in statistics, not on the news.

And so our society’s solution seems to be to suggest that those who are more fortunate ought to give to those who are less fortunate.

Which is actually not easy, especially if you’re someone who is fortunate but used to feeling less so.

What should be straightforward

I’ve talked about why people feel poor. And I’m not pointing fingers; I felt poor for a very long time. I know it’s all relative (I was never starving), but that doesn’t really matter where emotions are concerned.

But these days, I’m doing okay. Actually, by most standards, I’m doing several shades more than okay. And it feels great.*

So intellectually, it seems like a no-brainer to share my good fortune with others in some way. And yet it’s not.

You’ve all heard the stories about parents of grandparents who grew up during the Great Depression, and would ever after horde everything. While I don’t know specifically what that’s like, I understand the sentiment. It seems incongruous that someone who would keep a stack of ketchup packets in the cabinet would be an active giver, but maybe I’m selling other people short. I do understand the impulse to keep everything, when you don’t know if you’ll ever have it again.

charity: skeptical

There are certainly plenty of roadblocks to giving. First off, where do you give money? Do you give to people on the street? Which people? How much? And if not individual giving, what about charities? Which ones? How do you know which ones are the most reputable and most likely to do the most good? Do you pick one place and give a lot, or find many places and give a little?

I find myself often skeptical of charities. On one hand, they are organizations designed for the purpose of helping others. On the other hand, organizations that are in the business of receiving money are ripe for some form of inefficiency, skimming, and even outright corruption. I’m not saying that charities are bad, just that you may not always be able to know where your money is going.

I remember seeing public service announcements in the NYC subway saying “don’t give to panhandlers, give to charities instead.” At first, I took the suggestion at face value, but later on I began to question that advice. After all, it was the charities making those suggestions, and it brought to mind the folly of asking an insurance salesperson whether you need insurance.

On the other hand, maybe I’m just conveniently stalling. After all, by questioning the merits and motives of an organization who is trying to help, it gets me out of needing to make a decision (and cutting a check). Sounds pretty weak to me.

The 10% test

I remember having a conversation with a friend about the importance of giving when you yourself don’t have a lot. I think she attributed the original idea to Tony Robbins, but I can’t verify this, so it will go unattributed.

The theory is that giving never gets easier the more money you have. Take, for example, the church-inspired 10% tithe. If you have $100 to your name, it may seem incredibly difficult to give $10 of that away. But when you have $100,000 to your name, will it be any easier to give $10,000 of it away?

I don’t think so; the number is just too high for me to comprehend. But that just proves the theory.

Another muscle to build

I have learned that giving is a skill, one that you get better at through practice, just like exercising and discomfort. You want to build it into your life intentionally.

The easiest way for me to do this is to have “Giving” in my budget as just another expense (like gas, groceries, entertainment and the rest). Just like I plan all my budget categories such that all money is allocated, Giving is the same way.

Now, I’m no saint, and the amount I give each month falls woefully shy of that arbitrary-but-compelling 10% mark. But every month, something goes out. The destination may change but the goal is still there.

It’s not enough, but it’s something.

But enough about me. How do you get yourself to give more easily?

* ‘Tis the season to feel extremely insecure if you’re not feeling great in the financial department. If I can help you out in some way, please let me know.

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