Putting the Humanity in Philanthropy

As I ride the subway home, especially this time of year, I inevitably find myself looking up from my book and listening to a homeless woman asking for change to feed her kids or a teenager trying to sell candy bars to "stay off the streets." But I don't reach into my bag. I have decided -- after a lot of personal angst and conversations with my social-worker friends -- to save my change and, instead, donate it to outreach programs that do this work in a systematic way.

I tell myself that I'm thinking big picture, that I'm committed to efficient social change, that I do what I can. But the problem with my little strategic plan is that I feel demoralized every time I look into another human being's pleading eyes and then turn back to my book. In that moment, on that train, someone asked me for help, and I turned away. As I drag my feet back to my warm apartment with wireless internet and last night's leftover Chinese, I feel alienated from my humanity.

This time of year always gets me thinking and feeling hard about "philanthropy." What and to whom do we give? How big is the gulf between what we can give and what we do give? Who -- theorists, celebrities, family members, friends -- defines can for us? What effect does our giving, or lack thereof, have on our own well being? And finally, simply how much is enough?

Many religious traditions recommend that we tithe 10 percent of our income to "those less fortunate." It doesn't sound like much, but most Americans don't even reach that deep. Though a heartening 89 percent of American households give something, the average total contribution per year is $1,620 -- perhaps 10 percent of income for some families, but certainly not for many.

Our conspicuous consumption is directly related to our inconspicuous giving. As I gagged at Oprah's latest "My Favorite Things" episode -- where she gives members of her audience all of her product picks -- I couldn't help but imagine how much food could be purchased with the $3,000 that was required to buy every audience member a refrigerator with a television in the door. On a smaller scale, you and I make these choices every day. With that money you spent on a new iPod, how many condoms could have been distributed? How much clean drinking water could you have bought in a developing country for the equivalent of your tab last night?

I know it sounds crude, or like a cliché Sally Struthers late-night infomercial, but it's downright real. There are only so many resources in the world, and if you're reading this, you most likely have a disproportionate amount of them. Every time you pull a scrunched-up dollar out of your pocket and slap it down for a Starbucks coffee (or, given today's mocha frappe prices, make that 10 scrunched-up dollars), that is wealth not being redistributed to starving, thirsty, uneducated, disenfranchised, homeless people, or public education efforts, or microlending programs, or efforts to save the environment or... I know, the thought is totally paralyzing.

Of course a large portion of Americans are in debt -- whether consumer or educational -- and in financial straits themselves. For the minority of us who are not in debt, it is easy to get caught up in a steadily inflating definition of "enough." Enough things, enough security, enough savings. It is easy to start thinking of your financial decisions as only affecting you and yours, not part of a larger picture of who has wealth, who doesn't, and what role you play in that system. Buying a vacation home may just seem like a boon for your little family, but it is also a political decision. Who else lives in that community and how are they affected by your "summering" there? What could have been done with that money? Who could have been helped?

Every spiritual teaching, and more importantly, most of our own deepest wisdom, tells us we have a responsibility to even out the score. Our civic duty, our increasing interconnection, and our shared fate compel us to heed Rousseau's long-ago warning -- that a social contract is as critical to our continued existence and quality of life as a bill of rights. We simply must give.

The problem is there's very little conversation about how to go about sharing our wealth in the contemporary, complex, globalized world. When I had money for the first time -- thanks to a generous advance for my first book -- I looked around for guidance on giving. How do I quantify my values and give most efficiently and fairly? I don't come from a particular religious tradition. I don't come from a trust-fund family. Mr. Gates didn't return my phone calls. As a result, I felt like I was left with almost nothing to go on. I sat down at my computer and made a list of the things I cared about, tried to find reputable organizations that addressed those issues (there are approximately 1,010,400 charitable organizations in the United States alone), and started signing and sending checks.

It was so arbitrary, so unsatisfying. I sat there feeling the same alienation I had experienced while avoiding eye contact with the homeless mother on the train. Do I care more about the genocide in Darfur (Save Darfur) or freedom of speech (ACLU)? Okay, for now genocide in Darfur. But how much do I care? $25 worth. Is that a total insult? How do I quantify the way my heart breaks when I read the statistic that 400,000 have been killed, countless raped, and 90 percent of villages destroyed?

Peter Singer, an Australian philosopher, wrote a defining op-ed on these issues more than three decades ago in which he gave the example of a small child drowning in a shallow pond. If you walked by and knew you could save the child at "minimal inconvenience or trouble" -- though you had done nothing to cause the problem -- you would. Even if you knew you might ruin a good pair of shoes, Singer explains, you would prioritize your moral obligation to help the child.

He writes, "Similarly if for the cost of a pair of shoes we can contribute to a health program in a developing country that stands a good chance of saving the life of a child, we ought to do so." Hard to argue with that. Americans do tend to "ruin their shoes" when they are directly confronted with images of people in trouble, as the philanthropic outpouring to those suffering as a result of natural disasters in 2005, 2006, and 2007 prove.

But, what if there isn't shocking footage to pull on privileged heart strings? Things have gotten even more complicated since Singer first offered us this incisive metaphor. In his New York Times Magazine essay published last year around this time, he asserts: "Our obligation to the poor is not just one of providing assistance to strangers but one of compensation for harms that we have caused and are still causing them." Does this mean my dollars should be going straight to Iraq this year? Or do I have to take the long view and dredge up the wrongdoings of my country's government and business sector over the past 25? How far back do I go?

I don't know the answers, but I know we need some. For now, I'll sit back down at my computer again this year, calculate my yearly income, and start agonizing over my 10 percent. I'll ponder such inhumane questions as whether I would rather buy a woman in Nepal a goat (Heifer) or help fund an inner-city girl to be paired with a writing mentor (Girls Write Now)? This time around, I'll let myself drop some change in the homeless mother's hat, because I need a goddamn break from the agony of looking away. And I'll wait for your ideas for a more comprehensive, healing way to quantify and distribute our humanity.