Wednesday, February 2, 2011

To Give or Not to Give! An Essay on Charitable Giving.

There is something intrinsically human about helping people in need whether this entails a hefty donation to your favorite charity or giving your time to make positive changes in your community. While I would never discourage either the giving of money or time, perhaps we should examine how our money is being spent and how our time is being utilized.

First, let's start with our money. Our motivation, quite candidly, stems from the fact we all know someone with a horrible disease and have seen firsthand the negative consequences these disease cause and most of us have lost a loved one to such a disease. Or we identify a need in our society to protect the most vulnerable which include our children. According to Forbes, the top ten charities in the United States include three medical foundations claiming to support research development to combat specific diseases. The remaining attempt to fight homelessness, poverty, and protect children. So, what is wrong with supporting these organizations or the thousands of others that claim to foster programs to relieve these social and medical ailments? In regards to medical research, the vast majority of scientific breakthroughs in medicine and pharmaceutical science do not come from these organizations/foundations. In fact almost every major medical discovery was void of any connection with major charity organizations or medical foundations. Where did they come from? Universities throughout the United States and beyond. Even more alarming is these discoveries were often made by accident. You see, research is very methodical and planned; however, the conclusions often lead to surprising discoveries or at least new questions to ponder. It is rare that a scientist who focuses only on trying to undertake one type of cancer or other disease arrive at the answer. The odds of this happening are slim. So, what are your donation dollars doing when they are sent to medical or health non-profit organizations? Well, they simply fund awareness and prevention campaigns. This is surely not a bad thing, but you should remember your dollars are unlikely going to find a cure. If you are looking to help change the world by donating your dollars to an organization that may truly make a difference by developing a cure to a specific disease, consider donating to your favorite research institution or university. Sadly those performing the research are struggling to secure every dime and would be grateful for your support. Unfortunately, this is difficult to do understanding the current grant process universities employ. If only there was an organization to match researchers with potential donors.

What about those organizations that serve and protect children, the elderly and the homeless? While I would argue these organizations utilize their donors' money in more critical ways, giving money may not be the best way to serve these groups. This is where I advocate we need more people to serve with their time. However, try giving your time to smaller, local organizations versus large national and multinational groups. The advantage to giving your time (or even money) to smaller groups is simply they are typically more effective at helping out with specific problems affecting your community. Further, they are often run by all volunteer boards with little or no operating costs and have a more targeted focus. These organizations thrive on altruistic giving and I can't think of a better way to truly "get involved" than to see the child or homeless individual you are helping be served by your efforts. Also, consider other ways of giving that many often forget about or dismiss as something they could not do. One such example is foster parenting. In 2010 463,000 children lived in foster homes. There is a critical need for foster care parents and while this will not be right for everyone, perhaps this rewarding role is right for you. Lastly, be politically active in your community. Too many Politicians get elected in local races that truly don't reflect the values of their constituents. This is because voter turnout ratios for local elections often reflect less than 15% of the population. So, stay active and vote for social and economic programs that will protect and serve the underserved in our society.

Let me just reiterate that giving of any kind is a positive action and I do not aim to discourage this activity. I do encourage more people to be engaged and understand what and how their money or time is being used for. Lastly, be cautious of national religious organizations as many of these groups consistently end up on the "worst charities" list because they endure excessively high administrative costs. Now, get out and serve your community!


  1. I have long thought of starting a blog so you may just inspire me to follow through one day soon.

    While I agree on much of what you express here, I also must offer a correction in your argument regarding charitable giving to medical research by using an organization near and dear to me and my family battling an incurable blood cancer for over a decade. My example is one of the "large medical nonprofits" you claim have little or no affect in finding cures or viable life-saving treatments. This is where you and I will differ as some are doing amazing work AND utilize the University system to achieve amazing strides forward. The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society raises millions to help fund research, advocate for patient rights and educate people about blood cancers. In my 10 years as an advocate, LLS research is directly attributed with the discovery of the drug Gleevec which has saved hundreds of leukemia patients from certain death. Much of LLS research funds are poured into grants to Universities as well as other research facilities in the hopes of finding those cures. In a time of little or no government funding for national programs to find cures to major diseases like cancer, organizations such as LLS are crucial to the equation. Here is a link to the research LLS is funding to prove my point. So, yes, be diligent as to where you send your charitable funds but know there are organizations like the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society doing amazing things. My husband's bone marrow transplant is also a product of LLS and other cancer research organizations working on safer and better ways to perform this life-saving procedure.

    Beyond this point James, I agree wholeheartedly on the need to invest time in one's community through volunteerism and civic engagement. You are right on there.

    Take care and I look forward to future blogs from you.

  2. I would agree with most everything Stacey and you have posted. People should check out the institutions they are going to donate prior to donating. See how much of the donations actually go to the reason you are donating. Some have very high operational cost and very little actually makes it to the researcher, also be aware many of these organizations give to more than one research area, some cases they give to organizations you don’t want your donations going. Do your home work before giving.
    I too have a tendency to be more “hands on” volunteer programs such Meals on Wheels or donate some of your time to your local school even if it’s only a few minutes it gives the teachers more time to dedicate to the students instead of making copies and such, if you have pro skills (plumber, electrical), see if there is some volunteer organization that can put them to use. No matter what get involved. You are never too old or too young.

  3. Stacey, I thought of you considerably while drafting this essay. There is no doubt LLS donates a considerable amount to researchers working on treatment options for various blood cancers. In fact, the vast majority of these types of foundations/societies work very hard to fund some of the best research institutes and universities. My only contention is that most treatments, cures, and even preventive measures are discovered in our universities by researchers conducting research unrelated to these various diseases. Unfortunately, these researchers receive very little in funding because what they are studying appears insignificant compared to the vast number of researchers working on specific health related issues. For example, research in Evolutionary Biology or Paleontology is just as likely to stumble upon data that is likely to lead to a cure or treatment options, statistically speaking. The difference are these areas receive very little funding. That being said, once these discoveries are made it takes considerable funding to specialist working on evolving this information and making it effective. So, together, our community of Scientist can make change happen.
    This post stems from a discussion I participated in last year talking about science education and research funding. It is unfortunate that we don't fund more research at all levels and for many different fields of study. I suppose this is not plausible as there is only so much capital to go around, but I'm sure we could do better. Now, Stacey you of all people should start a blog ASAP!! Thanks for the reply!

  4. Okay, in clarifying your point, I can see better where you were headed and agree with you there. I just did not want people to turn away from donating to these organizations thinking that nothing comes of it. Thanks for clarifying. You are very well written James. Thanks for the encouragement too.