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The Messy Ethics of Giving

Joe Morris
On Wealth (May 2020)
Healing the World

Why do Quakers soft-pedal the importance of financial giving?  It’s true, our unprogrammed meetings don’t need as much as conventional churches since they typically lack paid staff and large buildings.  But beyond those differences, we seem to be quite uneasy in even bringing up the topic.

The one shining exception I have found is a two-page section in North Pacific Yearly Meeting’s 2018 Faith and Practice on “Stewardship of Money and Other Resources.” These Friends don’t mince words:

“Wealth, or a perceived lack of it, has an effect on every outward aspect of our life.”

“Money well-used can make needed changes possible.”

“Unequal distribution of wealth is one of the seeds of war.”

Money is important. It can reach thousands of causes that individual efforts cannot. In areas like Central Africa, most people die before the age of sixty, without once seeing a physician. A contribution of a single day’s wages in the U.S. can often save a life in a medical clinic far away.

Generosity does not require us to deprive ourselves of what we need for a full life. But it does require us to consider what we spend on ourselves. We need to determine how we distinguish needs from wants. For some, a trip to Hawaii or a gym membership would appear to be a necessity, as these provide rejuvenation from stressful, sedentary jobs. To others, maybe not.

Quakers are generally well-educated and have professional careers. Most Friends would likely consider a salary of $50K to be a modest one; yet only one person in 300 worldwide makes that much or more. A salary of $80K or higher is only earned by one in 1,000. Most Americans, and especially most Quakers, are unabashed beneficiaries of global inequality.

Try this simple, but revealing exercise for yourself.  Go to www.givingwhatwecan.org and scroll down to the question, “How rich am I?” Insert your after-tax income and find its rank compared to the rest of the world. I found it a humbling discovery, but also inspiring in terms of the good I can do.  Maybe you will, too.

It’s quite possible that the donations we make can bring about the greatest social good we will ever perform in our lives. Yet donations involve messy ethical choices, which are, in turn, based on heart choices and head choices.

Heart choices are powerful for everyone. Appeals to our sympathies and fellow-feelings, especially when combined with concrete examples, can evoke quick generosity. A televised appeal showing abused animals or starving children will have some people reaching quickly for their checkbooks. We also give for less noble reasons, such as anxiety that someone will feel rejected if we are stingy in our wills or pride at being named an “angel” on the list of a nonprofit’s contributors.

These sentiments are natural and not to be ignored. A kind heart is the basis of altruistic giving. Let yourself savor and enjoy the inner spirit of good within you. Consider the things that bring you the most happiness, the things that matter to you most, and base your giving there. For example, if you are an amateur musician, you might enjoy contributing to a public-school music program. Going with a concern that strongly appeals to you can lead to other involvement, such as after-school music tutoring or helping with a program’s fund-raising.

In addition to making good heart choices, we need to listen to our heads.  It’s essential to consider how many people will benefit from our giving, in what way, and by how much. In 2015, William Macaskill launched a movement called “effective altruism” with his book Doing Good Better. Macaskill’s goal is to short-circuit the usually subjective and uninformed ways that people give money by developing an approach, based on facts and careful reasoning, that can powerfully multiply the benefits of a person’s philanthropy.

A key guideline is to examine the overhead costs of an organization compared to the direct services it provides to its clients. Consider, for instance, two nonprofits with the identical goals of teaching computer skills to girls in Ghana. One spends 80% of its income annually on administrators’ salaries, fundraising, and rentals. The other operates much more efficiently: 40% of its income goes to the same overhead costs, leaving 60% for direct service to its girls.

Obviously, everything else being the same, we would write our checks to the second organization. However, charitable organizations rarely publish the amounts they spend on overhead versus program. For information like this, we can turn to “charity assessment organizations.” The two most well-established and respected ones are Charity Navigator (charitynavigator.org) and Charity Watch (charitywatch.org). Both organizations rate nonprofits with an overall grade of A-D and also give details about the basis of each rating. However, because around a million nonprofits exist in the U.S., these two organizations can only cover the largest and most prominent ones.

Here’s a relevant example: the American Friends Service Committee.  Charity Watch gives the AFSC an overall A rating.  Its fundraising efforts raise an impressive $100 for every $15 spent.  Total overhead consumes a modest 20% of its income, leaving 80% for direct service.

As Quakers, we would also want information as well about social responsibility: actions toward social equality, racial justice, environmental sustainability, and peace-making. Because of this complexity, most of us will want professional help in making plans for major portions of our wealth, such as setting up investment plans and wills. Fortunately, they can seek such help from a Quaker organization, Friends Fiduciary Corporation, open to Quakers and non-Quakers alike.

Established in Philadelphia in 1892, Friends Fiduciary is a nonprofit that furnishes information and advice to individuals and groups (e.g., monthly meetings) on socially responsible investing. They have the capacity to investigate the merits of particular nonprofits, and they use Quaker values as part of their evaluations. I recommend them.

As I enter my late seventies, it is becoming easier to accept that I am only the temporary steward of my possessions (though I’ll hate to part with my banjo!). May we all be able to let go of our wealth easily and pass it on wisely.  ~~~

– Joe Morris is a member of Santa Monica Friends Meeting in Santa Monica, California. His remarks here are based on a presentation given at the annual session of Pacific Yearly Meeting in July 2019.

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