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Keep It Small?

Look, I’m nervous about this column, because I don’t want to discourage giving. But donations could accomplish far more if people thought through their philanthropy, did more research, and made fewer, bigger contributions instead of many small ones that are expensive to handle.

On this Monday, I am actually opening with someone else’s conclusion. Nicholas D. Kristof published this Opinion piece in the New York Times on Saturday — and I was ready and willing to argue with him based on the two sentences: “This holiday season, Americans will dig into their pockets for good causes. But these gifts will sometimes benefit charlatans or extremists, or simply be wasted.” First, why would you ever discourage generosity, particularly in these economic times? Second, even if blanket discouragement was not your goal, why generalize?

However, I did read on to the above-quoted conclusion — and I ultimately appreciate the sharp language at the beginning of his article. In fact, it forces the reader to do exactly what the donor should do: look deep, read carefully, and be sure that you know what you are seeing. Throughout the piece, Kristof highlights (or more accurately, calls out) several non-profit organizations that prey upon the propensity of religious donors to give liberally to organizations that they assume share their values. In truth, several well-known charities with seemingly-strong religious ties are careless with their money or reckless in their dealings — or both.

Kristof goes on to point out that “there are many reputable religious charities … and of course there are many large secular organizations with strong track records.” He does not advocate against religiously-motivated giving, but rather “giving remains impulsive and inefficient” and that is based on seasonal obligation rather than inspiration and understanding. Moreover, the charities that are smart and strategic in how they raise money are, in all likelihood, the same charities that are most careful in how they spend it. And the charities that are not putting fundraising dollars back into highly-visible campaigns are, in some cases at least, precisely the charities to which your support could mean the most.

In the end, he makes a strong and simple point with which many of us are familiar: well-informed giving is more meaningful to both giver and recipient. However, I now would like to quibble with his final sentence just a touch. While “fewer, bigger contributions” often do accomplish more than many smaller ones, just a few small contributions can also accomplish a great deal when directed to the proper channels. Many of our charities do truly incredible work on very small budgets — and gifts of any size have a tremendous effect. You don’t always need “bigger contributions” to accomplish something. Size is relative and, in my opinion, the small are pretty mighty.

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