On giving

I am very fortunate. John and I are both employed and the paycheques that arrive in our bank accounts each month add up to more than we need to cover the bills. After many years as cash-strapped students, it’s a wonderful place to be and I am painfully aware how few young people can say the same in this tough economy. While it took hard work and sacrifices, we are aware that we also had the wind at our backs. We’ve had advantages, whether we knew it or not, and we’ve had luck.

Now I want to give to those who haven’t had as much. John and I agree that charitable giving is important to us. We want to donate to organizations that are reputable and provide concrete help to those that need it. Food. Clean water. A warm bed. A vaccination. Whatever simple need that will make life more livable, both locally and globally.

We agree on all this, so why is it that we only donated 0.2% of our income last year to charity? The facts should be simple: we have more than we need to meet our basic human needs right now and there are people around us who don’t. As decent human beings, we know we ought to help.

But then other voices kick in. Ones that say “what about saving for the kids you plan to have?” and “you really should put money aside to go visit your mom” and “there is no such thing as extra money when the bank owns most of your home.”

These voices are strong and they are smart. In fact, these voices have gotten us to the point where we can even contemplate giving in the first place. They often keep us home when we are tempted by dinner out or a weekend away, so they certainly make themselves heard when we are contemplating giving our money to something with far less instant gratification. The quiet satisfaction you get from donating to charity requires a more sophisticated palate to be appreciated. It becomes all too easy to put off. As we do.

I come from a family – in fact, a culture –  where charitable giving never entered the conversation at the kitchen table. In Finland and other socialist-leaning economies, the social contract doesn’t leave generosity up to individual choice – a highly progressive tax code ensures that those who have more give to those who have less whether they like it or not. In exchange, the government does a relatively good job of ensuring that no one in the country goes hungry or cold and the highly taxed can sleep soundly at night.

Now, in a country with a smaller social safety net, I simply don’t know how to negotiate the personal choice to give.

And it’s no surprise – there is very little guidance on how to negotiate this choice. In the secular, middle-class world, charity is such a personal and quiet choice it becomes very nearly invisible. In the finance books and blogs I’ve read, charitable giving is conspicuously absent from spending breakdowns, except maybe as a tax break for the wealthy or a teaching tool for young kids. For everyone else, the message is always focused on all the other places our money should go. Are young families simply not in a position to be giving money away? Or are they just not talking about it?

We should talk about it, because charitable giving is not easy, especially in isolation. If I’m completely honest, I’ll admit it’s hard to give up luxuries we enjoy, like dinners out, only to then give away the money to someone else. There, I said it. I might as well dye my hair rainbow and move to the Capitol. (Oh who am I kidding – we’re all already there.) Giving will always be a deeply personal choice and one that you have to prioritize for yourself, but I know more open discussion would help quiet those voices in my head and make the sacrifices easier.

John and I will always be somewhat cautious because it’s our nature, but we know we can do better than 0.2%. Yes we need to save for a rainy day, but there are people standing in the middle of storms right now. What we need is to find our own comfortable balance between the moral imperative to give and the practical imperative to save – while still preserving the life imperative to have fun once in a while.

What are your thoughts on charitable giving? And if you donate/plan to donate in the future, how do you balance all these competing priorities for your money? And I am specifically speaking about donating money – I think I’d like to talk about donating time in another post.


Posted on May 1, 2012, in Life and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.

  1. Charitable giving is important to us. It’s gotten increasingly harder as we’ve gotten more and more broke, but the truth is, we’ve always been broke. But I think it’s that very fact- doing without ourselves- that makes it easier to give to others. There have been weeks where we’ve been saved by a free meal or a $20 gift from a friend. So, while it may sometimes be hard to wrap your head around a big check to a giant corporation that’ll help some faceless person somewhere, it can sometimes be easier to make smaller donations to people around you. (Though I’m sure this can largely depend on your community. If you don’t know anyone struggling with unemployment or a tight bank account, different story.)

    Beyond that, we usually have a flat percentage that we try to give from each paycheck. (Full disclosure, this wasn’t happening when we weren’t getting paychecks. But any percentage of 0 is 0. So.) Those times when I, like you, think about the savings accounts we should be starting, the debt we could be clearing, I remind myself of (for example) the cup of coffee I splurged on yesterday. If I’m so concerned about savings, I should be cutting THAT, not my giving to others.

    I’m sure some financial guru somewhere may tell me my logic is flawed, but let’s be real. If anyone saw my credit score, they’d know this is the least of my issues.

    • I just read an article that those who make the least tend to donate the most. Which is amazing and heartbreaking at the same time.

      I think you’re right that seeing your money in action is a major motivator and in a big, faceless city this is hard. It feels a bit like your money disappears into a black hole. Which is why we are thinking we want to give to places like local food banks (and have in the past) – we might not specifically see the faces of the people being helped but we KNOW that money is buying food and making someone less hungry at the end of the day.

      And thanks, it’s people like you who inspire me to just give already and worry less about my retirement savings.

      • kerrylanigan

        So true about those with little giving the most! People who have been on the receiving end of help, or near it, have such a greater motivation to give. It’s a cycle of altruism that so many folks at the top will rarely, if ever, understand. The reality is, a little extra in the bank account could support you for six months, but the people who care about you and have a reason to want you to succeed will help you as long as you need it.

