Why Charity Matters

Does this sound familiar? It is dinner time and you have just sat down when the phone rings. It is yet another charitable organization looking for a donation. You feel for the caller, after all he is just doing his job and the cause is a good one, but you just don't have any extra cash. Anyway, if there is a little money left over after paying the bills you should probably put it away in the emergency fund, right?

That pretty much describes me, and I don't like it.
One of the areas of my own life that I know needs work is my generosity. While technically the virtue of Charity belongs to the theological virtues rather than the four classical virtues, I believe the concept of Justice really requires one to be generous as well. Justice is the ability to balance between self-interest and the rights and needs of others and one way to develop justice is throug being charitable. To paraphrase Isaiah 58:1-10, while charity gives, justice changes. It changes the lives of those giving as well as those receiving.

Most, if not all, of the world's religions promote charity as a very important moral value. Hinduism, Jainism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, and Sikhism place particular emphasis on altruistic morality. Here in the U.S. we have always been known as a charitable country. The United States is “a land of charity,” says Arthur Brooks, an expert on philanthropy and a professor at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School, who sees charitable giving and volunteerism as the signal characteristic of Americans. Total American donations for 2006 amounted to almost $300 billion, and individuals accounted for 75.6% of that. In terms of the percentage of GDP given to charity the U.S. more than doubles the second place country, Britain.

While America is generally charitable, as a developed western society we also have a ready-made excuse not to get involved. We pay taxes and our government has programs to help the poor here and abroad. Yet, to rely on this fact as a way to side-step our personal responsibility misses the point. Aristotle famously stated that "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit." We can easily substitute virtue for excellence.  Are we developing the virtue of Justice or Charity if we let an impersonal government do all the work for us? Besides, most quality charities only use about 10% of their funds for administrative costs. Do you think the government works anywhere near that efficiency level?

I have to admit my wife is much further along in the development of Justice than I am. She readily gives of her time, talents and money for causes she believes in and is doing a good job instilling this virtue in our children. In fact, as I write this she is with my oldest child volunteering at a local nursing home- something they do together once a month. I think she is starting to rub off on me too. 

Choose a charity as a family.

As a family we have decided to support two charities. I strongly recommend you chose a cause that speaks to you and not just donate to whatever organization happens to call. For one thing, there is only so much to go around ~ as much as we may want to we can not support everything. But more importantly, by carefully choosing your charity you establish a connection and commitment to that cause. 

Just as an example the organizations my family supports are Green Beans Coffee Cup Of Joe for a Joe program and Catholic Relief Services (CRS). We chose these because, one, the missions of each speak to us on a personal level and two, they are reputable charities who spend a high percentage of our donations on their respective missions. When looking for a charity to support it is important to look at their accounting. Any reputable charity will make this public. For instance, CRS puts 95% of their funding into programs with the remaining 5% into administration and fund raising. This gives them an "A" ranking from The American Institue of Philanthropy.

In order to live a just life we need to look out for each other.  This is something I will be working on in the coming months. I invite you to join me. Find an organization whose mission you believe in and set aside an amount of money you wish to contribute each month. Treat it as you would any other bill- you'd be surprised what you can afford. If the cable bill went up $25 a month would you cancel it or find the money somewhere? 

If you are living in America and are able to log on and read this you really have won the lottery of life. I know I have and its time I start practicing a little gratitude for that.