Ethics for Giving Circles

By Ingrid Steinberg

On a recent Shabbos afternoon, my family gathered with several other families from our Jewish community, IKAR, to talk about money. Specifically, we were meeting for the last time to talk about what to do with the $3,600 that we had pooled together as part of our Giving Circle. Our meeting was a culmination of a series of monthly gatherings during which we discussed various aspects of Tzedakah and our relationship to it.

We had arrived at this last meeting with a fairly long “shortlist” of charitable organizations. Each family had contributed to the shortlist, basing their recommendations on several core values that had emerged from prior discussions. Now we were tasked with narrowing down the list to two or three organizations.

At times the discussion became a little heated. One group member was very concerned that we did not have good methods for measuring and comparing how well each organization would use our money, or for assessing which organization does the most good. Another participant wanted to know more about a particular organization’s connection to the community it served. She wondered to what extent the targeted community might actually want the service in the way it was being offered. Yet another participant thought that we should consider not just the immediate impact of our dollars, but also whether our choice of charity, once publicized, might lead to further giving to the charity from within the wider IKAR community.

Having recently completed a PhD in philosophy, I was in the midst of teaching a college class on ethics. As I listened to the discussion, I was fascinated by the way in which the various concerns of the group members mirrored some key concepts in traditional philosophical ethics. I thought that these ethical concepts might help to clarify the various concerns being demonstrated in the discussion, and so I shared the following ideas with the group. I hope that these ideas will prove helpful to other Giving Circle groups or individuals deliberating about charitable giving:

In thinking ethically, we typically ask one of two kinds of questions. We may ask: What should we do? Alternatively, we may ask: What sort of people should we strive to be?

One way to answer the first question, “what should we do?” draws on the consequentialist (and specifically, the utilitarian) tradition in philosophical ethics. On this approach, we try to establish which course of action will have the best outcomes. In relation to monetary donations, this translates to: which organization will use our money most effectively and for the largest gains? Here we are concerned to maximize the effectiveness of the dollars we give. With this concern in mind we focus on how well an organization is run, and on what the specific work of the organization involves. Will the short-term gains from the organization’s activities have long term benefits for the communities involved? How many people will be helped, and how much? Although it is important to ask these questions, they are not easy to answer precisely. What counts as a gain? How do we compare one type of benefit to another?

Another way to answer the question “what should we do?” stems from the influential work of Immanuel Kant. According to Kant, to figure out what we should do, we must focus less on outcomes, and more on what are our duties and obligations to one another. In particular, our actions towards one another must always be constrained by an attitude of respect. We should never treat other people merely as means to an end, but also always as ends in themselves. In the context of making a decision about a monetary donation, this way of thinking leads us to ask questions about the dignity and autonomy of those whom we are trying to benefit with our donation. Is the intervention by our chosen organization actually what the people affected want and need? Have those people had adequate influence over what is happening to them? Might we be imposing unwanted culturally specific “benefits” on a population that would rather receive our aid in other ways? In asking the Kantian question, we try to avoid paternalistically assuming that we know what is best for others. Instead, we seek to find organizations in which the recipients of aid are directly involved in shaping the way that the aid is received.

The other question that we may ask in thinking ethically, is: What sort of people should we strive to be? This question dates back to Aristotle and the “virtue ethics” tradition, which identifies human virtues or “excellences” towards which we should strive. I find this way of approaching ethics a particularly helpful one for combating the despair and hopelessness than can arise when we think too long about how small our individual contributions are, and how large and intractable are the global problems that must be solved. In these moments, it is helpful to reflect on the kinds of people we would like to be – and on the qualities that virtuous people possess and nurture in themselves. In striving to be virtuous, we set an example for the people around us, and in inspiring others, our impact on the world can extend well beyond our specific acts and donations. In thinking about a monetary donation from this perspective, we may be inclined to ponder not only what the specific money we are donating now will do, but also the way that the act of donating will impact us as individuals – and will shape the people that we are striving to become. Perhaps giving to one organization rather than another will foster in us a deeper connection to the organization with subsequent impact over time, whereas we are unlikely to develop such a deep connection with another organization. Perhaps one form of giving will do a better job of expressing our deepest values, in such a way that our example touches others in our community and shapes their development as well as our own.

I think that all three of the above approaches are useful in thinking about personal giving. We want to maximize our impact, to do so in a respectful way, and in the process, we want to express our deepest values in a way that allows us to come closer to embodying the virtues that we strive towards. I heard all of these approaches in our Giving Circle discussion, and I believe that each one adds a valuable dimension to the decision-making process.

Ingrid Steinberg recently completed her PhD in Philosophy at UCLA, where she studied ethical questions relating to childhood. She lives in Los Angeles.