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How And Why We Give To Charity

In the giving season, we talk to philosopher Peter Singer about rethinking how and why we give to charity.

Andre Thompson, manns the outdoor red bucket at a Walgreen's drug store in Tyler, Texas. Thompson is one of three remaining contestants in the third annual Salvation Army World Record Bell Ringing Contest. Thompson along with the remaining contestants have broken the 100 hour mark, and are now vying to be the last person standing. He has been manning the outdoor red bucket though rain and sub-freezing temperatures, and has raised over $6,000 so far, on Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013.  (AP)

Andre Thompson, manns the outdoor red bucket at a Walgreen’s drug store in Tyler, Texas. Thompson is one of three remaining contestants in the third annual Salvation Army World Record Bell Ringing Contest. Thompson along with the remaining contestants have broken the 100 hour mark, and are now vying to be the last person standing. He has been manning the outdoor red bucket though rain and sub-freezing temperatures, and has raised over $6,000 so far, on Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013. (AP)

It’s the giving season.  Maybe you do, maybe you don’t.  But many Americans do.  Give.  And it’s interesting to look at where they give and why, exactly, we give.  And where the impact is greatest.  Philosopher Peter singer has been looking at need and response.  At what gets us to pull out the wallet, the checkbook, the debit card – and what doesn’t.  You may be the guy or gal who can’t resist the bell ringer in the snow.  Or the wide-eyed child in the magazine ad.  You may be methodical in figuring out your charity, or impulsive.  Or missing in action.  This hour On Point:  Peter Singer and American giving.

– Tom Ashbrook


Peter Singer, philosopher and ethicist, professor of bioethics at Princeton University. Author of “The Life You Can Save: Acting Now To End World Poverty,” “Rethinking Life and Death: The Collapse of Our Traditional Ethics” and “Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals.” (@PeterSinger)

Stacy Palmereditor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy. (@StacyPalmer)

From Tom’s Reading List

The Atlantic: Giving 101: The Princeton Class That Teaches Students to Be Less Selfish — “Singer tells his students that though almost anyone would dive in to save a drowning child, Americans eschew giving to the world’s most desperately poor—including the 19,000 children dying every day of sheer poverty-related causes—even though it is well within our means to help. By failing to do so, Singer claims, we cannot consider ourselves to be living a ‘morally good life.’”

Forbes: Inside The #GivingTuesday Numbers: Will American Philanthropy Grow? — “According to Blackbaud, the nonprofit technology provider and #GivingTuesday partner, online giving was up 90% for 3,800 nonprofits (customers tracked by Blackbaud) compared to 2012. The company processed more than $19.2 million in online donations (compared to $10.1 million in 2012). The average online gift yesterday was $142.05, which was significantly up from $101.60 in 2012 (meanwhile, Black Friday shopping numbers dropped by nearly 3 percent according to the National Retail Federation). Blackbaud maintains this builds on a solid end-of-year giving season last year, when online giving (19.1%) outpaced retail e-commerce (15.5%) growth.”

The Chronicle of Philanthropy: Nonprofits Anxiously Try to Show Results for New Charity Navigator Ratings – “Charity Navigator, long lambasted for focusing too much on financial criteria like how much an organization spends on overhead, has thrown its weight behind a growing movement to get charities to become more ‘results-oriented’ and ‘evidence-based.’ Its method: Try to get donors who look at its Web site to consider how effective a charity is when deciding where to give.”

TheLifeYouCanSave.org’s ‘How Much Should You Give?’ Calculator


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  • Shag_Wevera

    Charity is fine, until it is used as surrogate for collective action to take care of serious societal problems.

    • John Cedar

      But much more common, charity is used as a band aid for the problems caused by the collective who attempted to take care of serious societal problems but made them infinity cubed times worse instead.

  • Wahoo_wa

    Personally I don’t give to organizations that discriminate such as the Salvation Army.

    • OnPointComments

      Everyone who asks for help from the Salvation Army is given help.

  • Ed75

    We give to charity because God is found among the poor.

    • Guest

      No one who asks for help from the Salvation Army is refused.

      • OnPointComments

        Oops. I meant to post to a different comment.

  • Jamie Taylor

    charity is a great act of compassion and kindness. However, when attached to idealism, such as the salvation army, who is vehemently opposed to LGBT rights, it becomes greatly diminished and often a dangerous tool for promoting injustice.

  • J__o__h__n

    It is journalistic laziness that constantly equates the Salvation Army with charity. The annoying bell ringers are visible but the group discriminates against gays. Where is the war on Christmas crowd when the bell ringers are out there way before Thanksgiving?

