Charitable Giving

We all experience calls to give to people in need. When this happens, how do we balance our response from the heart with arguments from the head?

In 2016 as a tourist I visited three countries, all with very different experiences of poverty and its alleviation. The countries concerned were Sri Lanka, France and United Arab Emirates. My time in each was limited and my experiences were correspondingly superficial, but in each case I felt not only saddened by what I saw but helpless and frustrated. I came away with a burning need to review my own thoughts and practice on charitable giving, realising that though I’ve been “doing it” for a long time, my approach has been pretty haphazard.

Sri Lanka is self-evidently a country with a poverty problem: it’s not long before one becomes aware of Colombo’s slums, for example. Somewhat surprisingly, however, I did not feel overwhelmed by begging. More chastening was the experience of entering the dwelling of a friend, a young man who shares a room with another – a room with just the two beds, a small table and (the big luxury) a fan. France was different altogether, for beggars on the footpaths of Paris were a depressingly frequent occurrence, and these beggars were routinely ignored by their compatriots. In a bizarre twist, I found a row of dossers’ tents all along one side of the Montparnasse cemetery. With winter approaching it was heart-wrenching to see small families living outdoors on the street or in parks. Dubai in contrast seemed to have its poverty well hidden – poverty in that country is kept well under wraps – but there was a small group of park dwellers that I spotted in one of the wealthiest residential areas, undercutting the official image of that super-rich society. As always, expectations are a big factor in poverty. Just as we distinguish between absolute poverty and relative poverty and differing percentages below the poverty line, so we are most struck by the presence of stark poverty in countries which are the richest and supposedly the best developed in terms of social security and welfare.

That’s the background to this article, where my purpose is to explore the options for individual giving in modern times. There have been various standards before, such as the rule of the Good Samaritan and the rule of tithing, but what can and should each of us do now? My discussion does not include personal giving – giving to family or friends – even when these people may be charity basket cases in themselves. Nor does it include other types of giving, like support for buskers.

Why give at all?

We give in order to make the world a better place. This is the one fundamental principle of giving. A related principle is that of equality, out of which comes fairness. A Christian view of this is explored in a 2011 article by Marg Mowczko entitled “‘Equality’ in Paul’s Letters” ( In summary, her position is that “Christians in advantageous situations and influential positions today have an obligation to help those who are disadvantaged so that we can progress towards the Kingdom ideal of equality for all people.”

Giving can also arise out of negative emotions like guilt and fear. We should not give, however, because we would feel guilty if we did not. Likewise we should not give (or refuse to give) because we are afraid - afraid, for example, of social pressure to conform with what other people are doing.

Giving should be planned

Giving is like any other worthwhile human activity, admirable when spontaneous but better when planned. The field is wide and there are many factors to take into account. Indeed it is probably for this reason that many of us proceed in a largely ad hoc manner.

In each situation we should ask ourselves:

  • how great is the need?

  • what is our capacity and willingness to give?

  • what are the available alternatives?

  • what weight if any should be given to circumstances – how our aid is sought, when and where does the need present itself, and so on?

Need requires us to make essentially two assessments: which types of need we are prepared to meet, and then in each instance how great is the need. These are macro and micro judgements.

Capacity and willingness to give likewise involves macro and micro judgements. Firstly there is the overall quantum of our giving, then the quantum we can afford in each instance.

The available alternatives relate firstly to our own giving: major giving, minor giving and decisions not to give at all. There are also non-monetary forms of charity which we might be able to give. Thirdly, there are alternative sources of relief from other people and issues of what is most appropriate in each situation.

Circumstances are many and varied and begin with the way a need presents itself – whether there is a specific request and how that request is framed, and so on. Requests out of the blue, outside the scope of our normal planned giving, fit under this heading. Part and parcel of the circumstances are also the emotions we feel when we give or are asked to give.

John Spong has the memorable and wonderfully challenging phrase “to love wastefully”, and notionally this can be extended to giving with extreme, almost unbounded generosity. However, in a world where we have to deal with the finite, beginning with our own perceptions of need and our own capacities to help, this ideal has to be anchored by a lot of practical considerations. One of these considerations is the necessity to plan not only for the immediate and the obvious but also for the unexpected, such as disasters or encounters with needy people in places away from home, including other developed countries.

