Last year, I read a book called Mountains Beyond Mountains about Dr. Paul Farmer, the founder of a charity called Partners in Health, which provides healthcare to the world's poverty-stricken areas. It's an inspiring read, in that it makes you realize that you are doing nothing at all useful in life compared to Paul Farmer. Some people are motivated to do good all the time, and I don't know how.
When the charity was first starting, they had one generous donor, a small businessman who basically wrote blank checks for Farmer to build facilities in Haiti. There is a scene where Farmer and his donor are standing on a hill in Haiti, overlooking the beautiful countryside, and the donor says that sometimes he feels like chucking it all and coming down to work with the doctor full-time. And Farmer says, no no no, we need your money. You do the most good by making a lot of money and then giving it to us.
While the book did not inspire me to go to medical school so I could treat children in Haiti, it did move me to start giving away money. I figured out my take-home pay for the year, took a percentage, and then gave that away throughout the year to various causes. I made a schedule of the causes and when I would donate to them, as well as leaving myself a little extra to give away when it came up (for example, to sponsor a friend who was doing a walkathon).
It is hard to pick causes. Because there are so many, because it's hard to know which ones are using the money well, because giving money to one cause is taking it away from another. I want to give money to my local NPR station, but how can I justify not giving that money to the homeless shelter when the need seems so much greater? How do I factor in the exposure that NPR gives to important issues against feeding someone a meal?
I tried to cover all my bases. I picked a charity for animals, one for sick people, one for the arts, several for the poor, one for children. I realized that I did not pick an environmental conservation group, so I revised my list this year to include one. I skewed locally, giving as much as I could to causes in Wake County and North Carolina.
I immediately learned that becoming a donor means that you will be asked to donate again (similar to blood, I guess). They will send you letters in the mail, and you will wonder how much of the money you gave them is being used to solicit more money from you. These letters do not make me feel very charitable.
Last week, I got a call from the Raleigh Rescue Mission. The lady apologized, saying that they don't call very often, but for just today, they had a generous donor who was going to match every donation pledged that day, up to $25,000. I was agitated, because just last month, I had sent the rescue mission a nice fat check. Apparently, I had also sent them my phone number. And so I was irritated at being bothered, and yet... I mean, I'm not homeless, am I? What stupid thing have I bought lately? So I sighed and pledged $25. I felt like a sucker, and I felt bad for not giving more. Being a generous donor is hard.