  • Coastghost

    Philanthropist: a misanthrope with discretionary income.

  • M. Elaine

    I give to humanist charities where I know my dollar will go to actually helping those in need, rather than proselytizing to them.

  • J__o__h__n

    On the topic of philanthropy, why don’t NPR stations give members a code so they can listen on line and not have to endure the painful to listen to pledge breaks. If people have already given, they should be rewarded by not having to listen to begging and not having programs interrupted. Obviously you can’t avoid it on air, but there is no reason not to do this on line.

  • atakemoto

    I have funded 22 loans through KIVA, donate $10.00 to 5 different non profits each month , and often donate to the Red Cross for disaster funds. However, the giving that I enjoy the most is to the homeless man in Washington D.C.. The $5 0r $10 I give him each month makes him so happy and I know there is no middle person syphoning off any of the money.

  • RolloMartins

    One tiny correction. Someone w/ glaucoma, say, cannot always get Medicaid in this country. Just try getting Medicaid in Texas, for instance, where one out of four or five haven’t any insurance or the likelihood of insurance.

  • J__o__h__n

    Outsourcing charity is more cost effective? People should feel free to give where they like and not be ranked by this professional malcontent. Is it moral to feed meat to the poor?

  • annac

    Please discuss Peter Buffet’s recent comments on the “charitable industrial complex” http://www.cnbc.com/id/100928137 and http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/27/opinion/the-charitable-industrial-complex.html?_r=0

    • annac

      Peter Buffet says “As more lives and communities are destroyed by the system that creates vast amounts of wealth for the few, the more heroic it sounds to “give back.” It’s what I would call “conscience laundering” — feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity.”

  • Coastghost

    Philosopher Singer says: don’t give to your immediate neighbor, the one down the street, but drop a contribution down somewhere in Africa or Asia or Latin America. In the US, meanwhile, don’t fail to spend billions on animal pet healthcare (irrespective of farm animal veterinary care). Interesting argumentation.

  • J__o__h__n

    I don’t see any of my philanthropy being earmarked to the Princeton University Dept of Philosophy.

  • RolloMartins

    World Vision, JDRF (diabetes), food banks, local church, local Christian school.

  • J__o__h__n

    Which charity would he support, one with 40% overhead but spends 60% in the third world where the money goes further or one with 10% overhead and helps poor in the US who supposedly don’t need it as much?

  • J__o__h__n

    If there are two drowning children, one is a poor American and one is poor from the developing world, and only one can be saved, wouldn’t saving the American one result in a higher economic return for your charitable investment?

  • annac

    You can’t rate charities based on program vs. overhead spending as Charity Navigator does. Some charities have high overhead because of the nature of what they do. For example, paying scientists U.S. salaries to develop vaccines for diseases that could save millions in developing countries. The salaries, overhead, and manufacturing are all counted as overhead and are very high. The “program” costs are just distribution, and very low. This kind of charity can’t be compared to other more program-oriented charities, like those that run educational programs or distribute microcredit where employees mostly receive developing-country salaries and overhead is lower.

  • Gary Welch

    Churches and universities: I’ve never understood why they were considered to be charitable institutions. Look at the size of Harvard’s endowment – before the current recession they could have taken all students with no tuition paid purely on the interest they earned and not touch the principal. I imagine their investments have returned to that level by now. And yet they charge top dollar, pay little or no taxes and offer tax deductions to their wealthy alums. What exactly is the definition of “non-profit”?

    And no surprise that Utah rises to the top of charitable giving with tithing as widespread as it is.


    Again… “non-profit”?

    • RolloMartins

      Our church just finished fixing up six houses/trailers whose residents could not afford to even patch up their broken windows. There are friends of ours, through Carpenter’s Hands, that rebuild homes destroyed by tornadoes, hurricanes, and so forth. They use their own money, on their vacations. So, now I hope you can understand a little better.

      • Gary Welch

        Thanks for your response. I’ve also known people who have been helped by churches and congregations after losing a house to a fire; others who have had donations of clothing and food. A reasonable argument for making these donations tax deductible.

        But follow the Business Week link to see where this practice is barely paying lip service to charity. Are Mormons the only ones who benefit from the Mormon Church? And this is hardly singling out LDS – Scientology considers themselves to be a tax exempt religion. Perhaps there are better vehicles for providing to those in need than a religious institution that may have biases in their selection process.

