I often find the question of how much to give to charity a tough one to answer. After all, as a personal finance geek it can be tough to break out of the mindset of saving everywhere one can in order to prepare for the future. Realistically though, as much as we like to rail against “the one percent” here in North America, if you view the world through the eyes of a child that lives in the slums of Manilla, or Mexico City, our middle class lifestyle is very one percent-ish. So where does it begin and end? Should a person have to take a vow of poverty and give away most of what they have to avoid guilt?
The Religious Answer
My priest growing up (I’m no longer affiliated with a specific church) used to say, “Give until you can’t give and then give one dollar more. That way you will know you have given until it hurts.” While I will always admire that specific religious leader for what he was able to bring to the world, I find that statement far too vague to be useful. For example, who or what determines when you’ve given all that you can? Should you be able to afford Christmas gifts? Is a luxury such as a modest vacation money you should have given? Even buying fresh produce is really a luxury in the eyes of most of the world. If you aren’t eating a whole lot of “efficient calories” does that mean you haven’t yet reached the point where you’ve given all you can give? I know that tithing and other similar practices bring a lot of peace into certain peoples’ lives, but I just can’t get my head around certain mandatory “rules” like that.
Time = Money?One thing I learned from my parents was that giving to charity doesn’t always have to affect your financial bottom line. Everyone likes to talk about how their parents volunteered “countless hours” and subsequently the phrase has become a bit of a cliché. The sad part about that is that it would actually describe the commitment my parents gave. I’m not talking a couple weekends, I mean literally hundreds of hours to various groups and projects all around our community. Later on when I was attending university, this was one of the main ways I was able to give to charity. Often times the places I was able to pitch in at were a lot more thankful for the time, energy, and labour I was able to provide than they would have been for the extremely minor amount of money I could have donated. This is definitely another perspective to take into consideration.
Give Generously and Smartly!
As important as it is to make peace with your own decision about how (and what) to give to charity, I think it is equally important to make sure that you give it to the right people. There are all too many agencies and foundations out there with the title of “non-profit” that aren’t really all that they seem. With CEOs that make six figures, and an advertising budget that dwarfs the GDP of some of the very countries they purport to help, some companies unfortunately have made it their mission to soak up your donations. That’s why we recommend looking at UNICEF if you’re thinking about making an international donation. With creative fundraising campaigns such as their Unicef Mothers Day Gift project, they are able to use their infrastructure all around the world to make sure your hard-earned dollars see their way into the hands of those that need them most. Unicef is known for alleviating poverty, but also taking on lesser-known goals surrounding equality and education for underprivileged populations.
Ultimately I think the only person that can really say how much they should give to charity is you. That might seem like a bit of a cop out answer, but so far in my life at least, letting my conscience guide me has worked out pretty well.