My husband and I are committed to giving to charity, and we donate the way most people do: to schools, medical institutions, and our individual favorite causes. I give more to Quaker causes than anything else. I donate to my meeting, serve on committees, hold positions, and volunteer. And in that way, I am like most people in the United States. According to Charity Navigator, the majority of Americans who do give to charity give to a religious institution. Like many, I give because it’s what my parents taught me to do.
I can’t remember a time that my parents did not talk about our obligation to help those less fortunate. My mother, a registered nurse, was the welfare director in my hometown. It was expected that my three siblings and I would share our holiday gifts and give a portion of our allowance to people in need. We would drop off Easter baskets to needy families and spend time with people living in nursing homes. My father worked in the toy industry, and we would spend hours at the holidays wrapping the gifts he gathered, so they could be distributed to families at Christmas.
As I thought about this legacy from my parents, I hoped I had taught my children the same lessons. I also thought about whether our generational difference—baby boomer versus millennial—influenced our giving. My parents did influence me very much, and I hoped that I had at least modeled ways to be charitable for my sons.
For both the boomers and millennials in my family, trust is the key to giving. As a young adult, I started giving to a nonprofit that worked with homeless teens. A few years later, the organization was caught up in a scandal that involved sexual abuse of some of these vulnerable kids. I was shocked, and I hated that I had given them money. That experience taught me to be very careful. I think that’s why I tend to give to local organizations that do work in areas I care about, like homelessness. I also support our local land trust and other organizations that positively influence quality of life. When I am considering supporting a charity, I look for evaluations of the work and try to understand its impact.
Along with trust, we all have to feel a connection to a charity or institution before we will give. That’s the reason for our giving to our high schools, colleges, and the schools we have attended. I usually seek out a way to donate if there is a cause I am interested in. I don’t think mail or television solicitations influence me too much. I’ll search the Internet for a charity or look for people’s recommendations when there is a natural disaster with an urgent need, such as an earthquake or flood. And I am moved at times by social media and videos that highlight a particular need, especially if they are shared by my friends or colleagues. More of my giving is to local rather than international causes. My husband and I often support a GoFundMe fundraising page, if we have a personal connection. I have to admit that I do take the tax deduction, and it does influence some of my charitable giving, which is why I make several end-of-year donations.
My millennial sons seem to need to be moved by a cause to give. They don’t care very much about tax deductions, and they are much more inclined to give internationally.
I always want to see how much of my donation will go to an organization’s administrative costs. Not a big fan of charities that use paid solicitors, I do look for that information in my research. Recently I decided to stop giving to an organization that had my support at the holidays for many years. Then one of those solicitors called me, and I made a pledge. After that, they started to call me frequently and were very aggressive. The most disturbing part was that the calls would appear to come from local numbers during the day while I was working. It became so annoying that I told them to take me off their call list and that I would never donate again. It concerns me that they may be doing this to older people in my family, too.
Another practice that I dislike is organizations selling their mailing lists, especially when I’ve made a memorial donation to a cause I would not normally support. I feel I must agree with an organization’s mission and the work they do before donating, even for memorial gifts. My sons receive far fewer mail solicitations but do receive a fair number of email requests.
Since I work for a community foundation that uses the endowment model, I see a real benefit in knowing that a donation will grow over time and permanently help an institution. However, I do understand some people preferring funds to get out immediately and serve a pressing need in a community. I was pleased when one of my sons said that he appreciated the due diligence a community foundation provides as a service to donors.
I prefer to give money to a charity electronically. Even though I’m a baby boomer, I prefer to pay online, as it’s easy to manage and keep track of the donations. My millennial sons feel the same way. I don’t think they even have checks!
I sometimes wonder about the value of anonymous donations. One of my sons reminded me about the Eight Levels of Charity described by the twelfth-century Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides. Maimonides said the highest level of charity is when both the giver and the recipient know of each other. He describes the second highest level as an anonymous gift, giving just for the charity of it. My father was competitive about the amount he donated to his church, because each year they published a list. I think he donated more to be sure that he gave more than his friends! I’m not sure at times if I want people to know I donated. Their knowing I’d given might encourage them to give. On the other hand, wanting others to know that I’d given could be just self-serving and of no help to the recipient.
These days we frequently face more immediate and personal requests for charity, for example people asking us directly at the grocery store or on the street. My husband and I live in the suburbs, but we both work in cities and frequently encounter people asking for help. I will give gift cards but only occasionally cash. Rather than giving to individuals, I try to donate to organizations that can help in bigger ways. One of my sons sets a limit and will give only five dollars a day. He also encourages me to support things like Spare Change News, a newspaper published by Boston’s Homeless Empowerment Project. The homeless people who sell the paper pay for each copy, so it’s also a business model that allows people to help themselves. I respect and want to support that empowering model.
As an active Quaker, I unquestionably support my meeting with my time and resources, as do my sons. Quaker organizations appreciate the concept of stewardship, caring for those who donate money and those who give of themselves as volunteers. I hope we all use our Quaker values as a lens to view charity.
I was a bit unsure when I thought about the phrase “charity begins at home.” Did we make the right choice? Would my kids rather have gone on fancy vacations or received more holiday presents? Now that my grown children are inclined to be charitable, I think we made the right decision. The answer seems clearer as I see them working at nonprofits and donating their time to causes for which they care.
My parents passed away many years ago. I am gratified to know that the important lessons they taught me about being charitable have been passed to my children. It is an important, unbroken connection between the generations. The ways we give and the causes we give to may change, but I know that charity truly does begin at home.