Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about nonprofit organizations and their impact

make_difference_charitable_givingMy wife Karen Schneider and I gave about six percent of our pretax income to charity in 2016. Most Americans give away about three percent of their adjusted gross income, according to the Urban Institute, but our earnings are higher, so we should give away more, in my view. The Life You Can Save, a website inspired by the moral philosopher Peter Singer, has a calculator that recommends the percentage of your income that he believes you should give.

I’m writing about my own giving because (1) I’m a strong believer in transparency,  (2) I’d like to influence readers to be more intentional about their giving, and (3) I’d like to encourage more people to talk about their charitable giving so that we can learn from one another.

My biggest donation went to Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation, my synagogue. In this, I’m like most Americans; religion was the single biggest category of individual giving last year, reports Giving USA. The community of Adat Shalom, and the values that it represents and reinforces, fuels much of my work and guides much of my life. In that sense, there’s nothing altruistic about giving to Adat Shalom. I feel like I’m paying the bills for spiritual energy and an ethical GPS. That said, Adat Shalom will likely account for a smaller share of my giving in 2017 because the needs elsewhere are so great.

My next biggest donation went to GiveWell, with 80 percent of that designated for GiveDirectly, 10 percent designated for the Against Malaria Foundation and the remaining 10 percent for GiveWell. GiveWell, as you may know, is a donation platform that digs deep into the effectiveness of nonprofits:

Unlike charity evaluators that focus solely on financials, assessing administrative or fundraising costs, we conduct in-depth research aiming to determine how much good a given program accomplishes (in terms of lives saved, lives improved, etc.) per dollar spent.

This is important work. GiveWell draws attention and drives many millions of dollars to the best giving opportunities. (Here is GiveWell’s short list of top charities. You’ll see that the Against Malaria Foundation tops the list.) More broadly, GiveWell is a much-needed reminder that good intentions are not enough reason to support a charity. Nor, for that matter, are good results. What we want–or at least, what we should want–from our charitable donations is to do the most good that we can. GiveWell has been shaped by the effective altruism movement. If you’d like to learn more about effective altruism, consider reading William MacAskill’s book, Doing Good Better, or listening to a new podcast about effective altruism.

Much as I admire GiveWell, which recommends that donors give 75 percent of their donation to Against Malaria, I decided to allocate the bulk of my donation on their platform to GiveDirectly, which gives cash to extremely poor people in Kenya and Uganda. It has become my favorite charity for several reasons. First, I love the idea of simply giving money to the poor, and letting them decide what to do with it; it’s efficient (91 cents of every donated dollar ends up in the hands of the poor) and effective, rigorous studies indicateThere’s something thrilling about trusting other people to make decisions for themselves. After all, you and I can’t know whether an extremely poor family needs a cow or a cookstove or job training (probably not). Second, GiveDirectly has the potential to influence global aid by providing a benchmark against which other programs can be measured. If these other interventions can’t outperform cash (and they often cannot) why bother doing them? Give Directly also intends to run an experiment to test the concept of universal basic income, an exciting anti-poverty idea that is likely to be debated here in the US as well as in the global south. Finally, I’ve had a chance to meet Paul Niehaus and Michael Faye, two of the co-founders of GiveDirectly. Michael now chairs its board and Paul is president. I’m confident that they will spend my donation well. (Economists Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabbarrok made an amusing video about holiday gift-giving and GiveDirectly.)

My third biggest donation may surprise you: It went to another meta-charity, this one called Animal Charity Evaluators, which has also been influenced by effective altruism. If you care about suffering, and particularly unnecessary suffering, there’s a compelling case to be made (some of my thoughts are here) that the animals raised for food in the US and elsewhere endure terrible suffering. (Globally, almost 60 billion animals are bred and raised for food each year.) Animal Charity Evaluators analyzes animal charities. They spread my donation among their top charities: Mercy for Animals, The Humane League and the Good Food Institute. All do excellent work.

My wife Karen chose the other groups to which we made significant donations. They are the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, a human rights organization on whose board she served; the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, which funds grass-roots LGBTQI groups around the world, and where our daughter Sarah works; and the National Network of Abortion Funds, because of the threats to abortion posed by Congress and president-elect Donald Trump.