Identifying and assessing need

A good foundation principle is that giving should be in response to need and proportionate to that need. An individual donor may have reason to favour one need over another, but collectively the greatest amounts should go to those who have least – least food, shelter, security, sanitation, means of self-care and so on. If a donor has no greater priority, the default should be in this direction, giving first to the poorest of the poor.

When assessing need we should distinguish between the absolute and relative. Absolute poverty is more dire than relative poverty, though relative poverty is no less real and maybe just as painful. People in absolute poverty deserve our support first, but where do we set our benchmark, and how do we locate individual cases in relation to this benchmark? Those of us who live simply, maybe without a computer or car or TV, may say that these are non-essentials, but in the modern world that is arguably no longer the case. So, we have to be constantly aware of shifting standards and possible personal bias in relation to these standards.

Assessing need is always difficult, simply because we don’t have all the facts. Appearances alone are not enough. Some people may look clean and well-dressed but be dirt poor; others may be overweight but also poor. Unless we have deep personal knowledge of a case, we cannot know the full truth about the many factors at work – the causal factors, the effects of one factor on another, the many possible remedies, and so on. In line with the principle of loving wastefully, or simple generosity of spirit, in cases of doubt we should err on the side of generosity, assuming that people who claim to be in need are doing so truthfully, with full knowledge of what is required to lift them out of this need.

To take this idea a step further, we may find in some instances there are fairly clear indications that the need is less than claimed or there are mitigating circumstances which make it not absolutely necessary for us to give. Each of us has the gift of reason and we should not be afraid to use it. We may be making a mistake when we make this sort of assessment, but if we do so in good faith with whatever information is available to us at the time, ethically we remain on firm ground. If we are wrong, this is regrettable but part of the imperfection of being human.

Another question that inevitably arises when are assessing need is whether the people concerned are able and willing to do better by themselves without our help. Again we cannot know and it can be unwise and unfair to rush into judgements based on our own prejudices and our own necessarily limited personal experience. Our giving should recognise but not be confined to the principle of helping people to help themselves. We should of course expect people to do precisely that, but there are others who are incapable of self-help, and they should not be neglected simply because they can’t make a return on what we might call our giving “investment.” For people who are able to help themselves, we should give up to the point where that can occur.

Capacity and willingness to give

The quantum that we give overall is a matter of personal choice, guided by our values, means and circumstances. There is no perfect rule. Tithing was once seen as such, but we might just well say we should give half our fortune and leave only half for ourselves. We each have to decide:

  • how much we need to maintain ourselves at optimum level, now and in the future, and therefore how much discretionary money we have;

  • how much the act of giving is an essential part of our make-up; and

  • what other forms of giving are available to us.

Once we have decided how much overall we can afford to give, we have to go through certain routines to decide who gets what. This depends first on our assessment of need (discussed above), our personal priorities as to which kind of person we should favour most, the most suitable type of gift we can give, and the method of making this gift.

Available alternatives I: Deciding to give, and how much

How do we decide the right amount to give and the method and frequency of giving?

Quantum of gift. We can distinguish between major giving, minor giving, and non-giving. Major giving means large amounts, either one-off or once in a while or spread over a period to ensure some continuity of sustenance. Minor giving means small amounts, generally occurring only once. Non-giving means a conscious decision not to give.

Most suitable type of gift. As stated earlier, giving can take different forms, typically money or labour (which also means time). Labour can be at different levels: advocacy, skills development (teaching or tutoring), correspondence (writing letters or filling out forms), companionship (shopping or in hospital or at Centrelink or at home), home help, driving, and so on. Sometimes we may choose just to give information or a kind word or a smile. Probably the most personally satisfying approach is to employ a mix of these methods, however as always this is entirely a personal choice.

Advocacy is an especially powerful form of giving, for here we are encouraging other people to give, and there is thus a multiplier effect. This is enhanced when we are able to cite personal experience, such as the transformation of individual lives as a result of giving, especially when we ourselves have been a donor.

Method and timing of giving. In cases where we choose to help a whole class of people or a large social group, it makes sense to give through charitable organisations. This can be contaminated by market factors, for the brutal truth is that there are charities in competition with each other, and we as outsiders have trouble knowing which are the most efficient and effective. The sensible and indeed moral thing to do in such cases is to carry out some basic research and see which organisations have the best reputation.

