Giving is Hard

June 3, 2019

Have you ever heard anyone comment that giving money away is difficult? If so, they were probably not talking about the bureaucracy (and there can be plenty) but the challenges on deciding where to give and having confidence that making the gift will be worthwhile. This all seems very counter intuitive when giving to those who need help should be one of the most rewarding parts of our lives.

Despite the challenges, giving has certainly taken hold in the United States. According to Gallup, in 2017 Americans donated more than the entire GDP of all but about 40 countries in the world. Figures from the Fundraising Effectiveness Project show that charitable giving rose by 1.6 percent in 2018, despite the gloomy forecasts of the impact of tax changes which rendered individual itemization irrelevant for many, thus taking away any tax benefit of charitable donations.

Focusing on where to give is much harder than it sounds when there are so many apparently worthy causes. And, of course, as humans we are wired to respond to distress when we encounter it directly. The giving landscape is further scarred by politics, and the ability of mass media to make compelling emotional appeals which never address how funds will actually be used.

Larger donors seem especially vulnerable to criticism. Is a lot ever really enough? The 50 biggest US donors in 2018 gave a total of $7.8bn according to The Circle of Philanthropy. MacKenzie Bezos and her soon to be ex-husband chipped in with $2bn. MacKenzie has since committed to giving away more than half of her $35bn divorce settlement. This mindboggling generosity inevitably creates the need to establish a system to decide where the money should go and ensure it is spent wisely.

The power of emotion enables some causes to garner very adequate resources. On the other hand, some significant social issues, such as the effects of sickle cell disease, fall far below most people’s emotional radar. Having a successful response to an emotional appeal can also cause unexpected problems. There have been few events to compare with the terrible and tragic shootings at Sandy Hook. The outpouring of kindness from across the country resulted in donations and grants of $100 million of funds (and 60,000 teddy bears). Disputes on how the money was handled have rumbled on ever since. For example, United Way has attracted criticism for using the unrestricted gifts as it saw fit across the whole community.

Even though giving is not easy, I am convinced that, next to family, there is nothing so rewarding as being actively involved in helping others obtain access to better resources and wider opportunities. I count myself as extremely fortunate that my working life includes spending time with very generous clients who are developing their own charitable legacies. This kindness is certainly needed in our home city of Atlanta where we still have a long way to go to ensure that all our citizens have the opportunities and resources that enable successful lives.

Richard Rushton