        (and PS Liz you’re awesome. and you too, of course Nina. Great post!)

    • I realized what I said was maybe confusing, so hi! I’m back!

      We set a minimum percentage for organization giving per month. Then, above that, we try to help those around us (by making dinner, offering a ride, or slipping a check to someone in a tough spot). But, in those tightest of tight times (ie, now), the percentage isn’t possible because paying rent isn’t happening. So, we try to at least do the other things.

      If you’re trying to start giving but need to work around some emotional blocks, that may be the way to start- give to folks you personally know who are in need. (if you know any) (not necessarily a cash gift, but maybe pick up some groceries for them, or try one of the other things I listed, etc) Having a face and name to someone you’re helping makes it easier to shut off those voices in your head saying, “But we could be doing ___ with it!” Also, these sorts of gifts feel “okay” being smaller than writing a big check for some charity.

      • To the extent that the people in our lives need help, we try and do this. For example, we’re helping my mom come on vacation with us over christmas. I am planning to have groceries delivered for an out of town friend who is having health problems. I guess I tend not to think of these things in the same way for some reason but you’re right – it’s giving for someone else. It all counts.

      • Totally counts!

  2. kerrylanigan

    I work for (embarrassingly little money at) a 501(c) nonprofit company, so I don’t contribute to any charitable donations – all of my professional time and energy is already directed toward providing free services to the community, and I think that’s fair. My husband makes donations from his personal account whenever a friend of ours is raising money, pledging, running a race, etc. for a cause – usually about 4x a year.

  3. I give to the microloan company kiva.org. I feel like this money is going to people who are, in general, in much greater need that people in this country. Of course I also like the fact that it’s not just a handout, it helps people do something productive with their lives.

    • Oh yes, Kiva is wonderful! I have also given to them and it is nice that you get to keep ‘giving’ and follow people as they put your money to use. It’s a great little window into entrepreneurship in developing countries.

  4. This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently, because I’ll finally be finishing grad school and starting a lucrative job (that I’m fortunate to have lined up) this year. My partner and I have regularly given small sums to various organizations (like Kiva) over the years, but since my salary will be more than quintupling soon, I want to start contributing in a more substantial way. I’ve been researching charities, and we probably will end up donating to a mix of relatively large, international charities and smaller, local charities. We will be fortunate enough to be able to donate a reasonable amount of money while still paying our bills, helping our parents out, and saving for retirement. I definitely expect charitable giving to be a priority for us in the years ahead!

    • I think when you make the transition from student to earner is the perfect time to build donations into your budget, because you’re not accustomed to living on that money yet so it feels especially big. Once you’ve been earning it for a while – and finding a hundred other places to put it – carving out that spot for donations becomes harder.

      Good on you – so admirable to want to give back when you could easily just go buy All The Things that you’ve probably had to hold back on while in school.

  5. I’ll admit I read this post with a little knot in my stomach, because I immediately started feeling guilty about not giving enough. I’ve slipped into complacency lately, feeling like I don’t donate my time or money on any kind of scale.

    Reading the comments helped a bit, though. I remembered my Kiva account (need to get in there quick and redistribute the money to someone else!), and I remembered that I tend to donate elsewhere online to good causes. I just haven’t thought about it or recognized it in a long time. I could do a lot more, and this was a wake-up call. Thanks, Nina.

    • Hi, it’s Ms. 0.2% here. I had a giant knot in my stomach writing it.

      We have slipped too. It’s WAY too easy to slip. We donate here and there when a disaster strikes, or for a charity event, but those one-offs don’t add to much. It doesn’t leave me feeling like I am contributing my share, especially when I hear of people who themselves have so little who are doing whatever they can.

      It’s been a slow wake-up call for me and writing this got the conversation going in our house again too.

  6. I’m loving this. I would absolutely LOVE some more conversation on ways we can give (like I saw mentioned above, giving of your time in your work, volunteering, giving to friends, giving to various organizations, etc.).

    I am so appreciative of this–I give less than I would like to right now, and there’s not really a cultural narrative on how to do that.

    • Yes, exactly, a conversation! We don’t need to talk specifics or dollars, just get it into the conversation that giving back needs to built into our planning.

  7. What’s weird about this phenomenon to me is that I don’t make enough to give a ton, but I have my causes: Homeless shelters, public media, liberal politics, etc. that I give regularly to, which, one could argue means I give 2/3rds of my charitable donations to people who don’t really NEED them.

    BUT, because homelessness has affected my family in a personal way, I make a point of giving all the cash I have on me to homeless people in need that I pass on the street and what not … but still … I would say I give a much larger percentage of my discretionary income than my family … when most of their incomes more than triple mine.

    Maybe it has something to do with being closer to poverty … you feel more fortunate for what you have living in a shitty studio apartment or with your parents … and more grateful for everything you have.

    • It’s interesting you bring up donations like politics – which are a different kind of need than the immediate humanitarian kind. Maybe because things like politics are more at the forefront of my daily life, I tend to donate more frequently to them (I also get requests for those donations more frequently), even though when pressed I would probably prioritize humanitarian causes. Good to think through especially when your donation dollars are limited.

      And you’re yet another case of a person with less giving more. I have to get on that.

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