Give a little bit

It’s coming up to the time now when charitable campaigns are making their big annual pledge drives. I’m starting to get solicitations in my mail, email, and seeing banners around town announcing that the season for giving is imminent.

Hessie also had a post recently about how she’s changing how she gives this year, and it got me thinking about the United Way. This entry really started as a comment on her blog, but was getting a bit lengthy.

I never thought much about the United Way until I read yet another pop-economics book (More Sex is Safer Sex by Steven E. Landsburg), which contains a chapter on the economics of giving to charities.

The basic premise of this chapter is that, economically speaking, every cause is a worthy cause, and no cause will ever have enough. So following the path that makes the most economic sense means you will give as much as you can to the one cause you feel strongest about, because that is the way you will make the most difference.

The simple fact is that sprinkling money around various charities is the least effective thing you can do. Unless you have solved the problem of the first charity with your donation, why would you suddenly switch horses and go on to solving other charities’ problems? Is the first cause no longer as worthy as when you decided to donate the first time?

And it’s exactly what the United Way does. Their entire reason for being is to collect donations and sprinkle them amongst charities. A charity-based middleman if you will. Which means not only are your dollars spent in the least effective way (economically speaking), but the United Way is taking a bunch right off the top for the privilege of ineffectively distributing other people’s charitable donations.

The United Way is an easy “charity” for people to donate to, since they don’t actually stand for anything anyone might find controversial, but following the logic of doing the most good with your dollars, why on earth would anyone donate to an organization who’s going to skim some of that donation off the top, simply for the (likely unnecessary) act of managing that donation?

Neil and I generally contribute to three charities. He does the Movember thing every year (oh, hey, donate here if you’re so inclined) – mostly because it’s an excuse to grow a ridiculous moustache. I blogathon’d earlier in the year for the SPCA, and we also give to the Union Gospel Mission.

I believe all of these to be worthy causes, and like the book mentioned, I do feel good about giving to each of them. But Landsburg also makes the point that charity is not about making ourselves feel good, it’s about doing the best we can for others. And that means choosing who I feel can best use my dollars, and trust that someone, somewhere is taking care of the rest.

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