An ethical guide to responsible giving
Posted by admin on 29th November 2017

Every holiday season, Americans find themselves showered with mailed appeals, beseeching phone calls and emotional pleas from Facebook friends seeking support for pet causes.

How should they sift through all these calls to give?

The conventional guidance, parroted as if it were gospel, goes something like: Be generous, follow your passions and do enough research to verify that a chosen charity won’t squander your money.

As a political philosopher who studies the ethics of philanthropy, I know it’s not that simple. In fact, there are at least five leading theories regarding the ethics of giving.

Scholars who study philanthropy and ponder why people should give to charity disagree on which is best. But they all agree that some critical reflection on how to give well is essential for making responsible decisions.

Sometimes the questions are clearer than the answers.

Giving from the heart

I call the aforementioned common position, promulgated by the likes of financial pundit Ron Lieber, glamorous humanitarian Jean Shafiroff and Vanguard Charitable, a donor-advised fund managing US$7 billion slated for future gifts to charities, “compassionate philanthropy.”

It urges donors to give from the heart and posits that no one can tell you what makes one cause better than another.

Compassionate philanthropists see choosing a cause as a two-step process. First, ask yourself what you are most passionate about – be it your religious faith, hunger, the arts, your alma mater or cancer research.

Then, verify that it follows sound accounting and management practices.

While simple and flexible, this philosophy of giving ignores considerations like a cause’s moral urgency and suggests that the only thing that matters when being charitable is what’s on the giver’s mind. It also implies that a charity’s effectiveness is measured only by management or finances, which is arguably untrue.

There are at least four other schools of thought worth considering in light of the conventional approach’s shortcomings: traditional charity, effective altruism, reparative philanthropy and giving for social change.