Values Added

Part One: Charitable Giving — A five part series on more effective philanthropy

As the year approaches its end, lots of people begin to think about charitable giving. Unfortunately, this means that many people are rushing around trying to cram a year’s worth of giving back into one of the busiest months of all. If this is you, maybe it’s time to consider developing a well-planned, strategic, year-round approach to charitable giving.

Trying to cram it all in at the last minute can be unpleasant. I’m speaking from personal experience. I used to procrastinate and procrastinate on charitable giving (you may recall this if you read the charitable hack that saved me thousands). I’d put off charitable giving all year and then, finally, when the deadline was imminent, I’d get around to giving on December 31st, usually well into the evening. When friends were hosting/attending parties (remember parties? lolsob) or out on some terrific adventure, I’d be making online donations. Usually, my credit card would be shut down by the fraud prevention department. I could have been having a festive drink, but instead I was on hold waiting to plead my case for re-activating my credit card to give some more money away. It was a crazy way to do it, but it got resources to organizations that used them to make the world better and it was okay. In the years since, I’ve developed a lot more thoughtfulness and proactivity around how to approach giving. I’ve gone from being rushed and reactive to peaceful and proactive. Instead of a chore, it’s a process that opens my heart and builds gratitude. I’d like everyone to feel that way–hence this guide!

By now I’ve worked with hundreds of families around developing charitable giving plans and executing them. As we approach the end of 2020, I’d like to share what I’ve learned and to help you build a charitable giving practice that is mindful, tax-efficient, effective, and fun. I hope you’ll join me by suggesting improvements, new topics to cover, and sharing this with those who might find it useful so we can all do better together.  

I’ve organized this guide into five easy-to-digest blog posts. This first one will cover the most basic, fundamental question: why give at all?

Why should anyone give money away?

Well, to start with, you might belong to a religion that requires it. Or your own moral analysis might demand it. You may have friends that do it and make it seem like a good idea. Or it might be part of a spiritual practice you have developed. We live in a broken world and fixing it requires all of us. Perhaps you have had more than your share of privilege and feel an obligation to redistribute. For me, it’s a combination of all of the above.

Giving also makes us feel great. There is a lot of research that giving money away is an important driver of fulfillment. Here is an overview: Can Helping Others Help You Find Meaning in Life? The research on spending/happiness shows something unintuitive to most of us–giving generously brings far more satisfaction than when we spend money on ourselves (Giving Really Is Better than Receiving). Regardless of why you give, you’ll find that if you do, you’ll feel happier and more fulfilled.

For me, giving comes in part from the recognition that what I have is not a fair representation of my worth or my accomplishments. Some people have an easier time acquiring wealth for a variety of reasons (race, gender, class, family, genetics, education privilege, etc). Our culture trains us to think that if we have something it is because we deserve it and if we lack something, it is because we don’t deserve it. 

This common way of thinking is terribly destructive and unjust. Critiquing the idea that rich people deserve what they have and that people who are poor deserve to be poor is not some new leftist thing. The critique extends back at least to the Hebrew Bible. Psalms 24:1 objects with the greatest fervor to the idea of ownership and says that we can’t really own anything! In the Psalmist’s view, the world and everything within it is God’s. In this view, we don’t own things, we are just stewards. I often ask myself how my choices with money would be different if I embraced this way of thinking. But there is still a part of me that holds onto the idea that I work hard for what I earn and I deserve some benefit of my effort. This guide is tailored especially for those who feel pulled in both directions, including those who feel closer to one end of the spectrum or the other.

Action steps

As an essential first step of charitable planning, I’d ask you to think about your own reasons for giving. What do you hope to accomplish? How do you want to feel? How do you think it will affect your life? Your answers to these questions should guide all the rest of the decisions you’ll need to make in the four blog posts that follow.

Photo by Elvert Barnes

Updated December 2022