12 rules for giving to charity

It’s an art, and a science, and a gift.

Feeding birds

  1. Give. It’s just good.  Even if you haven’t much money. Even if you’re not sure it’s being spent well. It’s a way of saying ‘thanks, I’m alive’. It’s about being human — not just a recipient, not just a barely-manager, a giver. One tenth of our income is a principle that many have found life-giving, not as a rule, but as an opportunity or an aspiration, even if we are very poor or on benefits.
  2. Don’t be stupid. There is a bit of a line here. It’s not automatically stupid to give most or all of your possessions away sometimes. But I don’t think giving should be pushing you into debt, and shouldn’t make you dependent on others, and you need to look after your loved ones. Wise advice might help here, clear your head.
  3. Even in debt, you can give something. Giving away money, even just your 10%, might not be wise in those circumstances. But you can still give something–practical help maybe, a smile, a meal, whatever-and your generous heart will help heal both your struggles and the other person’s.
  4. Get organizations to give. Your company; your sports club; your church; your nation. You have a voice here, however small. Argue for generosity and humanity. It isn’t all about us.
  5. Plan most of your giving. Find some causes you like and believe in, and give to them steadily, year after year. It doesn’t have to be much, or showy. Just get stuck in. Do it at the beginning of the month or the end of the week, before the cash drains from you.
  6. Index-link your giving. If your income goes up, so can your giving. If it goes down, so can your giving.
  7. Get good value. It isn’t enough for a charity to have a heart-rending appeal. How efficient are they? What do they spend their money on? How much do they pay their chief executive? Do they mention that in their publicity? Charities range from fine to terrible. Orphanages, for example, aren’t brilliant. They are easy to set up in some countries, can be unaccountable, aren’t necessarily full of orphans and at the worst can be places of abuse. Our responsibility doesn’t end if we give to a charity just because it’s a charity. We have to think about value, or give to things we trust.
  8. Keep some money aside for spontaneous, one-off, gifts. Some kid you know wants sponsoring. Somebody’s rattling a tin in your face for some good cause.  Not your cause, not really your kid. Still, you’d be pretty hard-hearted if you didn’t set aside something for this kind of thing.
  9. Review every so often. Maybe other causes have caught your eye. Maybe your interests have changed. Maybe one of your current recipients doesn’t seem to be spending its money so well any more. Move on. Keep it fresh.
  10. Beware creating dependency in the people the charity is for. Are your gifts helping people grow, making them more like you, or are they dooming them always to be the needy person while you are the generous benefactor? None of this is easy and many charities struggle with it internally. But we have to try. (This is also why I don’t give money to homeless people on the streets in the UK.)
  11. Beware of creating dependency in the charities themselves. Don’t respond to charity appeals. Honestly. Or hardly ever. It just encourages charities to make more appeals. They become dependent on sending out ever more gruesome descriptions of need, a race to the bottom. Don’t let them do it to you. Give steadily, regularly, whether or not there’s been an earthquake. There’ll be another one tomorrow.
  12. Be a bit light-hearted. Giving is beautiful, as beautiful as great art or great science. Unlike art and science, however, it’s within the reach of all of us. It’s a kind of gift.

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