14 December 2012

Comments from MMM Forums Part 3: Lets Talk Charities

Part 3 of the ongoing series of posts taken from the MMM discussion board


By I.P. Daley :
Let's talk charities - (Afghani brick kilns and us)
Was reading the evening news tonight, and came across the following article in the world news feed:

Afghan family works to pay off crushing debt

Nutshell on the article? Guy gets married, wife gets sick, guy borrows $900 from his employer to get medical attention for his wife. Nine years later, he's still in debt and he and four of his six children (youngest working is 4 years old) are working in the kilns along with him to try and just eat and pay off the debt. And they aren't the only ones:


This isn't some new story in the history of man... it's happened before, it's happening right now, and it'll keep happening. This sort of thing even occurs in today's United States, just look at the immigrant tomato field workers in Florida as an example right off the top of my head.

A lot of us give a lot of lip service to frugal living, staying out of debt, being socially responsible, and extol the virtues of the bounty of goods that allow us to pursue financial independence. We also frequently want to punch people in this country in the face for their decadent living beyond their means and wasteful consumerism, and honestly, this article just re-stirs some of that anger because some of these never-to-be-forgiven family life debt balances on loans taken out for basic necessities in the third world are for less money than many people waste on frivolous crap in a month here. A lot of times, we also forget where a lot of these goods that give us the quality of life we have come from and who made them as well as how little (by our standards) it can take to dramatically change their lives.

We've all discussed a lot of things in these forums over the months, but I think the above article should serve as a reminder to us all that we should perhaps be doing more. More frugal living, more kindness to others, more self-sufficiency... you get the idea. Charitable works and worthwhile efforts to improve our fellow man's life has never really come up in these forums, and I think its time we changed that. There is no perfect charity, and some people's charities will probably rub others the wrong way... that's okay though. This shouldn't be an argument about who's giving to better causes. Although personal biases and politics may be involved with many of the charities, let's not badger one another about our choices. This should be about openly sharing information with our fellow mustachians about some greater and lesser known causes that we can all potentially invest in to try and make the world a better place. If you've never really considered or done so before, perhaps now is a good time to start.

I'll begin by listing Charity Navigator and the ECFA as resources for vetting charities.

I feel uncomfortable making a list of who we support due a desire to remain as anonymous as possible with tzedakah as we don't give for the thanks, but it's difficult to avoid given the subject. The specific charities that we currently try to support are World Vision, Habitat for Humanity, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Child's Play, and the MJAA. Most of you are probably already familiar with World Vision, the EFF and Habitat for Humanity, so I'll refrain from describing those outfits. Child's Play is an organization that basically provides toys (digital and otherwise), books and games for sick children in hospitals. The MJAA (Messianic Jewish Alliance of America) is an Israel-focused, faith based humanitarian relief and ministry organization. Not all of these are the most lofty and noble of humanitarian aid causes, but they're given to with the intent of improving people's lives, to spread a little joy, and help preserve some freedoms.

What organizations do the rest of you consider worthwhile to share and support?

[Several responses, including my own, answering the original post’s question, followed by a segue into the question of what percentage of income is appropriate to give – you can click the very topmost hyperlink in the OP if you want to read all the inbetween posts]

By Bakari:

Re: Let's talk charities - (Afghani brick kilns and us)
« Reply #11 on: July 28, 2012, 06:34:01 AM »
People frequently talk about percentages (or total amounts) given, esp. by wealthy people, as though the size of the donation made it esp. admirable (as in "random rich guy 'aint so bad, he gives fully half his money to charity)

But I think the true test of giving isn't how much you give away, its how much you keep.

If you have a billion dollars, its easy to give away 90%, because then you still have 100 million dollars.
On the other hand, if a homeless guy with $100 to his name gives away 5%, he has only $95 left.
In this extreme example, giving 5% is more charitable than 90%, because it is the bigger personal sacrifice.

So I don't think it makes sense to talk about "how much" OR "what percent", because everyone's circumstances are so different, and therefore what they can potentially afford are as well.
Well, I suppose one has to start with "how many" - with larger groups, a smaller percentage would be prudent, and vice versa -

Are you suggesting giving larger sums to smaller charities, and smaller sums to larger ones?  Maybe I'm not following correctly.

"how many" as in how many different places do you give.  Do you make one large donation to the one organization you really believe in, or do you give small amounts to a dozen different charities?  Its like being a teacher vs a mentor: you can help lots of kids a little bit, or you can totally transform just one person's life, but you can't do both.

