Friday, October 04, 2013

ethics of charitable giving anyone?

My OpEd from last weekend's Kingston Whig-Standard
Many of us donate our time, and more often our money, to charitable organizations working toward helping people in need. Realistically, there are two or three prominent reasons for this.
Some persons simply donate because their religion demands it, and their religious community monitors closely who does and who does not donate. Peer pressure works. Then there are people who donate because there are tax benefits to be gained, so that a largish donation – at the end of the day – doesn’t cost us personally that much. And finally, there are others who donate because they truly want to help others. I am mostly interested in this latter group.
(It goes without saying that, for a lot of people, their motives might be an amalgam of reasons as opposed to a clear, single factor. Not everyone will just be motivated by tax benefits; most religiously motivated donors will care about the benefits others derive from their donations, etc.)
I donate mostly because I hope to help others in dire need – tax credits are a nice additional benefit, but often I end up donating to charitable organizations that are not registered in Canada, so no tax benefits accrue on those occasions.
Why should we donate to assist others in dire need? I guess it’s mostly due to the fact that these others are like me with regard to their interest in living a life worth living. The more of us that are able to live a life worth living, the better off we are as a global community of individuals with similar needs.
How much should I donate, then, as a percentage of my income? I guess it’s not unreasonable to propose as a rule of thumb that whatever amount I donate should not dramatically impact negatively on my own quality of life. Wealthier people arguably could and should donate more toward the improvement of others’ living conditions than poorer people.
As it turns out, Canadians are doing pretty well as donors to good causes. In 2011 we donated about $8.5 billion, and those are just donations captured by Revenue Canada. Surprisingly, the number of Canadians donating is shrinking, but those who do donate seem to become ever more generous.
Who should benefit from our generosity? Is it more important to contribute, for instance, toward local child or animal welfare, or to causes affecting people in much more dire – possibly life-threatening – straits in far-flung places?
If you believe that all human lives at least are equally valuable, you would probably have to go for struggling-for-survival people in far-flung places, but only if you could be reasonably confident that your money can be effectively deployed; otherwise, you might as well donate only to your local charity.
Judging that question can be a bit of a challenge. How effective could your donations to a cause in Somalia or Afghanistan really be, given the ongoing strife? You might be better off considering a target for your donations in a society that is at least reasonably functional. Somalia might be out of the running then for the time being.
You would also want to ensure that the charity that you are donating to is not gobbling up most of your donation for administrative costs and high-salary senior management types.
Keep in mind, though, that managing a well-run charity requires highly skilled people. They need to be paid properly, too. A good way to check how charities you consider donating to are doing is to use websites such as Charity Intelligence Canada ( or the U.S.-based website Charity Navigator ( You would be surprised, even as far as prominent charities are concerned, how wide the efficiency differential is between organizations that work in the same field. So, if the target of your donations is the maximization of human well-being, that information becomes crucial.
We are also surprisingly emotional when it comes to charitable giving. There should be no surprise in that. In addition to being morally obligatory, we typically also feel strongly about where our money goes.
Dire need opens our heart and pursestrings. There is a reason why international aid organizations don’t hesitate to show pictures of starving children, typically, as opposed to starving adults. The latter they show, too, but not nearly as often as images of children.
This is problematic, obviously. Large charities really are multimillion (some possibly multibillion) dollar businesses. They need to rake in large sums of money not only for their programs but also to pay their staffs. It is perfectly possibly that our irrational responses to requests for donations leads to charities setting their sights on to wrong targets. They are not helping where the need is greatest or where they could help most cost-effectively, because a particular cause or country might be a difficult sell.
Research reported this week indicates that we are very good at throwing good money at questionable, if not outright bad, causes. It turns out that the more people who have died in a natural disaster, the more money we donate. Ask yourself: Is it possible to improve the quality of life of dead people? Surely not! So why do we donate toward disasters causing many casualties, as opposed to disasters where many people are still alive and in need of our help?
Similarly, if we were really primarily concerned about actual need as opposed to proximity, how is it that Americans donated only half of what they donated to Hurricane Katrina victims to the much-larger number of much-needier Haitian earthquake survivors?
As a species we seemingly have not evolved sufficiently to accept that all humans have equal moral standing and that our obligations toward others in need should be measured by how efficient our response would be with regard to the objective of improving others’ quality of life.
For the reasons mentioned, I take as a given that we are morally obliged to donate some of our resources to assist others. Those of us who agree might want to take another look at who we give money or other resources to, and ask ourselves whether our chosen charity really is most effective at improving human well-being.
Udo Schuklenk teaches bioethics at Queen’s University. Follow him on Twitter @schuklenk

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