Linked with institutional giving is repeat giving, or giving regularly to a particular cause so as to help ensure a regular income. This recognises that need is continuous and that, while we might want to spread our giving widely in order to benefit more, effectiveness is maximised when we pick a worthy target and give in a sustained way.

An alternative possibility is delayed giving, where the delay enables the giver to give more but at a time that better suits him or her. The reverse is an immediate and substantial but one-off gift, which in a sense gets the recipient off the donor’s “list” and frees that donor up to attend to other worthy causes.

Available alternatives II: Deciding not to give

An ethical and sensitive person is bound to feel pain or at least disquiet when turning down a request for aid. At such times we need to review our decision and deal with our state of mind. In summary the decision not to give will be based on perceived need and practicality of some kind. The practicality will most likely have to do with things such as our own self-imposed limits on giving, efficacy, and the existence of better alternatives.

There are situations where clearly it would be wrong or foolish for us to give. Most obviously these are:

  • the need is small, or small in comparison with the needs of others;

  • there is untruthfulness in the request, either in the way the need is represented or the way in which money received is used (nothing kills charity so fast as falsehood);

  • someone else is better placed to give.

Nothing further needs to be said on relative need, for this has been addressed above. However, the other disincentives to giving need further amplification.

Giving would be wasted. In a world where there is so much need, it makes no sense to be giving merely to have the gift wasted or be ineffective. Past errors by a potential recipient are not necessarily a reason not to give – we all have a past we regret – but a fear if well founded that this would happen is indeed a legitimate reason to say no.

It is not uncommon experience to make a gift then discover afterwards that we have been wrong – that people have wasted the money, or they are stuck in a pattern of behaviour that is only exacerbated by having more money. In these cases we can try to alter the nature of our giving, for example suggesting counselling, or we can simply call a halt saying that there are many people in need and we now have to move on and help some of those others.

A variation on this theme is the reasonable suspicion that giving would breed an unhealthy dependency on charity. This is a difficult call to make because we can never be certain what might happen in the future, however patterns of past behaviour – if we know these patterns – are a reasonable guide. Governments routinely make this sort of judgement in their administration of social welfare programmes and, as we all know, often make mistakes and are unduly harsh. Charities are then put into the role of compensating for the failings of the state. We as individuals may or may not draw the same conclusions.

Another aspect of waste is the failure of organisations, including charities, to administer their affairs properly. This may be inefficiency leading to ineffectiveness, or it may be corruption – either way, the result is the same. Continual propping up of such organisations not only achieves nothing, but it also does actual harm and should be stopped.

Someone else is better placed to give. “Not my responsibility” is increasingly, in this ever more complex world, a line that is used to justify refusal to give, and this is possibly the argument that is most contentious. In any situation on this Earth, who is responsible? States have been created, with governments which supposedly take the lead in these matters, and within states there is devolution of responsibility to non-government organisations, but we cannot pretend that these arrangements are always effective. Sometimes they are ineffective because there is clear dereliction of duty, as in the case of repressive governments or corrupt organisations; sometimes there are simply not the resources. Turning our back on these situations and walking away from the needy people affected achieves nothing. Not only this, but it is false to say that need occurring in another place is not our business, for the world is one and the human race is one, however we might be divided politically and culturally. At the same time, we may reasonably choose to direct the bulk of our giving close to home, perhaps on the grounds that we are the best placed to do so and that there are other people better placed to look after the needy who are far away.

Review and communication of the refusal. If we decide not to give, we should consider the consequences of that decision. Will the person we refuse necessarily be condemned to death or intolerable or unreasonable suffering or deprivation as a result? If so, we should ask ourselves whether alternative beneficiaries of our charity really are the best choice. A related question is: if we leave to others the responsibility of providing for that person, will those others step up to the mark? Again, our answer might lead us to change our mind.

Once we have considered the matter thoroughly, weighing up the options, we should have the courage of our convictions. Guilt should never enter the picture. We should clearly and calmly tell ourselves that:

  • it is possible, with good reason, to say no; and

  • there are ways of doing so, politely and with a smile, that will blunt the pain of refusal.

If an explanation is necessary, it can be “I’m helping in other ways” or “I have other priorities” or “I have considered the full spectrum of need and have other directions in which I prefer to direct my money.”

