Thoughtful Giving: Make Sure You're Providing Real Help

Thoughtful Giving: Make Sure You're Providing Real Help

When I give money to international agencies that work in developing countries, I worry that my money doesn’t reach the intended recipient. How can I be smart about choosing which programs to support?

Paul Sutherland: Don’t enable! Be wise about the consequences of your giving. Investigate who is getting your money, and know specifically how you are helping.

My wife, Amy, and I went to Haiti a year ago to review some of the organizations we support, but physically “kicking the tires” is not a requirement to understanding the end result of your charitable giving. Any organization should be able to spend time with you on the phone answering your questions.

There are many factors to consider when making charitable contributions, including reviewing a potential recipient’s IRS Form 990 (if it’s a nonprofit organization, this is a public record), the composition of its board of directors, and some measure of stated and real outcomes.

Here are a few of the questions Amy and I asked when we were visiting organizations in Haiti: Who is running the organization and who comprises its staff? What exactly does the organization do, and how, specifically does it do it?

And how does the organization see itself being sustainable—and finishing the job?

Amy and I have experienced well-intentioned organizations that seem to be more in the business of fund-raising and fostering dependence. We want to avoid those organizations that are long on flash but light on solving problems in a sustainable and resilient way. We try to support organizations that have a vision of working themselves out of their own jobs someday, because they will have sustainably met the needs of whatever populations they are serving.

In planning ahead for unexpected life events, such as accident or injury, how can I cultivate financial and personal resilience?

Humility, gumption, financial savings, low fixed expenses (such as rent and car payments), skills that are readily tradable for income, and strong friendships are the “stored energy” that gets us through times of injury, job loss, and other calamities. My to-do list for a financially resilient life would include:

● An emergency fund sufficient to cover your expenses for at least six months.

● A lifestyle in which your fixed costs are easily covered by your existing income, giving you the flexibility to “lower your outflow” if a financial emergency arises.

● A “what if I lose my job” plan. Employers fail, or lay off workers every day. If you lost your job would you say, “Oh, shit”? Or would you shrug and say, “I guess it’s time for me to go back to school” or “At least I can freelance until I find another job.”

● Nurtured friendships. Are your relationships supportive and committed? Or are they casual Facebook pokes? In my life, I have found that real friends were more important to me and my family than anything money could buy.

My daughter cycles through one binge after another. She lives for months like a pig—an organic, free-range pig—then flies off to an expensive spa to “cleanse” on yoga, saunas, and fancy juices. She justifies all this spending because it’s for her health. But guess who bails her out of credit card debt? Me!

I was taught to practice moderation: eat healthy foods—and stop when you’re full; get enough sleep; spend less than you make; save some, give some; don’t overcommit; and don’t go crazy for anything. And my parents had some good people backing them up: Buddha’s “middle way” and Jesus’s chat about the straight gate and the narrow way both call for the virtue of moderation.

Today we seem to have moved from the virtue of moderation and simplicity to extremes. Society embraces extreme sports, competitive eating, speed dating, and the belief that a weeklong get-healthy boot camp or a 10-day meditation retreat is better than simply living each day in a sustainable, resilient way.

Talk to your daughter about moderation. Live your life in a way that shows her that she doesn’t need to go to extremes to be happy and healthy. Then tell her you won’t enable her binges any longer by paying off her debts—and stand your ground.

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