Ineffective Altruism by William Droel

To give away money is an easy matter . . . But to decide to whom to give and how much and when, and for what purpose and how, is neither in every [person’s] power nor an easy matter.

     – Aristotle

The hard part [of giving away wealth] is figuring out how to do it in a leveraged way. It is not easy. Building Amazon was not easy . . . And I am finding that philanthropy is very similar. It’s not easy.

     – Jeff Bezos

A friend of mine (who is not in Jeff Bezos’s wealth bracket) thinks about the effectiveness of his charity. His current policy is to put about $5 in his car’s cup holder every day. He dispenses it to the first beggar on his route, maybe splitting the donation if there are two beggars on the corner. Another friend refuses to give handouts on the street. He generously sends annual checks to agencies that assist the needy.

Clarity about thoughtful giving avoids comparisons with the wealthy. This means giving up “certain myths” surrounding philanthropy, as Anand Giridharadas suggested in an op-ed for the New York Times this past November. These myths are part of a template that distorts how we think about charity and how some nonprofit organizations structure their fundraising and their service.

Giridharadas is the author of the widely reviewed Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, which argues that the global financial elite use their power to concentrate wealth and prop up systems of inequality even if they are engaged in philanthropy. A few celebrity donors are legitimately humble. A few might believe their own posturing, but they nonetheless cloud our critical thinking. Most celebrity donors are, at least to a degree, aware of their insincerity.

These celebrities are often a cause of the very problems their donations claim to ameliorate. They present a faulty model of charity that others imitate, Giridharadas charges. They make their money with “dehumanizing labor practices . . . tax avoidance [and] influence peddling.” In return for their donations, they get “labor, tax, antitrust and regulatory policies” that benefit the acquisition of more wealth. In addition, they get their names on buildings, invitations to galas, and favorable press coverage. Until, that is, their house of cards falls down like a Sam Bankman-Fried crypto exchange.

Keep in mind, too, that despite their press coverage the wealthy give the least relative to their wealth. The poor give the most (see Luke 21:1–4).

For some celebrities, the publicity around their charity is their only goal, writes Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal. They have a deep need for admiration or status; they need to be regarded as moral or altruistic. Donors of this type, despite their language, are oblivious to the outcomes of their charity.

Noonan points to the necessity of an informed conscience, without which one’s behavior, including charitable giving, is a fraud. “A conscience has to be formed and developed,” she explains. It is not given at birth. It is not one’s opinions or feelings.

Aristotle says that a conscience is a product of virtue and that virtues are honed through reflection and noble behavior. Reflection means attending plays, reading novels, and studying biographies, then thinking about how one’s own life is like or unlike that of the characters. Is my character flaw similar to Richard Nixon’s? Why did Iago plant doubts about Desdemona? Noble behavior means repeatedly exercising courtesy, simple acts of beneficence, and small steps for justice. In time, reflection and habit inform a person’s conscience.

As for so-called “effective charity,” my two friends mentioned above—both people of virtue—need not get twisted over how to donate in a “leveraged” way. Avoid giving to organizations that are administration-heavy. Avoid nonprofits that use abstract words like empower, entrepreneurial women, new paradigm, and the like. Look for nonprofits that deal directly with problems and pound away at them without necessarily making headlines—nonprofits like private high schools whose students come from struggling families, or small groups that assist young mothers, care for the intellectually disabled, welcome refugee families, distribute groceries to the needy, or faithfully provide disaster relief. The range of good causes is wide. The legitimate agencies are many.

Whether Schedule A is part of one’s tax filing or not, these are appropriate days to review one’s charity. Is the total close to 20 percent? Is it more or less than in 2021? What is one’s goal for 2023? How much? To whom? When? In what form? To honestly deal with these questions and act on one’s answers is a process of grace. ♦

William Droel is the editor of Initiatives, a printed newsletter on faith and work (sign up for a free subscription here), and the author of Monday Eucharist, available from the National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $7).

Image: Leiada Krozjhen | Unsplash
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