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Don't Let the Golden Rule Get In the Way Of Your Giving

   Oct 04, 2021

A message from CharityWatch Executive Director, Laurie Styron

Treating others the way we would like to be treated is our default setting when we feel empathy for the plights of others. We consider what kind of help would be the most useful and then give what we can. If someone looks cold, we buy them a warm coat, socks, and gloves. If a family looks hungry, we buy them food. If a neighbor's car breaks down, we lend them money for repairs. 

While practicing empathy is a good thing, we sometimes make the mistake of projecting our own priorities onto someone in need when making our giving decisions. This can cause us to miss the mark in making a positive impact on that person's life. Our perceptions of others' needs are just that--perceptions. Ones that may be based on a lot of assumptions and few facts. What we think someone needs may not be their highest priority, and in some cases may even do more harm than good. Giving our old car to someone who won't be able to afford the insurance or fuel, or donating perishable food to someone whose utilities have been disconnected, for example, can add to their list of problems rather than alleviate them. 

Fortunately, there is a simple solution to this problem--simply ask the person what they need. A similar rule of thumb applies when donating to charities. In the wake of a crisis, many good-hearted people make a trip to the store to buy things like food, water, and toiletries to donate to charities that are providing direct aid to victims. This often creates costs for a charity that exceed the value of what was donated. The charity may be stuck paying to sort the items, inspect them for safety, and transport and distribute them. Cash donations to the same charity could have been more efficiently used to purchase the needed items in bulk in the geographic areas where they are most needed, thus eliminating many of these costs. If a person or charity asks for help that you feel uncomfortable giving, it's ok to maintain boundaries by saying no. 

The Golden Rule tells us to treat others as we would like to be treated, not as they would like to be treated. These two things are not always the same. As you consider your year-end donations, remember that asking about what is most needed before making a contribution is an important step in making an informed giving decision.