Freddie Pattisson did work experience with nfpSynergy in December 2015. Here are his thoughts on the morality and effectiveness of charity
Should you give? Science shows giving to charity is good for you. Neuroscientists have found that when someone makes the decision to donate the brain’s pleasure centers are activated in a similar way to eating chocolate or having sex.
However surely there are more reasons to give other than the warm, fuzzy feeling we enjoy from giving. Why should we give? Is there a moral basis from which we can applaud those who donate?
Giving has been part of the moral fabric of society since at least the Ancient Greeks.
Indeed the word philanthropy derives from the Ancient Greek philanthōpia, literally ‘the love of humanity’. Those familiar with ethics will know that there are many schools of thought in determining what is good or right. However when considering charity, all (or nearly all) theories recognise giving as an overwhelmingly good thing to do.
After the 2004 Boxing Day earthquake and tsunami the charity appeal that followed had a moral basis: a utilitarian would champion the perceivable rise in happiness from helping, a deontologist would say we have a duty to help, a virtue ethicist would argue that the very act of giving to those in need is virtuous and right.
Whatever the moral theory, giving is good. Indeed some argue that not giving is actively wrong. Consider this thought experiment from the Australian philosopher Peter Singer: you notice a child about to drown in a shallow pond. If you wade in and rescue the child you will ruin your outfit. Should you save the child? Most would say yes. The price of cleaning your clothes seems small relative to the value of a child’s life.
What if there were other people around who could also save the child, should you still save the child? Yes; ignoring the child in danger still seems wrong even if there are other people who could help. Now imagine that the child were far away, perhaps in another country, but similarly in danger of death.
You could save this child at a mild cost to yourself (e.g. less than the price of cleaning an outfit). Should you save the child? Singer thinks so. We are in this position: a small donation to an effective charity could save a child’s life. There is something troublesome about living comfortably while people around the world are hungry or dying from easily preventable diseases.
Whether or not you agree with Singer’s argument, the good from giving is strikingly apparent. Through charity we increase social welfare, find cures to diseases, support those with disabilities, prevent animals going extinct, help to reverse climate change, respond to emergencies, and the list goes on.
As easily as we recognise that stealing is bad, we recognise that giving is good. So if you give to charity, or work in the charity sector, take heart! You have a multitude of moral foundations to stand on. You are making the world a better place.
We should give, but to whom?
What does effective giving mean? Charities have had a hard time in the press recently. A few charities shown in bad light have had sector wide repercussions. Drastic measures such as the Fundraising Preference Service have resulted (Joe Saxton points out the difficulties with this here).
Our data shows that the public thinks that charities spend just 38% of the money they receive on the actual cause. The reality is that most charities achieve much higher rates: this figure is 59% for the top charities by fundraising totals. We should not lose faith in charities, but we should be concerned about effective giving.
Effective giving is the practice of making sure our donations go to charities that can do the most with the money, and for the best causes. Thankfully most charities are already very effective despite the bad press regarding the minority. To be completely sure your giving is effective sites like Charity Navigator in the States are available, ranking US charities by evaluating their financial health, accountability and transparency.
If the amount that gets spent on the cause is a key measure for you, people can find out the percentage of funds a charity dedicates to supplying goods or services to the cause in the UK at Alive and Giving and then donate directly through the website. There are even social movements such as Effective Altruism that have been founded to use evidence and reason to find out how to make the world a good a place as it can be.
These sites and movements try and inject an element of rationality into what is usually a very personal and subjective area. However a very real problem is that if money isn’t a donor’s favoured metric, then agreeing what effective looks like, is not easy.
Charities are an integral part of our world. Simply donating to charity does an enormous amount of good. We should have trust in the charity sector, and now have the resources to double-check our giving is effective. So give! And enjoy the warm, fuzzy feeling that accompanies making the world a better place.
 Charity Financials (charityfinancials.com), Top 5 fundraisers (Cancer Research UK, British Heart Foundation, Oasis Charitable Trust, Macmillan Cancer Support, Oxfam GB), charitable expenditure as a percentage of total income from each charity’s most recent financial year