If you think it's a moral imperative to help your fellow man financially, and that other uses of wealth are less just, I'd like to hear your argument why. I think there are several pragmatic and theoretical problems with the assertion,

I question whether "just" is the foundation of "moral".  One could argue that "an eye for an eye" is a just policy, but that doesn't make it especially moral.  I think morality is built on the existence of sentience, the ability to feel pleasure and pain.  It need not be financial, but helping others is moral, basically by definition.  Now whether it is imperative, that is another question.  But whether other uses of wealth may be less valid, consider the diminishing returns one who holds wealth gets for each additional dollar.  Even for a normal consumer, but esp. a mustachian!  For an already FI mustachian, $100 may provide literally no value at all, while it could provide a vaccine against a terrible but easy to prevent disease for some kid in the 3rd world.  Given the benefit we all receive from past and present exploitation of the 3rd world, giving some back seems to be both moral AND just.
Grant here seems to think that social altruism is fundamentally indefensible, though I'm not yet sure why.  If he's right, then the correct amount of money to donate to charity would be "zero".

Just because it is determined not to be a "moral imperative" wouldn't make it fundamentally indefensible.  It would just mean we aren't obligated to give. 

By Bakari:

Re: Let's talk charities - (Afghani brick kilns and us)
« Reply #31 on: July 31, 2012, 12:07:31 PM »
What about social businesses? There's no expectation of a monetary return at all, other than what's been given. It's effectively an interest-free loan, and facilitates "teaching a man to fish," which is almost invariably more valuable than "giving a man a fish."

Giving with the expectation of a return is not giving, no matter how non-existent the return profit might be. This isn't to say that investing in these sorts of things isn't socially beneficial, I'm just saying that it isn't charity.

I take that to also imply that if one takes a tax deduction for a donation, it was not charity either?
I actually find that a reasonable outlook, one I kind of agree with, but I'm just trying to clarify what you're saying.

In fact, come to think of it, that seems an interesting related concept that I don't think I've seen brought up yet.
Does anyone here deliberately not claim tax-deductible donations, and/or make donations anonymously?

By Bakari:

Re: Let's talk charities - (Afghani brick kilns and us)
« Reply #37 on: August 01, 2012, 10:52:39 AM »

I realize I've been posting a lot, and they've all been long, and I apologize for taking up so much thread space.
Also: this is going to be another one.

See, these posts have been going through my mind the past couple days, keeping me up at night, distracting me at work, and I think I have finally pinned down exactly what it is that has been bothering me so much about the outlook that has been expressed here multiple times by different people in regards to donating money versus volunteering or consuming less or other forms of bettering the world.

Up until now I've mostly been participating in a philosophical kind of way, but the more I think about it, the more I think the arguments I've seen made here are actually counter-productive - ironically enough, in the exact kind of way that Sol's very first post was talking about.  So now I'm going to have to make the same disclaimer that was given to me a couple times recently: I don't mean this as a personal attack one anyone specifically.  I respect you guys, and I enjoy the discussions we have here, and most of all, I recognize that everyone here means well.  The topic of how much we do to make the world better has been broached, and now that pandora's box has been opened, I'll go ahead and tell you what I really think:

Your privileged is showing.

I realize that the average level of income among MMM readers is higher than the average US citizen (although it often seems that many of you forget that).  The upper middle class is disproportionately represented, and we even have some of the infamous "1%".
I grew up in on of the poorest cities in the SF Bay Area, with subsidized rent and government food programs, and then went on to live in various trailer parks across the US.  Even now that I am finally able to save a portion of my income, I have always lived around poverty.

Among the people I voluntarily associate with, my friends and co-workers and associates, the majority of my circles don't have much money - and here's the key part - because they have chosen to do something with their lives which is meaningful, but doesn't pay well.

D_ has a law degree, and gave up a successful career as a corporate lawyer in favor of working as an advocate for bicycle access in urban planning.
A_ graduated from UC Berkeley with a physics degree - at the age of 18. Smart enough to do anything.  She went on to get a Master's in education, so she could work as a math teacher in low-performing public schools.
J_ makes around 20k a year working as a special education assistant for special needs preschoolers.
B_ works for the local food bank
N_ is a fundraiser for a major non-profit foundation - one which has received a number of bomb threats due to a certain Fox News commentator's insane conspiracy theories.
M_ manages a non-profit community bike shop who's primary service is free of charge
JH_ runs a tiny underfunded non-profit which aims to educate poor inner city people about healthy nutrition as well as providing them access to fresh local produce by setting up farm stands and school gardens deep in the ghetto.
My friends with Master's degrees use said degree to work as teachers in public schools.
This is just a sample, but there are a lot more.
None of these people make much money.
And they don't make much money because they choose to do meaningful work instead of high paying work.