  • Kate_in_CT

    Personally, I am so very grateful for the people in this country who don’t give all their charity to those outside the USA. After our son was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy many compassionate people donated tiny to large amounts toward a ramp to our door, a wheelchair bathroom, a service dog and a wheelchair van. No doubt your guest believes these things a great luxuries and when looking at the world population they are. However, in the context of life here in America, they allowed our son to leave the house and get back in, use his bathroom, and have a level up of independence that dramatically changed all of our lives for the better. I have seen many families lives improved in a similar way. I’m very much in favor of giving overseas and we do it ourselves, but I would never recommend giving all of our charity this way. What would happen if everyone started only giving mosquito nets?

    • J__o__h__n

      That service dog could have fed a village for a week.

      • Clareita

        I expect this kind of nonsense at CNN.com not here.

        • JGC

          It is a bit rough, I agree, but Kate’s finishing comment is also obtuse.

        • J__o__h__n

          Satire isn’t nonsense. I’d expect this lack of a sense of humor at CNN.com but not here.

          • The poster formerly known as t

            You’re not funny. You’re deliberately saying inflammatory things but then you back down like a coward and state that your comments were all in good humor when you get called out on it. Flame on, cowardly flamer.

          • J__o__h__n

            I stand by my comment. I was making a point about the guest’s advocacy of giving to foreign charities rather than domestic ones. Informing the humorless that something was a joke is not backing down. If my joke offended you, I really don’t care.

          • The poster formerly known as t

            I said inflammatory, not offensive. I’m not offended or inflamed but I know others might be.

          • J__o__h__n

            Why don’t you wait for someone to get offended rather than complain on his or her behalf? As I suspected, nothing to actually complain about.

    • JGC

      What would happen if everyone started only giving mosquito nets?

      “Global Malaria Deaths Hit a New Low – (by Jason Beaubien, NPR, 11 Dec 2013) -

      The death rate from malaria dropped by 45 percent globally between 2000 and 2012, the World Health Organization reported Wednesday. In Africa, the rate fell by almost half. Despite this progress, the mosquito-borne disease remains a serious problem in the developing world (with) more than 200 million cases of malaria in 2012, and the disease killed an estimated 627,000 people last year…

      The other good news in WHO’s report is that, compared to 12 years ago, more kids in Africa are sleeping under insecticide-treated bed nets and more people have access to anti-malaria drugs that actually work.”

      I don’t think 100% of donations should go to overseas concerns, but it’s great to hear of a success when people, myself included, are not always sure that our donations have really been making a difference.

  • Cynth

    I’m so glad that this topic is being discussed. We make a special effort to support reputable international efforts that aim to provide the “big bang” that Professor Singer describes.

    Giving is personal and often emotional, and it seems that most people I know don’t conduct the due diligence — or even know how — in identifying the best organizations to support. This can mean that, if/when they give, they give to what they know, which is often what is local, convenient, and comfortable to them, not necessarily where our money is best spent.

    Thank you for shining a light on this.

  • Ann in Boston

    We just did our family’s year-end giving. Our two girls both chose to help animals, but one chose the local MSPCA shelter and the other chose the World Wildlife Fund to help pandas. We also give to Healthcare for the Homeless in Boston and Partners in Health for international work. We definitely try to give both near and far.

  • http://neilblanchard.blogspot.com/ Neil Blanchard

    I have put some of my money into micro-loans through Kiva.org. I have made over 60 $25 loans (with roughly the same $300 rolled over and over). These loans can be in any of over 60 countries. I tend to loan to a person (or group of people) who are improving their business, but some are for education.

  • annac

    I wonder what Peter Singer would have to say about Arundhati Roy’s comments about the “NGO-ization of resistance” in that nonprofits “defuse political anger and dole out as aid or benevolence what people ought to have by right… They turn people into dependent victims and blunt the edges of political resistance… It’s almost as though the greater the devastation caused by neo-liberalism, the greater the outbreak of NGOs…” http://www.democracynow.org/2004/8/23/public_power_in_the_age_of There is interesting research on how charity undermines political activism http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/soc4.12007/abstract.

  • Adrian_from_RI

    Princeton University philosopher and ethicist Peter Singer mentioned his book “The Life You Can Save: Acting Now To End World Poverty.” In that book he gives an example of “The Life You Can Save”. The life I am to save is a small child drowning in a shallow pond.

    “Will I ruin my new shoes and wade into the pound to rescue the child?” Prof. Singer asks. Of course I will! But then I want to go after the criminal who threw the child in the pond to drown. Who might that criminal be?

