Gas station without pumps

2019 May 20

Why charitable giving

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 11:32
In my post Thinking about charity, I provided a number of links to articles my son had sent me for thinking about charity and philanthropy.  I promised my readers that I would “write future blog posts as I work my way through the list.”  Because of my heavy grading load this quarter (and more fatigue than usual, for unknown reasons), I have not had much time to read or think about those posts.  I’ll probably get to them mid-June or in early July, once the grading is done for the quarter and I have a 6-month break from grading.

I have done some thinking about charitable giving (mainly during my morning bike commute, which is long enough for random musings on all sorts of things) without the benefit of reading the articles.

My first conclusion is that before I decide how much to give to charity and who to give it to, I need to get clear in my own head why I’m giving, so that the action will further the goals.  I tried to list mentally various reasons that people might have for charitable giving, to see which ones resonated with me.  Here are a few reasons I came up with:
  • feeling good about oneself.  Giving altruistically with no return makes one feel noble and virtuous.
  • giving back or paying forward. Acknowledging that one has been given much by others and reciprocating makes for a fair balance.
  • virtue signaling. Letting others know that one is a good person (or faking it, to hide being not such a good person) seems to be a bit too manipulative, but serving as a good example to others is not a bad thing.
  • making the world a better place. Fixing everything wrong in the world is impossible, but progress can be made in small steps.
  • participating in a community. Joining a group dedicated to making some improvements can provide a circle of similarly minded people who are good to have as friends and associates.
  • reducing the money given to the government or to heirs.  Giving money away to charity can reduce the amount paid in taxes while living or the amount left to others when one dies.
  • religious or social obligation.  Require charitable giving as a tenet of a religion is common, though this requirement has often been corrupted into con games to enrich the leaders of the religion at the expense of the followers.

There are undoubtedly many other possible reasons for charitable giving.

I was brought up to believe that good people are charitable, so feeling good about myself requires charitable giving.  I do not feel further obligation to those organizations that supported me when I was younger—most of them have already received more from me than they provided—but I do feel an obligation to provide for others some of what was provided for me.  That is, “paying forward” makes more sense to me than “giving back”.

Virtue signaling is not a big deal for me—I don’t feel any need to trumpet my contributions.  But I do believe in setting an example, so I don’t feel obliged to keep my donations secret either.  If my modest contributions can encourage those wealthier than me to give more, then I don’t mind my name appearing on donor lists.  Being an example does not require boasting—I’ve been quietly advocating for bicycle transportation for decades by relying on my bicycle for transportation, rather than getting a driver’s license.  Some people have been inspired by this example to try the car-free life themselves, or at least to try bike commuting occasionally.

Making the world a better place seems to me to be the main point of philanthropy—but this broad goal is so vague that it does not provide a lot of guidance on where to give.  The tiny amounts of money I have to give cannot make much difference to the world as a whole—so should I concentrate on improving a small part of the world (like the local community), look for giving that may have a large effect in future (giving to research, for example), or having maximal effect right now.  Are political changes more or less important than direct services to those in current need?

I’m not much motivated by tax consequences, nor by religious or social obligations.

The two reasons for giving that resonate with me right now are feeling myself to be a good person and making the world a better place.  The main thing I feel I need to think about is in what ways I can effectively make the world (or some small part of it) better.

Readers, what reasons for charitable giving have I missed? What motivates you to give?


  1. Why charity? I worked my ass off to get where I am, and continue to do so. Just by virtue of being in North America, hard work and determination, and a bit of luck, was sufficient. However, if you are stuck in one of the many less fortunate places in the world, hard work alone may not result in the same sort of orders of magnitude improvement in circumstances. It just feels right to try to help others help themselves. I do this now with Kiva microloans, which I treat as charitable donations, rolling over repayments into new loans.

    There are no tax benefits for this “charity” mechanism, but the was never a huge tax return payout for me here in Canada. Perhaps the story is better in the USA?

    Each time you make a new set of loans, Kiva prompts to share the details of one of them on social media, probably because they recognize that a big part of charity is virtue signalling. I don’t do that, but if that’s your goal, they make it easy;)

    With Kiva, I specifically get to choose who I want to help — and I generally only choose to fund the loans of those that appear to be trying to help themselves in a sustainable way (buying tools, land, livestock, …) that will result in a return for those loanees, and hopefully improve their lives. I’ve heard of other similar targeted charities, and if I stop using Kiva, I’ll go looking for one of those instead.

    Comment by peeterjoot — 2019 May 20 @ 13:25 | Reply

    • Thanks for this. I hadn’t heard of Kiva before, but it looks interesting and worth considering.

      Comment by profbillanderson — 2019 June 11 @ 12:08 | Reply

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