It’s that time of year again. If you want a tax break for 2022, you have until December 31 to donate to your favorite 501(c)3s. In front of me as I type is a tall stack of snail-mail solicitations, mostly from causes I have judged worthy in the past, and emails are coming in now as well. I used to add a few charities each year, only rarely removing one to which I had already given. Recently, however, I have begun culling them in significant number, and quite a few to which I contributed money last year while holding my nose will be cut this time around.
It saddens me that so many of the causes I once believed in no longer seem worthy. It saddens me both because I feel that I wasted my money and—worse—because it is a terrible thing to watch established institutions trip over themselves as they demonstrate that constant obeisance to diversity, equity, and inclusion is of equal, perhaps even superior, importance to their hitherto-stated purpose.
Some people regularly give money to the glory of God, gloria Dei in Latin, but DEI is a new and voracious god. Organizations now ask you to hand over your money and DIE (if you will permit a small rearrangement of letters). Amazingly, they present this as a good thing: how wonderful that there is now a well-staffed diversity office, that priority for services goes to those whom that office deems close to the divine, that we no longer worry about beauty and excellence but can instead worship for the gloria DIE. The reality, of course, is that this kind of death is suicide, deserving not our support but our scorn.
How, then, is anyone to sort through the piles of entreaties? Here’s a guide on why to give, how much and to whom to give, what to think about when giving—and when not to give.
First, why. I am a small-potatoes donor; very little depends on my gifts of $100 or $1,000. But I am thankfully financially comfortable, and people who are comfortable do, I believe, owe it to their community, their country, and the world to give what they can. To paraphrase 2 Corinthians 8:12, try to give according to what you have. For me and many others, this means donating about 10 percent of our income: in a word, tithing.
The verb tithe, Old English teóðian, or “to take out a tenth part of something,” means literally “to tenth.” From an etymological standpoint, therefore, it has something in common with decimate—and this calls to mind the New Yorker cartoon from 2009 by Emily Flake in which two Vikings stand in the foreground, with four burning huts and an array of dead people behind them, and one says to the other, “Did you know that ‘decimate’ means kill just one out of every ten?”
The idea of giving away a fixed percentage, frequently one-tenth, of one’s property or wealth, a practice mentioned in Genesis (14:20 and 28:22) that remains part of Orthodox Judaism, is not confined to the Judeo-Christian tradition: one of the Five Pillars of Islam, for example, is zakat, or “almsgiving” (in Arabic, literally “that which purifies”). Nonetheless, for most Americans, the word and concept conjure up visions of the Church. This is not surprising: Jesus mentions tithing in Matthew 23:23 and Luke 11:42 (his words are, however, directed to the Pharisees), and the second Council of Tours in 567 made it obligatory for Christians, on pain of excommunication, to donate at this level specifically to the Church. These days, however, most Christian denominations do not mandate the practice (some, like Seventh-day Adventists, do), though offerings to one’s parish—usually a lot less than one-tenth—remain standard. From a theological point of view, tithing is different from offerings: the former is owed, the latter mere gifts. But the distinction does not matter in the present context.
How much and to whom should one give? Most end-of-year gifts are of the secular kind. They go to organizations with CEOs and CFOs rather than archbishops and rabbis. But the idea of 10 percent persists, particularly among so-called effective altruists. Take Giving What We Can, founded in 2009 by two philosophers at Oxford, Toby Ord and William MacAskill, along with Ord’s wife, Bernadette Young, which advertises itself as “a worldwide community of effective givers.” Its “most popular pledge is The Giving What We Can Pledge, in which members commit to giving at least 10% of their lifetime income to effective charities,” though there is also the option of signing a “Trial Pledge for at least 1% of income for any period you choose.”
The two most famous members of Giving What We Can are MacAskill and Peter Singer, the controversial Princeton philosopher. In 2013, Singer’s organization The Life You Can Save, based on his 2009 book of the same title, became a registered charity, one that encourages people with an annual income of at least $40,000 to give a minimum of 1 percent of their income to “effective charities,” such as the 25 on a recommended list, and then work upward to a “personal best.” All well and good, but Singer also believes that parents should have the right to end the life of severely disabled newborns. As for MacAskill, he is unfortunately best known these days for having been the person who turned Sam Bankman-Fried on to effective altruism.
I have no beef with either MacAskill or Singer personally (and they’d have no beef with me or anyone else since both are vegetarian), and it’s clearly admirable to be as financially selfless as these two gentlemen are. Still, two questions seem unresolved. First, how much money should one give to charity? On the one hand, giving the widow’s mite, as the story is told in Mark and Luke, is too much: if you have almost nothing, then your sacrifice is too great if you give it all—unless your plan is to become a mendicant. On the other, investing in your community or the wider world to the tune of 1 percent or even 5 percent is on the miserly side for most people I know, and not merely because tax laws provide an incentive for some Americans (though not enough) to be more generous.
But what if you are not most people? What if you are extraordinarily wealthy? Is it possible to give too little? Definitely—and I imagine few would argue with me about this. But is it also possible to give too much? At least when strings are attached to a donation, the answer is, again, surely yes. Everyone can name donors who have given tens or hundreds of million dollars and then exerted malign influence on the recipients of their largesse. Fortunately, many wealthy people also give while trusting that the organizations they support will use the money wisely.
Then there is the second issue, which is no less interesting than the amount or percentage one gives—namely the force of the adjective in “effective altruism,” “effective givers,” and “effective charities.” The basic idea is to find “ways of doing good that actually work.” This means not giving to charities that send unsolicited glossy calendars, hats, and umbrellas, but giving instead to low-overhead charities based in or geared toward regions of the world where even $1 can save an actual life.
