Most religions and ethical systems have urged caring people to share their resources with those who are in need. Doing this well–generously, fairly, in a way that empowered the recipients–was not simple even when most people were focused on helping immediate neighbors. It’s more complicated in this hyper-connected age.
We are aware of so many needs. Every day the news brings us images of people in refugee camps, people trying to rebuild in the aftermath of natural disasters, people suffering from terrible diseases, people constrained by extreme poverty. Our paper and electronic mailboxes are full of appeals from groups promoting worthy causes: advocating for human rights and world peace, protecting wild lands, countering pollution, providing educational help to low-income students, researching sustainable technology and cures for diseases and…
How can we decide which appeals to answer? How can we be sure that our giving does more good than harm?
When Helping Hurts
Wayne Muller’s book Sabbath includes a chapter called “Doing Good Badly.” In it he writes about the compassionate response to starvation in the Sahel region of equatorial Africa in the 1990s, when nomadic farmers were being driven off their traditional lands by commercial farms and the dry lands left to them were not able to support enough cattle. USAID received massive amounts in donations for the Sahel and used that money to drill wells. Once the water supply increased, he says “the cattle population exploded, the fragile lands were overgrazed, and then cattle began to die in unprecedented numbers. In the end, our good intentions helped create a terrible famine.”
Our good intentions may have unintended consequences when we are dealing with unfamiliar natural and human environments. There is a difficult balance between immediately providing desperately needed relief and coming to understand places and communities well enough to help in a way that is sustainable and empowering. Some charitable organizations are willing to answer questions about how they address this balance.
Who Can We Trust?
We’re not always confident that the people to whom we entrust our money really have good intentions. There are too many stories of charity fraud. Some outright scammers claim to be collecting for charity when they’re actually keeping all the money they collect for their private use. Some charitable organizations spend a disproportionate amount of the donations they receive on high salaries for high-level employees.
Some people consult their national governments’ lists of fraudulent charities and suggestions for detecting and avoiding fraud, or visit sites like charitynavigator.org and givewell.org which review charities around the world and make recommendations. Some people prefer to give time and money together, becoming involved as volunteers for the causes they support with their donations; this can provide satisfaction and also a chance to understand the real effects of their giving.
Since there are so many needs in the world, it’s probably a good thing that people decide where to give their money in very different ways. No one of us can meet all the needs or support all the good causes around us, but together we can make a positive difference.