December 1 is Giving Tuesday, Giving Day, and a national conversation about giving back and doing good. Especially in a hectic year where many of us want to give back, but also be careful with our budgets, here’s an important question: If you want to donate to charity, should you go looking for an organization today? Or should you wait, save your money, and leave it to charity in your will (or at least donate it)?
Either of these approaches is warranted. To some extent, the answer depends on what you think are your highest priorities for giving – and whether you think you’re a more informed donor later in life.
Overall, however, close observers of non-profit world tend to think that giving your money now is likely to do more good in the world than keeping it to donate after you die. That’s because giving can now, in some ways, empower the donor to do good better, and because history suggests that many of the best giving opportunities won’t exist in 10 years – let alone in 50.
It might be better to donate when there is “fruit at hand”
There is reason to believe that your money will go further if you give it now than if you give it later.
The case here is a bit complicated. In an area like global health, we know of many interventions that are valuable. As more money is invested to support an important intervention, it is likely to spread widely – especially where the conditions are right.
For example, an innovation that improves road safety is likely to spread first to wealthy countries that can afford it, so that after a few years the places that lack it will be those where its deployment is complicated. New surgery that prevents a health problem will probably be offered first in places with good medical care, to patients whose conditions do not have additional complications. Once these patients are treated, the treatment of the remaining cases will be more expensive. This means that the money given now will go further than the money given later, once we have already addressed the issues that can be solved cheaply.
So for a given organization – which it processes childbirth fistulas or deworm children – we might expect donations to be most needed soon enough, when there are a lot of issues that can be easily resolved, and they go deeper than they will be later, when most of the remaining problems are those which are more difficult to solve. Donors will have found the “fruit at hand” in a cause.
Whether you take this argument seriously depends on which cause you find most promising. In 2018, I asked Julia Wise, president of Give what we can at Center for effective altruism, for advice. “If you want to work on global health and development,” Wise told me, “the best opportunities are now.” There are already a lot of organizations providing health services, and the issues they are working on are for the most part improving, so the money will likely go farther than it will in five years.
“For causes we know less about, where our understanding is more in its infancy,” Wise thinks there is reason to wait. In a few years, we may discover a new donation opportunity that is better than any of the existing ones. On the other hand, “in these areas where evidence is scarce, the right thing to do is fund research. If we all wait for someone else to fund things in order to find out what works, then we could wait a long time.
Giving Now Can Help Charities Build Better Programs – Create Better Options Sooner
Giving What We Can encourages people to give each year – although some participants donate to a donor advised fund, an account that you control and from which you can choose a charity to donate to later. Wise and her husband donate 50% of their income to charities, and they chose to donate every year.
Wise pointed out that one of the most important effects of your donation is to encourage a charity that runs programs you believe in, helping them expand those programs and invest more energy in them. If your strategy is to donate to charities that are testing promising new programs and learn from their research how to achieve the best results, your donations may actually change the donation opportunities available in the future.
“We were really encouraged to see evidence-based charities grow as people support them with their donations,” said Wise. “We believe this improves the charitable landscape and ensures that charities are encouraged to continue to conduct and participate in research into their work, so that everyone can know the best places to donate.
This incentive effect works much better with living, active and engaged donors. Charities will respond to donations this year by thinking about the work they need to do to still be a good target for donations next year. “If we delay,” Wise said, “we are not participating in improving the state of knowledge.”
Giving now can help you commit to a giving life
“My husband and I have decided to donate now rather than wait until later,” Wise told me. “Part of it is thinking which works best with our motivation. It makes it an integral part of our life rather than part of the indefinite future. Telling yourself that you will someday give in the distant future is not the same as giving every day.
The people who took give away what we can pledge often describe the same motivation. “Giving now cultivates your own virtue and ensures that you will continue to live by your own ideals,” Haseeb Qureshi written in an essay on this question. “You are not a perfect creature. Even if you intend to do something difficult right now … you should always consider the possibility that you will change your mind or back down. The best way to be someone who will want to giving money in your will is therefore giving money now.
Wise also believed that habits were important, so much so that she recommended that people donate some money even if they are early in life and building their limited savings. “It can be good to donate on a regular basis so that you continue to decide where to give and keep it a part of your life,” she told me.
Giving later can help you become a more informed donor
But there are good reasons to consider delaying your donation. Some charities are much more effective than others. Some very successful charities are so inundated with money that they don’t use additional donations to expand their programs – which means that your money won’t pay off much.
This difference in effectiveness is one reason you may want to donate later instead of donating today. If you don’t know much about the opportunities available to you, it’s not a good idea to pick a charity at random without having a clear understanding of what it will do with your money and why it is competent. to do it. A few thousand dollars in charity can save a life. It should be treated as seriously as any other life-saving decision.
If you want to commit to giving now, but don’t yet feel equipped to make an informed choice about where to give, one option is a donor advised fund. You donate now (and take the tax deduction now), but you can choose any qualified charity to donate the money to later. Donor Advised Funds are a way to put money aside for charity while giving you more time to learn.
But that’s probably a reason to wait five years, not 40. You’ll have to do a lot of ongoing research to keep your will up to date with the donation opportunity that you’ve found most promising – and once you do. have done all this work and have identified the best donation opportunity out there, it is probably worth giving.
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