If you attain even a modicum of financial security, you inevitably start thinking about giving back. Over time I’ve noticed that I’ve changed my views on giving to the needy. Here’s why.
How I Used to Think about Giving to the Needy
I grew up in the church so tithing has been a part of my financial plan from the beginning. But my beliefs in where my money goes have evolved over the years.
Previously, I gave to the church but none of the churches I visited reflected my views. I wanted to give to the needy in this country and churches tended to splash out on missions trips to Spain or Japan. I considered converting to Catholicism but instead I just reallocated my money.
Then I gave to charities giving to the needy and felt good about it . . .until I didn’t. The problem is you’re really far removed from the process. You have a vague idea of the programs but don’t really know what progress is being made besides glossy anecdotes sent to donors. Plus I started to wane on the idea of giving endlessly to charity. They treat poverty as an eternal problem that can never be fixed. Decades and billions have been spent and the poor are still poor.
Then I learned about ModestNeeds, which lets you contribute money to a household’s one-time specific need. The organization vets the applicants so you know they’re really in the dire straights they say they are. Plus it helps keep families out of poverty by treating this as a onetime emergency and not an ongoing concern. I felt like this contribution made a difference and I could put a face to the money. But still, I realized that I always filtered the requests to those as close to my own neighborhood as possible.
It felt odd to use a national organization to bring the money back to my neighborhood. I still was really disconnected from what my money was doing or who it was helping.
Giving Generously to Those Who May Be In Need
The past week, I glanced at our restaurant tab, when I noticed that my friend left a $100 tip on our $100 meal. I asked him why and he said that he wanted to support restaurants as they’ve had a tough year and what else was the money going to be used for?
It was a really beautiful sentiment and it got me thinking – what is the money for if not this?
It also surprised me because this friend has never been a bleeding heart. But his views were evolving the same as mine were. We were both figuring out and trying out methods to make the most beneficial use of our money.
Why We Criticize Those Who Give
I tweeted about this anecdote on Twitter and was surprised to get a lot of suspicion about my friend. He didn’t have any ulterior motives. He had no idea I would look at the check and we were gone before the waiters saw. And yes, waiters at good restaurants aren’t “needy” the way the unhoused are, but they are much more likely to be needy than my friend or me. We are both lawyers and doing quite well financially in the Covid era.
And no, he can’t singlehandedly save restaurants with $100 tips. It was a random act of kindness. He’s not purporting to lift people out of poverty. But he did put smiles on many hardworking waiters’ faces.
Really the most surprising thing about the reaction is that he could have spent $100 on random Amazon crap and no one would care. But that he gave $100 to someone who may have needed it more than he did – suddenly people are coming out of the woodwork to call him a jerk.
It hit a nerve for many. And maybe it hit a nerve because we’ve all grown accustomed to being hard-heartened.
Love Without Reason
I was reading Love Without Reason, the Art of Giving a F*ck and it made the same point:
Giving can feel like a vulnerable act if we don’t trust people. It helps to remember that there are people out there praying for the gifts we can give right now. Instead of focusing on what could go wrong, think about what it could mean to them – and to you – to be the answer to those prayers.
We deny ourselves opportunities for meaning and joy in our lives when we assume, often without real evidence, that giving isn’t worth it, or that the people we could be giving to aren’t worth it. Imagine if someone, without even knowing you, decided the same about you?
The book was a great reminder that I have become so hard-heartened on helping the needy. Part of the reason I believe in giving is because I know I’ve been given so much in life. Yes, I work hard, and yes I made some of the right decisions. But I was also given a good childhood, a good head start, and I have lots of unearned advantages that made my good choices and good life possible. People (mostly my parents) have given me handouts and modeled successful behavior since day one without questions. Why am I so stingy giving to others? Why don’t I model a generous spirit to others?
My now-“bleeding heart” friend and I had talked about our changing views. When we see someone in need, we want our first thought to be, “how can I help?” not “what did you do wrong?”
But You’re Rich!
You might be thinking – you can afford giving to the needy because you’re rich! I certainly believe in getting your own house in order before figuring out how to give to others. And I’m not saying that you have to or should do any of this. It’s just something that resonates with me – my aspiration – for the time being. We can have differing views on charity and my views will likely change over time. I’m trying to come to grips with not knowing the best way.
Instead, I think of all of this as a start. We can’t do everything but we can do some things. My current outlook on giving is to try to improve the lives of those with whom I interact. And it doesn’t have to be $100 checks.
For instance, on my way home from the airport a few nights ago, I noticed that the Metro was closed (it closes at 11pm now, what?!?!). So I checked Uber and there was surge pricing. Instead I took a cab and I tipped the cab driver 100% (I gave $8 on an $8 ride so it’s not like I’m Rockefeller here). This was all the cash I had on hand and even with the 100% tip, the cab was $10 cheaper than Uber so overall this was not a splurge (but I feel like I’d get less heat from taking the more expensive and later-arriving Uber than giving extra cash to the taxi driver =P).
That $16 had been sitting in my purse for weeks (I rarely use cash). Better that my Ethiopian immigrant driver get that cash than it sit in my purse. He was so bright and cheerful, it made my night, and I hope I helped a little to make his.
Conclusion – Why I’ve Changed My Views on Giving to the Needy
Months ago, my then-boyfriend offered $10 to a family soliciting alms on the street. I protested. I thought the right way of giving to the needy was to help those trying to help themselves. I’ve seen people give money in other countries, and they were soon swamped with people asking for money. I thought I was being smart and showcasing my values, but now I think I was just being cold.
What I’ve learned is that we are all experimenting with how to spend our money to make a difference. My views on giving have changed tremendously over the past decade and I still don’t know what the “best” answer is. I think it’s important to stay cognizant of my blessings and keep my eyes and ears open for possible better ideas. It’s also important to be humble and not look down at how others are choosing to give, because maybe their position becomes better-looking with time. All in all, I want to believe the best in people, I want to trust, and I want to help wherever I can.