Why do people give?

    One thing is fairly certain, regardless of our particular situation in life: we will be barraged by requests from a wide variety of charitable organizations. The requests have multiplied both in number and type, and nearly all of them are legitimate requests from well-run organizations doing important work for public benefit.
Why motivates us to give in the first place? How do we decide which causes to support? Is it simply on a first-come, first-served basis until we have exhausted the portion of our personal or business dollars dedicated to philanthropy? These are all very important questions, yet we do not give them the attention and thoughtfulness we give, say, to deciding what new car to get or where we take our next vacation.
    First, why do people give? The reasons are far too many to recount here, even in summary form. They are very personal and varied, and they flow from our history and values. For some, it is helping the less fortunate. Many feel a need to give back to the community that nurtured them or continues to nurture them, while others feel a deep need to be part of something larger than themselves.
    There is even disagreement among those charitably inclined. Recently I was engaged in a conversation on the motivations for charitable giving with a well-known local business owner and a prominent nonprofit volunteer. One of them spoke of altruism as the heart of his giving, and the other said that he invests in community nonprofits because he wants to live in a community that is a great place for all kinds of people to live, work and play. It doesn’t matter which one is right. The point is that both are very generous with their time and money even though they get to that generosity from somewhat different paths.
    The second question, deciding where to give from among the dizzying array of choices, is the hard one for most of us. We all want to be good people, we want to support our friends who are asking us to help and we want to help causes that matter to us. The reality is that we cannot support every organization that approaches us; we cannot even invest as much as we would like in those nonprofits that are laboring in our personal areas of interest.
    The most important way to start down that road of philanthropic choice is to ask yourself, your family and your business partners what matters most to you. What are your three highest values, passions or interest areas? We heard a lot about values in the 2004 elections, because human beings are a values-driven lot. Once you are more clear on what matters most to you in your community investments, ask yourself if your current charitable giving reflects those values to the degree you feel they should.
    There are many ways to go about this. You can sit down with the relevant people (family, business associates and friends) and discuss the alignment of your values with what you actually do. There is a growing body of accessible writing on this subject now. Tracy Gary and Melissa Kohner’s Inspired Philanthropy: Your Step-by-Step Guide to Creating A Giving Plan is a book many have found helpful. For some, it might be better to start with personal reflection on their relationship to money itself. Philosopher Jacob Needleman’s Money and the Meaning of Life probes the disconnect between our money and our larger selves that give meaning to our lives. Lynn Twist’s The Soul of Money: Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Life uses her own experiences to help others examine their relationship to money and its impact – positive or negative – on their core human values. Many financial planners are now taking a values-based approach, gently pushing their clients to reflect systematically on their values, their dreams and how they can use their financial resources most effectively to live according to their stated values and to achieve their dreams. We might all be surprised at how many people’s aspirations involve helping others, although it should not be that surprising in this land of abundance.
    Once you have decided why and where you want to invest your money in your community, your final decisions are how much and how. How much to give is a very personal matter that can be challenging, for many people are unaware of what percentage of their income they give in any year. This percentage varies considerably for those above and below the $50,000 annual household income threshold. The average household contributes about 2 to 3% of its income, depending upon which of the two primary national statistics one reads. An important part of the “how much” discussion should also include what you care to leave as a legacy through your estate plan. Having a will that is updated from time to time as your situation changes will provide a partial answer to the “how much” question, because nearly all of us will have a much greater amount to donate through our estate plan than we do through our annual giving during our lives.
    The “how” question looks at how you distribute the money you feel you can afford to give to charity. Do you want to invest smaller amounts in a larger number of organizations, or would you rather make fewer gifts that are likely to have more impact? Most people who do the kind of planning suggested here end up making fewer, larger gifts more consistent with their values.
    The preceding may sound like too much work just to give money to worthy causes, but you will find the personal rewards for taking this journey many and very fulfilling. You will be amazed by the personal, family and business returns on your social investment, not to mention the obvious benefits to your community.

Don Drake is president of Whatcom Community Foundation, and independent nonprofit public foundation founded in 1996 with a dual mission of enhancing private charitable giving and building community in Whatcom County. He can be reached at wcf@whatcomcf.org.

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