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The Giving Conundrum

When I hear the word “tithe,” it makes me think of a fraying wicker basket, passed from hand to hand down a long aisle of faithful friends, slowly filling up with hard-earned greenbacks and a few shiny coins dropped from grubby child hands. There’s beautiful organ music, a shared sense of wise sacrifice, the smell of Christmas in the air.

Here’s what tithing actually looks like in my terribly unromantic modern life: I sit in front of my laptop and peck away, moving from one underwhelming nonprofit website to another, repeatedly entering in my credit card number and CSC code. My credit card company calls to make sure that no one has stolen my identity. I keep pecking. The receipt emails trickle into my inbox, each one pretty similar to the one before. I keep pecking. The looming threat of my own economic straits grows bigger and bigger until it overwhelms my desire to give and then I stop pecking.

Every year, I commit myself to giving some portion of my haphazard income (the freelance life is not for the insecurity averse) and every year I wind up feeling glad that I did, albeit uninspired by the process and totally unsure if I’ve given the right amounts to the right organizations fighting the right causes.

Should I focus locally, because we all have to start where we are? Or should I focus globally, because people in Malawi have it way harder than people in Oakland, no matter how you slice it? Should I focus on issues no one seems to care about? Or should I focus on issues that seem like they’re having a zeitgeist moment, right at the tipping point of critical mass consciousness and change? Should I give more to smaller organizations and less to large ones, or visa versa? Should I give to the same organizations year after year or spread the wealth around?

I genuinely don’t know the answers to these questions. Frankly, there’s no coherent philosophy to my giving. I want to support crazy brilliant friends with wild ideas for how to change the world. I want to prevent a child I’ve never met from dying. I want to feel one iota better about some completely depressing shit I keep reading about in the news. I want to invest in a social change strategy I find intellectually thrilling. Let’s be honest: sometimes I probably just want to be the kind of person who gives to an organization that has effectively branded themselves to me as the kind of thing that the cool kids know about.

For a long time, I thought that surely other people had figured out some less random way to give at the end of the year. I asked around. I looked online. I searched for books on the subject (not grand theories on how 21st century change is happening, but simple guidance on how to donate modest amounts of money in a meaningful way come December).

You know what I’ve finally concluded? Nobody really knows what the hell they’re doing. Most of us who give — and a lot do this time of year — are just making it up as we go along. We’re pulled in one direction by our heads, another by our hearts, another by our egos, and so on and so forth, until the philanthropic well runs dry.

I asked Katherina Rosqueta, the founding executive director of the Center for Impact Philanthropy, about my hunch. She wrote,

“Too often, the default is to assume that it is heart vs. head, but for high impact philanthropy it’s always heart and head. The heart is what starts people on a path moving from concern to action, explains their commitment even in the face of obstacles or ugliness, motivates them to find better and better solutions. The head prevents people from supporting frauds, leverages learning to course correct, builds cases that convince others — especially institutions that must be accountable — to come on board.”

She actually makes us sound kind of coherent, doesn’t she?

I guess the thing I find solace in is this: we may not know the “right” way to give (and, yeah, I get it, there probably is no “right” way), but we are giving. According to the National Philanthropic Trust, 95.4% of households give to charity and the average annual household contribution is $2,974. Americans gave a total of $335.17 billion last year alone.

And lest you think it’s just the wealthy who are writing those checks or punching in those credit card numbers at the end of the year, think again. According to Charity Navigator, the wealthiest Americans — those who earned $200,000 or more — reduced the share of their income they gave to charity by 4.6 percent from 2006 to 2012. Meanwhile, Americans who earned less than $100,000 — including poor and middle-class families with two working adults — donated 4.5 percent more of their income in 2012 than in 2006.

The face of a philanthropist isn’t Melinda Gates; it’s that lady who pays with change for her cup of coffee at the café before heading into the subway for her morning commute. It’s you. It’s me, still confused but no less committed. It’s a spiritual practice of sorts, even if the actual experience tends to be less than exalted.

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