Picking and choosing - one donor's deliberations
Somewhere between the rash of direct-mail charity appeals before the holidays and the inevitable moral inventory prior to the coming of the new year, I realized with dismal clarity that I'd been uncharitable in 2005. Beliefnet.com's message board suggests that faith-based tithing of your annual salary ranges from two percent for Muslims to 10 percent for Jews and Christians (one pagan claims they tithe 13 percent). A rough calculation suggests I donated less than three tenths of a percent of my income in 2005.
I consider myself a reasonably upright person. I work with children, remove trash from the beach, tip well in restaurants, and obey the speed limit most of the time. Yet when it comes to charity, I'm a skinflint. When confronted with a solicitation, I develop a vague feeling in the pit of my stomach, convincing myself that I'll get around to donating later when I have more time to think about it. My desk often collects piles of appeal letters which, months later, I throw out during a clean up. Sometimes I tell myself I'd love to give, but decide that there's no point in donating unless I can pony up $25 or $50, which would take too big a bite out of my checkbook. These excuses work to keep my charitable giving at a subterranean level.
For 2006, I've decided to ramp up my giving, but this opens the door to a new problem, namely where to allocate my dollars. In my mind, I see charity targeted at three levels; international, national, and local.
Internationally, there's always a current crisis. Thousands of Pakistanis in the earthquake zone are still living without shelter as winter approaches. Older disasters have fallen off the media radar. People in Banda Aceh struggle with post-tsunami reconstruction. The Sudanese in Darfur are miserable, and Romanian orphans languish. Anti-landmine charities need donations to remove the munitions that still pepper the planet. I could give to the noble international organizations (Unicef, Oxfam, Doctors Without Borders Amnesty International) attempting to make the world a healthier and saner place.
Nationally, the Gulf Coast region is still a disaster. Environmental groups (Greenpeace, The Sierra Club, The Nature Conservancy, Save Our Seas) are trying to keep our land and water clean. The UNCF and American Indian College Fund are striving to make the American dream accessible to all. The Breast Cancer Research Fund and Aids Research Alliance need support to conquer these terrible diseases. The DNC and RNC are always looking for handouts, though I'll pass, because I dislike the current drift of the Democratic Party, and the Republicans are doing just fine without my help.
And then there's local giving; where to start? Hockey teams, junior high classes, Minnesingers, and foreign language students are all selling raffle tickets or dinner seats to fund off-Island travel. The Land Bank, Sheriff's Meadow, and other land conservation groups can always use an extra buck. There's a slew of affordable housing groups. The new hospital project needs millions. The Vineyard House needs money to expand their sobriety programs. Community Services requires community support. The Food Pantry can always use more help. The Aids Alliance closed due to lack of support, but our local community health clinic needs donations to avoid the same fate. Several neighborhood families have been beset by house fires or unexpected illnesses. The local chapter of the Humane Society protects the welfare of our animal friends. Women's Support Services and Family Planning protect the health and safety of island women. All deserve our moral and financial support.
Faced with this dizzying array of options, my first impulse is to throw my hands in the air, tell myself that there's more need out there than cash in my checkbook, and do nothing. Instead, I'm going to try a new tack. In 2006 I'll budget one percent of my income for charitable giving. It's still paltry next to faith-based tithing (especially compared to that pagan), yet it represents a tripling of 2005's giving. Eighty percent of my giving will be local, with 10 percent allocated for national causes and 10 percent set aside for international appeals. Among local causes, I will select several key groups I wish to aid, and then give out half a dozen smaller contributions of $5 to $10 to causes I morally support yet normally hold back on.
Ultimately, charitable giving is a personal choice (I recall one friend who at tax time muttered that he gave to charity what charity gave to him.) It should be driven neither by guilt nor moral pomposity, merely by the simple desire to share one's good fortune and lessen the misfortune of another.
Julian Wise is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to The Times' Calendar and Community sections.