There has been a lot of mention - and general consensus - about how us in the first world have access to a life of luxury, how we have more than our fair share, and how this is largely at the expense of the rest of humanity.
But there seems to be some sort of disconnect about what that actually means.
That excess we have is in the form of fancy coffee drinks and iPads and new cars and cable TV and large wardrobes and the chance to travel to interesting places on vacation.
The destructive thing we do is consume.
The more one consumes, the higher their negative impact is.
There is a direct relationship between how much you spend and how much you consume, and between how much you consume, and the size of your negative impact on the world.
Again, to be clear, because this is important: there is a DIRECT relationship between how much you spend and the size of your negative impact on the world.

I think the real issue, in terms of our personal responsibility to the world is - has to be - our net impact.  You can not just look at how much one gives while ignoring how much they take.
You need to take all the charity and donations and volunteering and self-sacrifice, and then subtract all the consumption, and only then do you get a meaningful result.

If you are taking more than your share in the first place, then hell yeah, you should feel obligated to give something back.  But if you are taking 20 times your share, then giving back 10% is hardly anything to be proud of.  You are still in the red.  Way, way in the red.
Maybe the reason yall in the upper-middle-class feel so strongly about giving cash is because on some level you know you have more than your share to begin with.
But then, instead of acknowledging that imbalance in your own mind, you make it about the principal of giving, which basically lets you off the hook for giving back 2 units (after you took 20 units in the first place) - and then that in turn leads to the idea that everyone else should be giving back 10%, even if they didn't take so much extra to begin with.

It may not have been your intention, but more than one person has implied that they are morally superior to the friends and associates I listed above, because those people don't donate cash.
These are people who are spending their lives following their values, while you are sitting there feeling morally superior because once a month you open up your checkbook and give 10% of your massive wealth from the comfort of your living room - money that goes to paying my friends' living expenses while they go about doing the real work that needs to be done.

I'm calling BS on that.

That's like the investor who thinks he deserves the credit for creating the tangible things of value that the worker actually built with his hands.  Take away all the investors, and society still functions.  Take away all the workers, and it does not.

While y'all talk about the savings you can have by cutting cable or buying used cars, the people in my circles have never paid for cable, don't own cars, and still live with roommates as middle aged adults.  They don't do these things so they can retire early.  They do these things because that is what life is like when you aren't middle class.  Buying a new car isn't an option.

When someone actually donates so much money that all they have left is the $20k a year my friend makes as a special-ed teacher - 20k to spend on both living expenses AND savings, then come back and tell me about how meaningful it is to donate cash, or that it is a mandatory part of ethical living.  In other words, if you make 100k gross, donate 80%, not 10%.  Then, and only then, will I even consider donations to be as meaningful as actually living ones life according to their values.

The fact that I believe that the root of the first worlds destructiveness is consumption is the whole reason I am here (on the MMM forum) and promote MMM to everyone in my real life.
I really don't care about getting rich.  I would enjoy the freedom of FI, but it has never been a primary goal.  Like I mentioned in a previous post, I could easily expand my business following the standard capital model and make lots of money, but I find it unethical to skim money off the top of a worker's labor, so I will not expand and hire employees.
I rarely even read the investing posts.  They don't interest me.  I'm here to give bicycle and composting advice, to learn and teach about saving energy, to have thought provoking political and philosophical discussions like this one.
I'm a fan of MMM because it has a reason for everyone to consume less.  Whether you are rich or poor, selfish or socially minded or environmental, or just interested in being a badass human being, the message is the same: consume less.  Yes, it would be great if everyone in the world acknowledged their own privileged and wanted to give something back - but they don't.  That will never be universal.  And MMM says, even if you don't care about the developing world, even if you don't care about the environment, you should still drive less, you should still buy less clothes and electronics.  The wider that message spreads, the better the world becomes, as peoples' negative impact becomes smaller - even the people who don't give a damn about charity and are not going to change their minds no matter what you say.  And it gets all the people who care, but don't realize that the single most important thing they can do is stop being so destructive.

