Giving to charity and the trouble with empathy

Graham Lock

I recently realized that, assuming I do not live too long beyond the age at which statistics say I ought to depart, I can enjoy a perfectly comfortable retirement on less money than I had originally budgeted for. There was therefore no reason why I should not be a bit more generous with what I have. But somehow I kept putting off doing much about it. So Sister Ocean’s recent feature on Buddhistdoor* on the parami/paramita of dana (“generosity,” “giving,” or “charity”) was a timely reminder.

Probably like a lot of people, I regularly made small donations to a couple of charities that for some reason I had formed a good impression of, and I now and again responded to disaster appeals. But I had never spent much time exploring in depth how effective giving to charity as a form of dana really is, or which charities would be best to donate to. So before increasing my current paltry donations I thought I should do some research.

I have found two books really helpful in doing this—The Most Good You Can Do, by Peter Singer, and Doing Good Better, by William McGaskill. One thing I was already vaguely aware of but which they both spell out in detail is how people on an average or even below average income in a relatively affluent part of the world (such as Hong Kong) can donate even (to them) quite small amounts of money that can radically transform the lives of poor people in other parts of the world, often in life or death ways. It is actually quite shocking to think about the amounts of money I spend on things I don’t really need, and what difference such amounts could make to the lives of others living elsewhere.

Of course some people don’t think that giving to charity is a good idea. You hear various objections. One is that very little of the money donated to charities actually ends up helping people or animals in need, and that most of it goes on administration and providing a nice living for professional charity workers. There have certainly been some well-publicized cases in which this has been true, but it doesn’t take long to discover that this is far from being generally the case. Many charities are now very transparent about their finances and how donations to them are actually used, and the best of them have the outcomes of their programs independently evaluated to make sure each dollar donated is used as effectively as possible.

But not all charities are equally good. If we are motivated to alleviate as much suffering as possible rather than just to feel good about giving (or to chalk up merit points), then it is really important to spend some time evaluating the “value for money” of the charities we might want to give to. I know this will be blindingly obvious to many people, but I honestly hadn’t really taken this sufficiently into consideration before. Of great help in doing such research are what Peter Singer calls “metacharities,” or charities that evaluate other charities. One well-known example of a metacharity is GiveWell** which rigorously evaluates charities seeking to alleviate poverty and its associated forms of suffering. Another is Animal Charity Evaluators,*** which evaluates the effectiveness of charities devoted to helping animals. Even if the charity we are considering donating to has not been evaluated by a metacharity, these websites provide criteria for doing it yourself. William McGaskill’s book is also good in this regard.

What is clear is that donating simply on the basis of emotion is misguided. It is natural to respond to heartrending images of a drowned or starving child, of people buried under collapsed buildings, or of a mistreated dog gazing pitifully out at us. But if we do not follow up our initial emotional response with a hard look at the numbers, it is highly unlikely that our donation will do as much good as it could have done. It may even do harm.

The distinction between empathy and compassion is clearly relevant here. I found very useful Ven. Matthieu Ricard’s clarification of this during a recent talk at Hong Kong University.**** Empathy is sharing (to a greater or lesser extent) the feelings of others. We see someone suffer, and we suffer too. But as Ricard points out, repeatedly sharing the suffering of others leads to “excessive empathic distress” and burnout. Also, while we can feel empathy for individual people or animals, it is hard to feel empathy when we hear about, say, thousands of people starving in a famine or billions of animals a year suffering through industrial food production. The cultivation of compassion, however, takes us beyond sharing the suffering of individuals. As is well known, the traditional Buddhist definition of compassion (karuna) is the wish that others may be free from suffering and the causes of suffering, and compassion combined with wisdom is seen as the basis for effective action. Wisdom in giving surely requires giving skillfully so that our donations do as much good as they possibly can.

Another objection to giving to charity you sometimes hear is that charities provide no more than a “Band-Aid,” and that they do nothing about the systemic economic, political, and environmental factors that underlie extreme poverty and other kinds of suffering. But I don’t see how that gives an excuse to those of us who are relatively affluent, and therefore to some extent benefiting from the current system, not to give to those who are its greatest victims. In addition, there is nothing to stop us including in our “charity portfolio” some of the many advocacy charities who do directly address these issues, provided such charities can also be properly evaluated (Peter Singer talks about this in some detail in Chapter 14 of The Most Good You Can Do).

Traditionally, of course, an important aspect of dana is giving to the Sangha, in order to support them in giving the gift of Dharma, said to be the greatest gift. But I see no reason why giving to the Sangha should not also be subject to rigorous evaluation. It should be relatively easy, for example, to discover whether our donations are being used to support the upkeep of a center which provides space for many people to practice, learn about, and discuss the Dharma or whether they are being used to contribute to the making of yet another statue of the Buddha or gold-plated chedi (stupa). And as for donating a Mercedes Benz to a member of the Sangha . . .

4 Replies to “Giving to charity and the trouble with empathy”

  1. Sarah Carmichael says: Reply

    A thoughtful piece on a very important issue.

  2. It makes sense that there should be a system of evaluation especially nowadays.

  3. Your comments are very interesting to me as I enter the Kingdom of the Elderly with a certain amount of financial surplus assets. I’ll have to read this again when I’m less under the influence of wine.

  4. Thanks very much for your comments. Gerry, I hope you still found it interesting when stone cold sober. As for surplus assets, I guess I’m lucky in that I have no dependents and my good friends and relatives are all doing well. It would help my planning if I knew the exact date of my death, though. But I wonder how well I would deal with that information!

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