If you donate to charity
, you should write one check
to one charity, not smaller checks to several charities. Non-profit organization
s are not quite the same as charities; most people feel differently about donating to their child's dance troupe or high school play
than they do to CARE (which fights starvation) or the Cancer
Society.) Economist Steven Landsburg
advises you choose the charity you feel is most worthy and cut them a check. If you send CARE $100 today and the Cancer Society $100 tomorrow, you are basically saying you were wrong when you chose CARE in the first place. Imagine I told you I was going to give $100 to CARE; would you then have only sent the check to the Cancer Society? If not, do you somehow believe your $100 made a bigger difference than mine? Your donation
isn't big enough to make a dent in what the organization
is trying to do, and until there is a "dent" in the goal, you should keep donating to the same organization.
Charities differ from other activities and goods because the goals of most charities are practically infinite (i.e. to eliminate poverty), but no personal appetite or activity is infinite, as diminishing marginal utility sets in when buying another bookcase or in the third hour of visiting with the same friend. There are so many starving children to feed even if you feed one, there are thousands more. No major charity is large enough to help enough people to the extent that the dollars reach diminishing marginal utility. Landsburg uses economic principles to argue that we should be monogamous in our charitable contributions. We can also use economic principles to consider difficult questions, such as how much we should give to charity and how to choose the (one) charity to donate to.
There are lots of arguments about how much to give to charity. Some people argue that if they buy land and cars which appreciate in value, they can both enjoy the wealth themselves and then donate more to charity when they die. Others say, "I earned the money; it's mine to keep; let them earn their own." That may be logical, but it overlooks the benefits to society to be gained by charity, if nothing else it gives us an appreciation for our own situations. Most religions espouse some form of charity-helping the less fortunate- and on this authority we consider how much to give and to whom.
One argument for generous giving says that instead of buying luxury items, one should donate that money to charity. Is it right to drive a Lexus while children in Africa are starving? The money from the car could have fed hundreds for a day or given a few people the education to improve their lives. The problem with this approach is the impossibility of defining "luxury" or "surplus income." What is a luxury item? In some other countries, any car is a luxury. Luxury compared to who living where? If "luxury" items are morally wrong, it is also wrong to have a higher standard of living than anyone else. You should share what you have and give away your money in an effort to bring others up, closer to your own standard of living. By this philosophy, you should find the poorest people on the earth and give them the money to bring them up to a better standard of living. However, since there are so many destitutes, they would each get half-a-penny and you would be broke. The poor would be infinitesimally better off, but there would be one more starving person, namely you. The very small amount of utility gained by the poor would not at all compensate for the huge loss in utility of the donor. Society, by economic standards, would be worse off because the gains do not exceed the loss.
One penny, or one grain of corn, to each of several thousand people does almost no good, but concentrated on fewer people, it can literally make the difference between life and death. This is Landsburg's theory but applied differently: not only should we focus money on one charity instead of giving small amounts to many charities, but charities should focus on helping people enough to make a difference so that they in turn will be in a position better able to help those around them.
Savings can be looked at as a type of preventative charity, because if something happens to you or your family, you will have the means to support them without relying on society and the charity of others. But should you save all your money in the name of self-reliance and give none of it to charity? If you cannot support yourself, or your grandparents, because you donated the money to CARE instead, you have done yourself and society a disservice. Some money should be saved for basic self-reliance. How to determine the "right" amount to give a charity is still a difficult decision, but it lies between the two extremes: giving it all away or saving it all. If you can no longer provide for your family, the losses exceed the benefits. If you can "afford" to donate some money, that means that you will probably get less utility from that next dollar than the people at CARE. However, it is still your money and not theirs, so it is perfectly fair to give more weight to your own utility than that of others, but you can make a difference to someone, just as the little girl did with the starfish.
Even after deciding how much to give to a charity, what criteria should be used to decide which is the most deserving? Is it better to give to a charity that is working to eliminate Alzheimer's disease, or cancer, or feed starving children in Africa? Should more effort be given to curing disease that affect children, or those that affect adults or seniors? Senior citizens have less life left anyway, but have contributed to society the longest; adults produce the most for society; children "have their whole lives in front of them". Should we give the same value to the three years of life from 70 to 73 as we do from 20 to 23?
Perhaps there should be less research on some kinds of diseases and more on others, but should we choose those that are debilitating, that kill quickly, or slowly? Maybe instead of medical research, the money should be completely given to education, which helps people improve their own lives. But then do we educate in the slums of America? Ireland? India? What is the right balance between food and education in Africa? Without food they will starve; without education they will continue to need donated food. Should warring countries get more or less aid? Of what type? How do we measure the benefits to society? Perhaps sending food and teachers to Africa is useless until the governments are established that want to help citizens. Monies might be better spent on political charities which strive for stable, non-corrupt governments before food and education.
Most charities are dedicated either to prolonging lives or improving the quality of life for a group of people. Which is more important, and to what point? Should we try to guarantee a certain standard of life before "helping" people stay alive in misery? Should we decide who to help based on how much they will be able to contribute back to society? If the amount of money needed to cure a disease could be used to educate some other people, which is the better cause? Is the man cured of a disease more likely to become a doctor and help society, or the child given an education to become a great inventor? Does education for the poor in India bring more or less benefit to society than education for the poor in Rwanda? Then we could try to ask about utility: does the poor Irishman or the poor Rwandian receive more utility from education? from food? Which can contribute more to society?
These are impossible questions, but they deal with the scarcity of resources and how to distribute them: precisely economics. I do not know how to choose who to help, but when we make the decision to give to charity, it should be based on some type of well-thought-out criteria. Perhaps you believe donations should go to the people who will get the most utility from them, and perhaps you have a way to measure that. Perhaps you think that regardless of how happy the individual is to receive aid, only those who have a high chance of contributing back to society should be helped. No matter what you think, you are probably overlooking something, but if you give your money where you think it should go, and someone else considers something you did not and contributes accordingly, as a group we will make the most optimal decision we can.