Several weeks ago, shortly after the Myanmar/Burma cyclone, I wrote about how I can easily hang up on charity telemarketers. This got me talking with my mother, whose generosity I admire, about how to respond to the immense need in the world and the great variety of charities out there.
One of the many things I admire about my mom is that she gives away most of her teaching salary. She and my dad have always lived comfortably on what he makes, so this extra salary is something she can use for herself. She chooses to use it for others.
As she describes it:
One day, I was wishing that I had more money so that I could contribute to some more charities. The next week, I was offered a job teaching Latin. I felt that God had given me the wish of my heart and resolved to donate half my income to charities.
I remember how excited she was about teaching Latin in the first place and how she would sit down with her checkbook and a handful of envelopes. But I also remember the response that came flooding in from charities. Requests upon requests from people she’d already donated to and from other charities who must have found her on a mailing list.
I did not show good judgment in choosing charities, following my feelings rather than checking. The result was that I kept getting more and more requests until what had been a pleasure became a burden.
I asked her to explain how she ended up organizing them:
I finally realized that I needed to rationalize my giving. I set up categories and chose charities in those categories to support.
For example, in the category of children’s diseases, I contribute to St. Jude’s Hospital; in the category of armed forces, to the USO; in the category of world hunger, to CARE and World Vision; in the category of microloans to women, to FINCA; in the category of firefighters, to our local firefighters; in the category of world medicine, to Project HOPE and Doctors Without Borders; in the category of cancer, the American Cancer Society; in the category of education, St. John’s College in Annapolis [her alma mater]; in the category of conservation, World Wildlife Fund…
That seems to me to be a sensible way to approach things. She picked the causes that she cares most about and then gives one group she thinks is making a difference in each. She and my father also give to a number of charities as a couple.
It’s not a perfect system, however. Because the world is pretty screwed up and so are many of the charities that are trying to fix it.
For example, because she has a lot of categories, she can’t give as much as she’d like to any of them. As a solution, she sometimes considers giving to a group like World Vision, which provides education, disease care, micro loans, etc, all over the world. It doesn’t quite cover everything but it’s much broader than, say, St. Jude’s.
There are some organizations, she mentioned Easter Seals and the American Heart Association as examples, which she’d like to give to annually. It just takes more planning to figure out how to organize those.
Some associations, like the American Spinal Injury Association, have a good cause but (she says) don’t measure up well. In the ASIA’s case, they actually provide support to someone we know so she doesn’t want to stop supporting them since she can see the good that they do despite the problems.
And she’s still flooded by charities who’ve probably bought her name on a list of “people who donate.” She’s found getting them to stop sending her mail very difficult.
As I said before, there are many things I admire about my mother. Her intelligence, her willingness to help others (in very practical ways in everyday life, not just through charity), her refusal to give up even when faced with pain from illness and treatment, and her excitement about giving. When I was a little bit younger I was scared silly of growing up to be like my mom. Now I hope I’ll be like her in many many ways.