Recently I thought about how much I give to charities on a regular (direct debit) basis.
It wasn’t much.
I had a bit of a think and realised why I didn’t donate more than the amount I did, and well, it’s a long list… (do you recognise any of these excuses?):
- Most charities have a minimum sign up quantity. As a student, it didn’t seem inappropriate to plump for this.
- I was signed up to a large number of charities on this minimum contract and don’t like saying no when new ones ask me, so not giving much made it easier to just give in and say yes.
- Some of the charities I was signed up to I wasn’t sure about financially or ethically, or didn’t feel they were very professional.
- Getting married and supporting my (then) fiance for a while had been financially taxing and it was nice to have a cushion, just in case.
- I didn’t know how much to increase to, what was sensible or sustainable.
- One-off donation pressures – from homeless people on the street to friends running fundraisers.
- I occasionally volunteered to help at or fundriase for charities, so already gave my time, right?
This low level of support provided me with a low level of satisfaction. A wide spectrum of small commitments meant I kept donating to charities I didn’t like and therefore didn’t feel strongly affiliated with those I did. So it had to change.
I thought about what I really wanted and decided there were ethical, emotional and financial obligations to meet:
- Ensuring my own financial security (I could give all my disposible income to charity, but then I could never save for a mortgage or respond to an emergency financial situation or afford to keep paying them whilst writing up my PhD).
- Ensuring that the charities I supported were only those organisations I was proud to be affiliated with, that I agreed with (and was able to find!) the policies of, and that I thought deserved the acknowledgement and needed the money I was giving them.
- Ensuring that the contributions I make to these charities reflect their relative importance in my life and feel like a serious commitment, something manageable, but which I would take into account on a monthly basis.
So I went back to the blackboard and thought about how many charities I wanted to support and how much I wanted to give them.
My first consideration was what kinds of charities I liked to give to.
I had always grown up giving to animal charities. I like animals and their welfare is important to me. On the other hand, I avoid medical charities like cancer research because of the controversial ethics around animal testing from which I prefer to withdraw. I care about poverty, but I also struggle to connect with the charities who send you emaciated images of poor rural villagers in Africa.
And struggling to connect matters. For this reason, I decided to choose two local charities and two worldwide charities (two of which I was already donating to) covering animals and people:
British Red Cross
Cat’s Protection (whom we got our cat from)
Mountain Rescue England
And now I needed to settle on a compromise between what I could pay and what I already paid. This is hard: I didn’t want to give away the money I had earnt! So I had to tell myself sternly that I did not earn this money. I earnt money, and this was merely a random and inexplicable value set down by society to measure what I did. Changing the amount was meaningless. It just had to be sensible.
I don’t want to be one of these self-righteous people who says “Look how I suffer for the good of others”, but I also want to stand up for my beliefs. And my belief is that, even if you can’t discern any positive result, you should do your best to help those in need.
So by how much?
Actually, I thought of the zakat. The pillar of Islam which says you must give away 10% of what you have.
This includes taxes, but also includes valuation of property (not just income), so giving 10% of my income seemed like a good start – notable, but doable. Besides, I’m a doctoral researcher: I have a tax-free stipend.
I also had a look at my other regular payments. Two professional memberships, phone, opticians, veg box… I divided my 10% of income by four and compared numbers. They were pretty similar. So if I will happily spend that amount of money every month on a phone, surely I can spend it on a charity donation? Which is more important, afterall?
You might think not including my savings is a cop out, but to me it was important. I didn’t like the idea of my savings going down because my income was small, and the flexibility also prevented me from fearing one-off donations, and justified generosity when they arose.
Besides, there is something else I can give besides money – and should also give more of than I do – my time.
I love volunteering… I love saying yes. But I don’t volunteer for a charity regularly, and at the moment I don’t have time to (really don’t have time, not just an excuse). But what use is saying “One day I wish I could…”?
Act now; live in the moment.
So regular volunteering – but sparse, say, annual. Say, Christmas? A little of my time, a difference to people’s lives, and fewer empty promises.