Circumstances and the emotions of giving

Each decision to give or not give is wrapped up in circumstances which may make the choice easier or harder. For example:

  • the request may come directly from the person in need or through an agent or intermediary;

  • the request may be oral or written, addressed personally or to a wider audience;

  • there may be just one person asking for help, or many;

  • the request may relate to one’s own community or society or one somewhere else, where there is perhaps less sense of personal responsibility;

  • there may be other people better placed to give;

  • there may be no one better placed to give;

  • there may be only the one opportunity to give – that time and that place;

  • the request may come from someone who expects a lot and is vociferous and repeated in the asking;

  • there may be an “extra tug at the heartstrings” factor, such as a baby or a pet who constitutes an extra – and innocent – mouth to be fed;

  • the person asking may also be providing a service, e.g. selling The Big Issue.

At this point it is necessary to reiterate the principle that giving is all about making the world a better place. We should not give because we would feel guilty if we did not. Likewise we should not give (or refuse to give) out of fear, for example fear of social pressure to conform with what other people are doing.

Inevitably, giving or not giving carries some change in our emotional state, and the circumstances surrounding our decision can intensify this change. We need to recognise that this is so and to try to see the decision in its essence. The gift or non-gift is not about our feelings, and in a way it is not about the feelings of others either, though in each case the feelings are important. Rather, it is about the removal of need and associated suffering. If our decision can be said to take a step in that direction, then we have done some good.

Some rule-of-thumb responses are shown below.

The request comes directly from the person in need, not just an agent or intermediary

  • Make your decision whether to give based on need, your capacity to pay, and the available alternatives. How you receive the request for help is irrelevant.

The request is oral and addressed personally, so that refusal is a little harder

  • Make your decision whether to give based on need, your capacity to pay, and the available alternatives. How you receive the request for help is irrelevant.

There is not just one person asking for help but many

  • If you give you will do so through an organisation because this should benefit more people.

The request is for someone somewhere else, in another community or state or country

  • All people are equal and therefore deserve equal consideration. Some from elsewhere may have alternative providers upon whom you can rely.

There are likely to be other people better placed to give

  • Make your decision whether to give based on need, your capacity to pay, and the available alternatives. In this situation you are likely to leave the giving to others.

There is no one better placed to give

  • In this unlikely eventuality, make your decision, as always, based on need and capacity to pay, but with the probability that you will give to at least some degree.

There is only the one opportunity to give – here and now

  • Make your decision whether to give based on need, your capacity to pay, and the available alternatives. The “here and now” factor is irrelevant.

The request is from someone who expects a lot and is vociferous and repeated in the asking

  • Make your decision whether to give based on need, your capacity to pay, and the available alternatives. The “noise” factor is irrelevant.

There is an “extra tug at the heartstrings” factor, like a baby or a pet who constitutes an extra – and innocent – mouth to be fed

  • Make your decision whether to give based on need, your capacity to pay, and the available alternatives. The “extra tug at the heartstrings” factor is irrelevant.

The person asking is also providing a service, e.g. selling The Big Issue.

  • As always, make your decision whether to give based on need, your capacity to pay, and the available alternatives. However, this person is prepared to work for money and deserves credit for that. Giving may be for the service, if not for the charity.


Charitable giving is ethically and emotionally a minefield. It requires a person to have self-knowledge, to actively become aware of the many issues and alternatives involved, and then to be resolute, confident that when a decision has been made it can stand up to questioning, including questioning from within – from one’s own “softer” self. Charity is not just a matter of warm and fuzzy kindness, for it is a conscious act of truth as well as love, a key element in the ongoing creativity of the world, making the life of this world gentler. Whether or not we are people of religious faith, this is an imperative for us all.

In a world full of need, self-evidently those of us who have should be giving to those who have not. Typically we do so in a haphazard way, but we can do better.

More often than not, self-examination will reveal that we don’t give enough and that what we do give is misdirected. Giving should be proportionate to need while also mindful of our own capacity to give together with a range of other factors like the appropriateness of the gift. For instance, should we give direct to individuals on the street or should we give through charities or governments? If we think clearly there are instances where it is better not to give at all, for example when the need is relatively trivial or the gift would almost certainly be wasted.

Emotions are often involved in giving, and this is no bad thing provided we have a rational framework to guide us. Refusal is often associated with guilt or blame for the person who has approached us; but this is sterile and should not be so.