The Humanist Dilemma: Shall I Donate to the Most Downtrodden—Or to What I Love?

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Giving Greatest Good: Recently I heard someone arguing—with data to back up his point—that dollars donated to things like poverty, hunger, illiteracy, and disease get way more bang for the buck than dollars donated to the arts, concluding that everyone would be wise to direct their contributions to the former rather than the latter. But is that really the best course?

—What about Starving Artists?

Dear Starving,

I saw something like that as well, although not with a dogmatic take on which charities are better or worse.

If two people had their hands out—one asking for money to save him from imminent starvation, and the other asking for money to install a sculpture on Rodeo Drive—I’m inclined to favor the first supplicant. But things are not that simple, and we are rarely confronted with that sort of choice.

The fact is that without generous donations, most arts organizations would collapse, and most artists—who are already discouraged from pursuing their overwhelmingly unprofitable passions—would have little chance of economically or artistically surviving. On the other hand, many problems don’t respond to throwing money at them. Some problems—like education, sanitation, and infrastructure that consistently plague poorer countries with fewer resources—are so intractable that money alone can’t make much of a dent other than providing for immediate needs in the short-term like food, clothing, and medicine.

The fact is that different beneficiaries appeal to different donors, and different donors have different capabilities to give.

Some have enough money to build an opera house and underwrite their favorite productions. Others have enough money to buy one homeless woman one sandwich once.

Some people love to help abandoned cats and dogs in their neighborhood. Other people want to protect far-away whales and seals and elephants.

Some focus on a particular disease they hope to cure, perhaps because of a loved one who suffered from it. Others may want to ensure that the brightest students—or the students with the least access to schooling—have a shot at an education that could lead to fixing global issues, or issues specific to their home town.

Although some people may decide to give with their heads based on the type of data you cite, most give with their hearts to what resonates with them. I believe that’s a better path to the greatest good. The problems of the world are complex, and so are the solutions. Dollars given to arts can lead to benefit concerts that raise funds for people and places devastated by natural disasters. Dollars given to help oppressed children across the globe or across the street may enable some of them to become writers who share their vision with the world, or engineers who design healthier cities.

Each of us should give to whatever makes us feel good, knowing that what goes around comes around—often in remarkable and unimaginable ways that don’t show up in any data analysis.