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Where Should a Billionaire Give? Where Should I?

PUBLISHED: December 8, 2009
Salvation Army Bucket
Koko Love / CC BY-NC-SA

Three years ago, the controversy-stirring Princeton University philosopher Peter Singer wrote an article entitled “What Should a Billionaire Give — and What Should You?” The piece explored, as one might infer from the title, the moral imperative of rich people to give money to those less fortunate than themselves. “What is a human life worth?” Singer begins. From this simple question he proceeds, with air-tight logic, to the rather radical conclusion that the top ten percent of US taxpayers are morally obligated to give between a tenth and a third of their income to charity. Although I’m not usually a fan of Singer’s thinking, this piece struck a chord with me when I first came across it about a year ago, and I resolved to give five percent of my 2009 income to charity. (Singer didn’t specify what those of us in the lowest couple tax brackets should give, but I thought five percent was a good start). Thus began the unexpectedly difficult process of deciding where to give the money.

Following Singer’s argument, stands to reason that one should direct one’s charitable donations to the most needy, or to those organizations that make the most impact per dollar. Abstractly, this makes sense. But with more than a million charitable organizations in the United States, all aggressively vying for the same pool of money, it can be difficult to know which are the most deserving. And how can we even hope to measure impact? Singer is no help. While highlighting Bill Gates and Zell Kravinsky’s health-related philanthropy, he doesn’t advocate for any particular charities. And although organizations like Great Nonprofits and Charity Navigator can be useful in brainstorming or crossing off inefficient organizations, they are not useful in making the ultimate decision. The former is pretty much a social networking site for nonprofits and the latter relies much too heavily on controversial formulas which can sometimes leave compelling organizations trimming their operating costs for the sake of a good rating.

Overwhelmed by the data, and by the sheer number of organizations out there, I went with my gut, choosing a wide range of nonprofit organizations that provide a variety of services to diverse populations. (Can you tell I’ve been reading a lot of nonprofits’s websites recently?) The list included Trees for Life, an organization that gives saplings to Palestinian olive farmers whose orchards have been destroyed by the Israeli Army; Deepalya, a school for children who live in the slums of Delhi; People’s Grocery, a food justice organization in Oakland, California; and “Radiolab,” a radio show that I love. I was happy with the diversity of my list and thought that this combination of organizations would allow my relatively small philanthropic contribution to have a wide impact. Closer inspection of the list, however, revealed a common factor that I’m not sure I’m comfortable with: guilt. My donation to each of these organizations will help assuage a web of very personal guilts. Trees for Life, for instance, works to mitigate the Israeli Army’s destruction of olive orchards in the West Bank, actions which, as an American and a Jew, I feel somewhat responsible for. The People’s Grocery works to bring healthy food to low-income neighborhoods in Oakland, California, where I recently moved, contributing to the gentrification of my neighborhood. And “Radiolab,” well, anyone who listens to NPR will know the guilt that can build up over the year.

The question is whether the motivation behind my philanthropic giving matters. If so, is guilty giving wrong? Following Columbia University philosopher Thomas Pogge, Peter Singer writes that “our obligation to the poor is not just one of providing assistance to strangers but one of compensation for harms that we have caused and are still causing them.” Put that way, I guess guilty giving is the only giving there is.


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