Trump’s election raises the stakes for the charitable sector, for reasons that should be obvious. Immigrants, refugees, Muslims, people dependent on the government for their health care, civil liberties and the planet itself have all been threatened by Trump. Instead of despairing, I’ve been recommended to friends that they do something–donate or volunteer. After the election, I thought about giving to a nonprofit that provides services to immigrants, or advocates on their behalf, because the immigration issue strikes close to home. (My father was a refugee from Nazi Germany.) . But which immigration group? Charity Navigator lists 202 groups under immigration, and Guidestar lists many more, of which only a handful have achieved its platinum ranking. It’s much harder than it should be to identify effective nonprofits working in the US. Next year, I hope to look into immigration nonprofits.

Karen and I made smaller donations to nonprofits where friends work or volunteer, and to support friends who were running or biking for a worthy cause. They include the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, Boston Review, Center for Climate Communications, Climate Ride Northwest, Fisher House, InStove, Trickle Up and Yachad.

This is my last blogpost of 2016. I’m taking an extended winter break. Thanks again for reading, enjoy the holidays and happy new year.

6 thoughts on “My charitable giving

  1. Thanks Marc. I particularly appreciate you sharing the results of your dedication to the topic for the benefit of our personal actions. You have done some of our homework for us, in way more depth and thoughtfulness than almost anyone of us can or will muster. Leaving your other work to pick up this topic is a BIG contribution. You are Wy over the top!
    May the next year look better for the world we share. Happy holidays c

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  2. bpteutsch says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Marc. David and I tithe, but we have our own idiosyncratic formula. We also consider “tithe-deductible” donations for our own purposes that are not tax deductible.
    This year in addition to our biggest gifts (also our synagogue, Fair Trade Judaica where I am the chair, The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College where David teaches, and our local Federation, and Dining For Women) we have given to dozens of groups.
    It is probably not efficient to distribute micro donations among so many causes — but this year in particular it is hard to say no and it feels good to give.
    I occasionally throw some $$$ into kickstarter projects that I am excited about. That is another “tithe-deduction” but not a tax deduction.
    I know you like the Give Well approach, but I am partial to orgs that integrate many approaches including microfinancing. Like OneAcreFund.
    Re: refugees – consider RefugeePoint (I met Sasha Chanoff, its head – he is very smart) and HIAS, which works both on advocacy and direct settlement.

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    1. Marc Gunther says:

      Thanks for sharing, Betsy. For what it’s worth, I am a very big fan of One Acre Fund. It is a learning organization, takes impact measurement seriously and most important seems to be very popular with the farmers in Africa who are its customers.
      Then again, there are SO many especially worthy causes this year and it feels like the right time to try to say “yes” as often as possible to those groups that are either resisting the incoming administration or preparing to help those who may be left behind.

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  3. Bob Havrilla says:

    6% is pathetic although the 3% figure you quoted is even more so. Have you ever heard of “tithe” which is the practice I follow even though I am barely above the proverty line according to the US Gov’t (although I would dispute their figures). All of my contributions went to environmental non-profits which work on the most pressing problems facing our community, our society, our planet.

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    1. Marc Gunther says:

      Tithing is an admirable goal. If you add in our political donations we get closer.

      As for the environmental movement, I don’t see the big NGOs having a great deal of impact on climate change which, in my mind, is the big. I hate to say that because I like and admire so many of the people who work there. But is the environmental movement stronger than it was a decade ago, more politically power, closer to getting regulation of carbon pollution? I don’t see the evidence to support any of that. And while 350.org and Sierra Club have been the best at building the movement, they are anti-nuclear which makes no sense to me. We need to support every big of low-carbon energy that we can to avert the worst impacts of climate change.

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      1. Bob Havrilla says:

        I completely agree with everything that you said except the implication that political donations have some “charitable” aspect. Environmentalists that are anti-nuclear leave me scratching my head; alas, sadly, it’s probably true that my donations to environmental non-profits don’t really have much bang for the buck but as I’ve always said, ‘You win some and you lose some but you still have to suit up for every game.’

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