Inside Philanthropy

A blog on philanthropy and nonprofit news and issues. A publication of Philanthropy Journal.

September 25, 2012

When it comes to charity beware of your heart!

Philip D Harvey
When I was a young man in the 1960’s an incident occurred in the state of Punjab, in India, that has profoundly affected my views about charity ever since.  As a field officer for CARE, I had helped arrange for a shipment of food to a Punjabi village that had been devastated by floods.  As I carried out my duties, seeing that the food was properly stored, prepared, and provided to all comers, a woman in a ragged sari, carrying a baby, broke away from the queue where the villagers waited their turn for the only meal they would have that day.  Moving urgently, she came up to me, knelt, bowed and touched her forehead to my shoes.  I was appalled.  That this woman who had no doubt struggled all her life to bear and raise her children, sacrificing heroically to keep her family alive, should express this form of gratitude to a middle class foreigner who’d always had plenty of everything, struck me as terribly wrong.

After my emotional turmoil abated, I determined that, if I was going to devote my career to helping people, it would have to be in ways that did not involve even the possibility of gratitude from those who might benefit from my efforts.

I’ll tell you how I resolved that dilemma in a minute.  First, three lessons I have learned along the way.

First, don’t respond too quickly to emotional appeals.  If a charity prints ads or letters that tug at the heartstrings, the chances are that the charity is adequately funded by others.  While those appealing children’s eyes, or heart-rending disfigurements, may promote perfectly valid charitable causes, they may also mask inefficiencies.    The fund-raising appeals must be paid for, after all.  And there’s another reason.  These high-appeal (and sometimes low-need) charities should take a back seat to equally worthy but less appealing causes.  Mitigating the effects of infant diarrhea, for example, or providing contraceptives to couples in Africa are causes that don’t have much emotional pull.  If you focus on those kinds of charities you’ll be filling an important gap.  And, if you are going to donate your hard-earned dollars, spend a few minutes researching worthwhile causes; it will pay off.

Second, avoid seeking gratitude.  While most of us would be embarrassed by what happened to me in India, there is still a strong temptation to want to be thanked for our charitable contributions.  That’s fine if it comes from the president of the Red Cross, but if you find yourself looking for a thank-you from the ultimate beneficiaries of your largesse, be careful.   We all enjoy that nice glow that comes from helping others, but the glow can be deceptive.  A spontaneous dollar to a panhandler, for example, only reinforces a phenomenon that might better be discouraged. Take time to give this some thought. Especially when it comes to helping the poor, our emotions get pulled into the equation and our feelings can get in the way of rational deliberation.  That’s a good time to step back and ask some questions about the charity’s impact and efficiency, keeping the emotional factors in the background.

Third, think of your charitable donations as investments in a better world.  Does the charity deliver measurable outputs at a reasonable cost? Can these costs be compared to other organizations? Does your charity publish its tax returns on its website or provide information to rating agencies like Charity Navigator?  Finally, does it make a difference on a significant scale?

It can be argued that this is too hard-boiled, too unemotional.  I don’t believe it.  Our emotional lives should be focused on people we know.  Our charitable contributions should go to organizations that appeal to our heads and not our hearts.

Philip D. Harvey helped found DKT International and serves as its President. DKT provides low cost contraceptives to people in developing countries through shops and kiosks as well as clinics in sixteen countries. The idea is to make contraceptives attractive and convenient.