    Prof. Singer wants us to act now to end poverty and children starving by sharing our wealth with the less fortunate. Like I, the professor must know that poverty was the norm around the world not that long ago when Thomas Hobbes observed in 1651 that man’s life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. That is still true for most of the world to this day.

    So, how did the West escape from this Hobbesian world? It was the discovery of freedom. John Locke’s understanding of Man’s Rights let in 1776 to the Declaration of Independence, the birth of America, the industrial revolution, capitalism and the creation of wealth never before seen in the history of mankind.

    It is obvious what keeps the poor poor and what makes the rich rich. “To End World Poverty” requires that Prof. Singer lectures at Princeton and around the world on the Declaration of Independence. Nothing else will do as is proven by the harm done by the billions and billions of dollars that the West has poured into Africa. Yet, the professor wants us to pour in additional billions. Why?

    My answer is that ethicist Singer, like most of us, subscribe to the morality of altruism, the morality of sacrifice, the Kantian categorical imperative of duty for duty’s sake. Altruism is the morality of death as Ayn Rand demonstrates in “The Virtue of Selfishness.” Therefore, the professor is not motivated by love of the poor, but hatred of the rich. Otherwise, he would learn from history and hold the America of our Founding Fathers up as a shining example for all to follow.

  • passarinha

    Peter Singer’s criterion — giving based on where the most extreme human suffering may be alleviated — makes sense. But it does not address other significant aspects of giving. Giving overseas is anonymous, whereas giving locally is a social act that binds us to our community; even if our local gift is anonymous, we have a closer social tie with local giving, and a better sense of whom and how it is helping. It also is a way of defining who we are — cat-lover, tree-hugger, veterans supporter, etc. I try to balance things by donating some overseas and some to favorite causes.

  • Marcia Heller

    Several years ago, our daughter started The Cambodian Photography Project (www.thecambodianphotographyproject.com/), which came to fruition this summer when a team of four traveled to Cambodia bringing digital point-and-shoot cameras to children at two Sunrise Children’s Villages orphanages (www.scv.org.au/) in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.

    Over a period of some three weeks, we gave daily photography classes to 40 youngsters, ages 10-18, and provided them with the cameras to document their lives at Sunrise using the lessons they’d learned. The resulting pictures were thoughtful, fun, creative and informational. Despite having endured the pain of abject poverty, hunger,
    abuse and abandonment before coming to Sunrise, the children’s joy, gratitude,
    kindness and resilience are amazing, and those feelings are exhibited in their photographs.

    In San Francisco, in November, we held what we hope will be the first of several gallery shows displaying the best of the images taken by the children. Proceeds from photo sales will be returned to Sunrise.

    To anyone who is skeptical about donating money or in-kind charity to people in a third-world country, it is certainly important to do your homework. Those of us at The Cambodian Photography Project know we were in a good place. Sunrise Children’s Villages is a highly reputable organization, founded by Australian Geraldine Cox. We were honored to have been able to help in what little way we could.

  • JGC

    At the request of a family member who wanted a targeted donation to her favorite charity instead of “stuff” for Christmas, I gave some money to an organization that is providing “baby tents” to mothers and their children after Typhoon Haiyan. I am sure it is a great charity, but I was somewhat disappointed to learn later that, in general, after these big disasters, approximately 30% of the gift is wasted because of lack of coordination/organization between all the participating NGOs.

  • Michelle

    What a great show, and a terrific way to use air time. The discussion got me to act quickly, and I found that GiveDirectly (available from the Givewell site) was a good pick. Thank you.

  • Dan Reardon

    Peter Singer’s responses to his callers was the most thoughtful, courteous, diplomatic but unwavering use of the spoken word since….?

    Lord grant me a tenth his patience.

  • Labropotes

    I am reminded of the novel by Terry Southern, The Magic Christian. It’s short. Funny. And addresses the wealth gap in a very strange way.

  • Regular_Listener

    I have great respect for Prof. Singer’s call to help those in the world’s most impoverished regions. But I am concerned that sending money to these places would just temporarily alleviate the suffering there and not contribute to a sustainable future. OP has addressed this issue before, but it is worth pointing out in this discussion. What is really needed in these places is not just handouts, but birth control and support for building something that can last.

  • gwenivere

    Read Peter’s book (The Life You Can Save) and that will help explain the difference more clearly…in one case you can help, but in the other you can help much, much more with the same amount of money. Not discounting anyone’s suffering — just valuing all human life equally.

  • Pedro Alberto Arroyo

    I agree with you that I thought there was something missing about Prof. Singer’s conversation about giving locally. I wrote out some thoughts if anyone wants to check them out: http://bit.ly/1dNufBj

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