(Illustration by Hannah Agosta Illustration, based on a photo by Jessie Fox)
How to Give is a biweekly column by local philanthropy wizard Lansie Sylvia. In it, Lansie answers readers’ questions about millennials, philanthropy and engaging the next generation of givers. To ask her a question, tweet @FancyLansie.
THIS WEEK’S QUESTION:
Is it better to give locally or globally? For my gap year, I volunteered in Mali and still have strong connections to the causes I was involved with there. But now I live in Philly and feel like we have a lot of local problems to deal with, so should I be focusing on poverty alleviation here rather than sending my money to African NGOs?
One of my all-time favorite advice-giving gurus, Judge John Hodgman, helps to settle many disagreements with the following proclamation: “People like what they like.”
Known colloquially to his followers as “The Tom Waits Principle,” Judge Hodgeman contends that you can’t force someone to like something, nor can you talk them out of their passions or proclivities.
Sure, you can expose your roommate to the oeuvre of Lars von Trier, but if after watching “Melancholia“ and “Antichrist,” your roommate concludes that von Trier is a violent misogynist who continues to make the same movie over and over again, thereby affirming the phrase, “If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all,” then there just isn’t going to be any talking them out of their opinion.
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Especially since they’re right.
This doesn’t seem like an “either/or” scenario, it seems like a “both/and.” If you’re passionate about causes in Mali and in Philadelphia, then designate a cornerstone nonprofit in each area and sign up to be a monthly donor. That way, you’ll know that throughout the year, you’ve providing valuable, stable support to organizations that you really care about.
If what you’re really asking me is, “Which type of giving will be more effective?” or “Where will my dollar go furthest?” then that’s a different question all together.
As we’ve explored before, those in the Effective Altruism camp would argue that you should use empirical evidence to decide where to give. And their friends over at Giving What We Can would then insist that giving internationally helps more people per dollar than giving in the United States.
By their rationale, they wouldn’t be wrong. Why train one seeing-eye dog in New Hampshire for $40,000 when you could completely cure 2,000 people with blindness in the developing world for the same amount of money?
Similarly, the Life You Can Save rounds up the charities they think are most effective at fighting extreme poverty, and not surprisingly, most of those organizations support international programming.
Their position is that philanthropists of all shapes and sizes have an ethical imperative to use their gifts to save and improve the lives of those less fortunate than we are … and the unspoken assumption seems to be that those “most unfortunate” people are located outside of the United States.
These “efficacy scores” are directly linked to where you can get “the most bang for your buck,” so they are inherently biased towards supporting organizations in the developing world. Simply put, the dollar is stronger in those countries, so you can push the needle further with less money.
It harkens back to those TV ads in the 70s — “for just a dollar a day” — where you could send a child to school, vaccinate them, or provide nutrition, all from the comfort of your home by picking up the phone and calling now.
So I’d like to offer a counter-point. Yes, international giving seems to be more effective when looking at a strict input-output metric. But giving locally can help give you agency in the place that has the most impact on your daily life: your home.
When you read about the crisis in our funding for public education or the persistent, deep poverty many city residents face, the natural inclination is to want to help. To do something.
Giving a donation is doing something, and I think it has a very real, psychic benefit to a philanthropist’s day-to-day wellbeing. It helps you feel connected to your neighbors and your communities. By acting locally, you demonstrate good behavior to these same people, potentially inspiring more people to get involved, thereby increasing the health of your community. Those are all good things, and carry with them a more intangible benefit that just the distance your dollars are going.
So I say: Give to both areas and feel confident in knowing you’re a philanthropic citizen of the world!-30-
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