You want to donate cash, fine.  But get your priorities in order.
A person who drives an SUV 20 miles to work each day, eats meat with every meal, owns all the latest gadgets and has 4 kids is not making up for the damage they do to the world by donating a few thousand dollars a year.
Its like if you are trying to get out of debt and start saving by clipping coupons when you live in a 2500sq ft home and own a car bought new on financing.  If you want to do good, take care of the big stuff first.  Then, if you still feel like you need to do more, then by all means add in some donations and call it charity.
But don't tell me that because you give away some of your excess wealth you are morally superior to people who actually are avoiding the destructive habits that so many American's think of as normal.

In fact, there is my challenge for everyone in this thread:

Stop doing the major destructive things that we Americans (and to a lesser - but still large extent, the rest of the first world) do
Don't have (biological) children.  If you already do, fine, of course an existing person has inherent value.  But don't have more.  If you want to raise a child, adopt.
Don't eat meat (unless you personally raised it, hunted it, or at least went to the farm and witnessed the practices of the farm)
Don't drive a car
Don't take (voluntary) plane trips
Keep your spending for all (new) stuff less than however much you donate each year

Y'all brought this topic up, and have been fierce in suggesting it is everyone's responsibility to do the right thing.
So now I'm stepping it up a notch.
Lets get serious.  Not this feel good donate a little and feel good about it crap.  Actual personal sacrifice so that we don't take more than our share of the world's resources.
That should really be the minimum - the absolute minimum - that is expected of each and every one of us, and buying indulgences, carbon offsets, or charitable donations does not let anyone off the hook

[I was expecting a backlash, but in fact, I got quite the opposite: almost all of the responses were strongly supportive!  Well, almost all…]

By Bakari:

Re: Let's talk charities - (Afghani brick kilns and us)
« Reply #50 on: August 02, 2012, 08:52:29 AM »

Oh get off your high horse for just a moment.  Has anyone in your circle lost a child to dysentery, or are they also just as privileged?  The beauty of relativism is that it applies to everyone.  Claiming your moral superiority over me is no different than me claiming my superiority over Romney or an Ethiopian claiming his over you.

I wasn't claiming to be part of that circle myself, nor was I claiming they were morally superior.  I was defending the notion that different people can choose to give back in different ways, and that accepting lower pay in order to have a more meaningful job is no less valid a way than donating money.  I was never the one who claimed that if a person doesn't do this one very specific action that I do (donating money) they are immoral.
Don't have (biological) children.  If you already do, fine, of course an existing person has inherent value.  But don't have more.  If you want to raise a child, adopt.

While we're on the topic of value systems, this point is one I take issue with.  It is valid if you assert that environmental health is more important than human happiness, but I tend to think all systems of value, ethics, and morality exist solely in relation to humanity.  I would gladly see the entire planet go up in flames if it ensured the continued survival of the human race.  I would voluntarily push an entire species to extinction to save an entire ethnic group.  I value people more than nature, not solely because I'm innately anthropocentric but because I think it is people who have made up the value system in the first place and thus people who get to decide how to apply it.

Your point about population control is a good one, if interpreted in the context of "more people will reduce the quality of life of those people who are already here".  It seems less defensible to me if interpreted in the light of "people are inherently bad because they consume resources".  The former need not be a mandate for population control if quality of life does not go down.  The latter requires population control a priori.

First, I believe that anything with the capacity to feel pleasure or pain deserves recognition as being part of a system of morality.  I doubt it is what you mean, but it sounds like you would approve of torturing animals so long as it amused at least one human.  For that matter, if we get to "decide how to apply it", wouldn't that suggest that we needn't have any value system at all, and that if any person decides on me-my-mine that is neither good nor bad?

Second, I meant it in terms of "more people will reduce the quality of life of those people who are already here" anyway.
Remember the whole infinite growth on a finite planet thing?  Us humans having children, that's the growth.    Its billions of individual couples  who want to have the experience of producing and raising children.  All it takes is an average of 2.2 children per couple, and you have exponential growth.
Even as frugal and environmentally conscious people, we still - as you just pointed out - consume far more resources per person than the third world, and when you factor in the relative resource use, US effective population growth is many times higher than that of the developing world.  If we tend to use roughly 20 times the resources, than having "just" the replacement level of 2 kids is equivalent to having 40 kids - ones that aren't likely to die of dysentery before they have a chance to have 2 (40) kids of their own (each).
There would be plenty to go around if we kept up economic development but halted population growth (actually, James made an entirely feasible argument that we have too many people already), but currently, even in the developed US, population is still increasing (not considering immigration).

Of all the things in my list, that is the biggest impact.
I put them in the order they were in for a reason - they are, more or less, in order of significance.



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