What Keeps You from Giving?

Five reasons that affect me–what are yours?

In June Giving USA released its 2014 report on philanthropy in 2013. The headline? That Americans gave $335 billion to charities, approaching but not exceeding pre-recession levels.

The largest contributors to this increase were individual donors, who gave away a cumulative $9.6 billion more than 2013.

For some people these numbers reflect an uniquely American generosity. For others, it isn’t enough. The Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks annual average expenditure per household and estimates that in 2012, a person with an income of $65K spent about $2.6K on eating out, $1.7K on apparel, and $1.9K on cash contributions to various sources. “If only people didn’t purchase daily coffee at Starbucks,” I heard one nonprofit leader say, “we’d have a sufficient funding stream to address social problems.”

I’ve struggled to know which side of the argument to fall on, but my initial reaction to the “forsake Starbucks” comment is to gripe. “Don’t you appreciate how much I already give? Aren’t you forgetting about all my time and energy and talent as a young person? Who are you to say that buying a Starbucks coffee doesn’t make the world a better place? You think that money is better given to a professional do-gooder?”

Those are the type of questions I typically raise internally. But the other lurking question deep in my conscious, which hides behind the other ones, is much more simple. “Why don’t I give more? Why is it easier to splurge on a latte then to give my coworker five bucks for a cancer awareness march?”

I have a couple ideas as to the source of my reluctance.

I trust my own decisions more than someone else.

When I splurge on a dress or buy a nice coffee, I’m present to justify the expense: it will make me feel happy, I need to look nice for this wedding, etc. When I give my money to someone else (unattached from volunteering time for another cause) I’m entrusting the purchasing decision, the method, the execution, to someone else. I’m saying, “you can decide how to address this problem. I’m giving this organization or this person control over my resources.” And as someone who thinks good intentions go bad rather quickly, I’m the first to point out all the ways we shouldn’t spend money to fix a social problem. So giving, when I think the other person might mess up, is a barrier.

I don’t just want to give more, I want to be a part of strategizing and creating the solution.

This isn’t anything new to millennial conversation (or in fact wider cutting edge philanthropy). The Laura and John Arnold Foundation puts it well in their Philosophy of Philanthropy that “Philanthropists should take an active role in their own projects, and not be primarily staff or consultant driven.” Deep involvement in a project takes time and thought, and the number of philanthropic ventures decreases. Oddly enough, the higher my standards for giving, the less likely I’ll give to a wide variety of causes, respond to direct mail, etc. But if I don’t put in the work to understand a social problem or strategy well, I end up giving nothing.

I’m not sure where my money is going.

I hope I’m not alone in the confession that too often I don’t have a real enough understanding of my finances to actually make substantial gifts. The National Foundation for Credit Counseling’s 2014 survey claims that 61% of US adults admit to not having a budget. (http://www.c360m.com/online/2014_financial_literacy_infographic.html). I’m one of them (and my finance-whiz-saving-machine boyfriend will be appalled). I’ve always thought this personal failing is much more of a future problem, when I come to buy a house, I’ll have to get this under control. But it is a problem for my giving patterns now.

Giving is for rich people.

Of course I consciously disagree with this, but I think deep in my psyche I believe that giving is the responsibility of older, wealthier people. My duty is to work hard (preferably at a nonprofit job) and be careful not to make too much money to come under suspicion. But if I think the rich have too much influence in politics, in culture, in education, shouldn’t that compel more people to give? Why have I ceded giving to only one class of people?

I want to have influence, but not as a donor.

The heroes of my life are almost always poor social and religious saints. They gave their lives for a worthy cause and never earned enough money to get one solicitation letter. In my mind, emulating them is chasing a significant career serving others (and being respected as a caring person). What I forget, and what challenges me, is the idea that my heroes became golden through giving up their careers, in many cases to an institution or a structure that had some authority over their lives for good and ill. I think particularly of the vows of poverty in the Catholic tradition—how countless priests, monks, and nuns throughout the ages have given up material goods for the sake of the Church, not for any kind of “socially significant career.”

So what keeps you from giving? I think the legitimate questions and quandaries abound. This summer on HP we’ll be exploring a lot of questions in this vein. Hopefully for the ends that you can feel freedom to give: your time, energy, talent, and money toward a cause and purpose bigger than yourself.

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