On Giving Smart

‘Tis the season to be giving.   Everyday now our household receives appeals by mail, phone, and email urging us to contribute to a variety of worthy causes.   And coming soon, the Salvation Army Bell Ringers, for whom we always have a dollar, will be a constant reminder of the less fortunate in our own neighborhood.

From now until the end of the year we will be deciding how much and to whom we will give, in addition to a tithe to our church.

The giving season is also the receiving season for nonprofit charities and churches that are dependent upon contributions.   Some charities receive about half of their annual contributions between Thanksgiving and the end of the year.   I know from experience, if they don’t do so they have trouble meeting their budget during the lean giving months.

This concentration of giving is the result of 1) generosity motivated by the holidays – Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, etc., and 2) those seeking credit for tax deductable contributions before the end of the year.

In their new book A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunitieshusband and wife Nickolas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn document how smart giving, personal compassion and advocating for those who suffer in silence serve to alleviate poverty and injustice.

They offer advice to both givers and receivers.

For Givers – We should give with our heads as well our hearts, diligently researching organizations just as we do when considering a major purchase or making an investment.   They offer their own list of favorite charities and websites that evaluate their effectiveness.

For Receivers – Leaders of helping organizations must do more than ask people to support their cause. They must tell compelling stories with text and images.   The authors cite studies that prove that we give to people not to data.

 “This research underscores that decisions about helping others are largely emotional and intuitive, not guided by rational assessments of where the needs are the greatest.”   They quote, ‘a single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic,’ and again, ‘the more who die, the less we care.’

Church strategist Kennon Callahan contends that while older church members may give out of commitment, the younger generations give out of compassion.

In his New York Times columns Kristof often describes the human suffering he sees around the world, particularly the abuse of women and children and human trafficking.   Along with Cheryl WuDunn they provide a window on human suffering and abuse that most of us will never see.

To anyone who asks ‘what can I do?’ they have three suggestions.

  • Give – Give generously, but intelligently to meet needs close to home as well as far away.
  • Volunteer – Make compassion personal. Volunteer to some project with direct contact with people in need, i.e., tutoring children, distributing clothing and food, etc. The reason wealthy people are less generous, they contend, is not because they lack empathy. It’s just that they don’t have personal contact with people in need
  • Advocate – It’s not enough to give and volunteer.   Mitigating human suffering requires social action to speak on behalf of the poor and needy whose voices are largely unheard by those who make public policy.

A Path Appears, “is a dangerous book,” wrote Paul Collier in his review.   He warns, “If you want to carry on with your life just as it is, best give it a miss.”

And then he adds: “Frankly, only saints and scoundrels can read this book safely: Everyone else will find it upsetting and uplifting in equal measure.   I certainly did.

At time during my 20 years at the Community of Hope, in Washington, D.C., I thought of placing a sign above the entrance – “Enter at your own risk!” I knew that those who came to volunteer and give, as well as those in need, would be changed – for the better.    I know I was.


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