How To Give Mindfully To Charity
It’s very easy to confuse philanthropy with ‘giving away stuff you don’t want.’ This is so much the case that it’s become something of a comedy staple. There’s an early South Park episode called ‘Starvin’ Marvin’ where the boys have to donate to a pledge drive for starving children in Africa, the whole enterprise fails pretty quickly as the only thing that arrives at school to be air freighted over is a small stack of creamed corn, a food that pretty much no-one in their right mind would want to eat and so processed and nutritionally bereft that it would almost certainly do as least as much harm as good. This type of thinking is present when you robotically dump your change into whatever charity coinbox is present at the counter, without checking to see which cause you’re donating to. This isn’t the worst crime in the world but it is a particular symptom of Western privilege – that compassion is only afforded when it is eminently affordable, when it is in fact costs the giver nothing at all. You might argue that “at least I’m giving something. Every little donation helps, right?” Well, yes and no. Sure the small change unthinkingly given by one hundred people will help a cancer charity, but it depends entirely on the quality of their annual reporting and accounts management as to specifically where that money goes. If a charity is poor at handling its accounts, your donation could be paying for stationary. Or somebody’s bonus. And that’s fine, but don’t expect to be called a philanthropist because of it. This is the moment where your money becomes creamed corn – it exists but it is utterly insubstantial, it feeds but it cannot sustain. And with just a little forethought, we can all do better.
So how do you give mindfully?
Giving meaningfully to charitable causes boils down to three key principles:
The first step is to give up mindless giving. Pledge that you will not reach into your pocket or dusty food cupboard purely in order to dispel guilt. Instead, know that you’re going to give something, be it money, time or goods to a charity which you believe in and concentrate your resources on finding the causes that you’re passionate about. This is an ideal opportunity to support smaller charities who don’t have the promotional resources of behemoths like Amnesty International or Oxfam. An important part of identifying need is also to evaluate what kind of help would most benefit your chosen cause.
It might be the case that you don’t have a lot of money to spare, but consider the other ways in which you can give. Perhaps you have professional expertise that would prove useful in a volunteer capacity – you might be a skilled events organiser, a gifted web developer, a facility with a white van or just have an excellent soup ladling arm. Smaller non-profits and charities are often crying out for the kind of skills you take for granted and if you are able to donate even a small but consistent amount of your time, the value of your work will be so much higher than emptying your pocket change into a plastic bucket. It can also help you gain valuable experience and even lead to an opportunity to explore charity jobs as a paid career option. Equally, if you’re time poor but cash rich, you can source the most deserving charity by looking at a site like New Philanthropy Capital in order to analyse which place your money would be best utilised. If you earn enough to pay taxes, make sure to declare your charitable gift on your tax return so that the charity can reclaim the basic tax rate.
This applies to situations where you are donating goods rather than cash or services. When it comes to donating items like food, toiletries and clothing, it’s important to take a step back and evaluate what would be most useful to your given charity rather than just ridding yourself of useless tat. For instance, a lot of food shelters have websites where they list the food and personal items that are running particularly short. Always make sure to research a particular organisation so that you’re offering the most relevant help. It often surprises people that camping equipment is in high demand – unwanted tents and sleeping bags can make a real and tangible difference to a homeless person’s quality of life.
So there you have it. Go forth and give, but give mindfully. Leave the creamed corn in the cupboard, the world will thank you for it.
Neil Golman writes about Third Sector jobs, philanthropy and working for not-for-profits.