But while this kind of giving can be powerful, we ignore our immediate surroundings at our peril. It is normal these days to speak of buying and eating locally (“locavore” was the Oxford Word of the Year in 2007), but “giving locally” is not a phrase on everyone’s lips. Yet it is human nature to pay greater attention to one’s neighbors and close environment than to people and causes in distant climes, a point best made in a 2017 paper by Maferima Touré-Tillery and Ayelet Fishbach in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. One reason for the comparative reticence may be that movements like The Life You Can Save have made some donors—perhaps especially liberal ones—shy about appearing to value their neighbor’s well-being over the prevention from death of a child in a far-off land.
Now, to some extent, we all should work to counteract human nature: there are good reasons to give money to people we don’t know and will never meet. But to what extent? Even if a dollar does not stretch as far when it comes to a local homeless shelter, is the gift of that dollar somehow “ineffective”? As freelance writer Stephanie Wykstra states in her essay “A Case for Giving Locally,” “donors in wealthy countries should not look away from global poverty. But we also have opportunities to reduce huge amounts of suffering right down the street, at a relatively low cost.”
Supporting charities that are not about deep suffering presents a trickier question. Can we justify donations that do not immediately save lives? Are we “doing good” when we give money to libraries and museums and contribute to the fund for restoring the elegant but crumbling façade of that historic building down the street? In short, can we justify giving to cultural organizations, ones dedicated to elevating the soul?
My answer has always been yes. I don’t view the preservation and transmission of culture as a luxury—and if the government doesn’t foot the bill for the arts, then it’s up to the citizenry to do so. There is no substitute for seeing Hopper’s Nighthawks in person at the Art Institute of Chicago or for experiencing Angela Meade and Jamie Barton live in Bellini’s Norma at the Los Angeles Opera or elsewhere.
The problem: cultural organizations are at the vanguard of the gloria DIE. My praise for those who give generously and trust that their money will be used wisely must, sadly, be tempered, for the days of trust are over. Despite holding the commonplace view that donors should not have undue influence on the organizations they support, I now find myself in the position of suggesting that if you give—at whatever level, however small—you do in fact need to exhibit serious, if external, oversight and be prepared to pull funding when things get out of hand. In other words, you need to know when not to give any longer.
If you are paying attention, you have read Heather Mac Donald’s account of what is happening at the Art Institute of Chicago and will decline to donate. If you are paying attention, you have read Mac Donald on “classical music’s suicide pact” (parts one and two, so much there is to say) and will decline to donate to the Los Angeles Opera. And if—to move to colleges and universities—you are paying attention, you have read Mac Donald on the alleged systemic racism in academia and will decline to donate to Middlebury College or whatever your alma mater may be. Basically, anyone who reads even a sampling of Mac Donald’s brilliant essays will direct his or her money elsewhere.
Colleges and universities—and other educational institutions as well—present a special case. Traditionally among our greatest institutions for the preservation and transmission of culture, the majority, including the most elite, are busily destroying our cultural heritage with open glee in the name of “social justice.” Harvard just named as its next president an undistinguished professor-turned-bureaucrat responsible for the disgusting treatment of economist Roland Fryer and a staggering series of other outrages. Why would any private citizen support the place?
In general, it doesn’t make sense to give to any university that has a multibillion-dollar endowment, especially when the gift is unrestricted. And it certainly doesn’t make sense when you disagree vehemently with the direction in which that university is headed. Nonetheless, many alumni continue to fork over money because they feel loyalty to the place where they spent their proverbial best years. What they sometimes do is reduce the amount of their donation in protest, from $1,000 to $10, say, thinking that Harvard will take notice.
It won’t. What matters most to all elite universities is not how much you give but simply that you give at all. The development office cares about percentages. (While alumni giving counts for only 3 percent in U.S. News & World Report’s annual calculations of America’s best colleges—this is down from 5 percent in recent years—it is worth noting that “the monetary amount donated does not factor into the rankings,” only the “percentage of living alumni with bachelor’s degrees who gave to their schools during a given year.”) Of course universities covet those $100 million gifts, but if a large number of alumni who make annual gifts of $10, $100, or $1,000 suddenly stop giving altogether—or if they explicitly earmark their donations for any truly sensible university programs or centers that exist—the administration may take notice. Perhaps then it will decide to go back to promoting top-notch teaching and research rather than acting like a full-time diversity corporation that moonlights as an educational establishment.
If you wish to gauge the effectiveness of organizations you are considering supporting, there are plenty of meta-organizations, themselves nonprofits, that use predictably controversial metrics to take on the evaluative task (examples include Charity Navigator, CharityWatch, Candid, and BBB Wise Giving Alliance). Alternatively, you might use your eyes and ears: for obvious reasons, this works best for local charities, though constant vigilance of mailings, press releases, and websites is a decent substitute. I note, for example, that Charity Navigator gives the American Library Association a top rating—but as long as the ALA insists that libraries are bastions of white supremacy, promotes Drag Queen Story Hour, and condemns Laura Ingalls Wilder, you can be sure that it won’t appear on my tax return.
It is not my job to tell you exactly which organizations deserve support. These are personal decisions. But while many of our established cultural institutions seem lost causes, some have not succumbed to the madness of the age. In the days ahead, a few of these will receive gifts from me. Perhaps you, too, should give serious thought to which ones you feel that you can support with good conscience—and a smile.