Each year at this time, out of some combination of generosity and procrastination, millions of Americans rush to make donations to the causes and institutions important to them.
It is a beautiful thing, but it also is something of a scramble. The solicitations pile up.
The holiday to-do list is already long. There are last-minute tax moves to make. And somewhere along the way, people find a few minutes to make a series of hasty decisions and dash off a bunch of checks.
This year, I was determined that my family would be a bit more deliberate. We already automatically give modest amounts each month, via credit card, to institutions and causes that we have a personal connection to and educational or religious institutions that shaped us or shape us still.
But I wanted us to have a true charitable asset allocation -- an actual pie chart so that we could be more deliberate about how we split things up. We also had a goal of giving more to people who are lacking in basic needs.
Our historical pie chart shows us to be a lot like other Americans, with a heavy tilt toward houses of worship and secondary or higher education. According to the annual Giving USA study of how Americans give, just 8% of donations go to international organizations, and not all of them work on basic issues like hunger and health.
Any serious discussion of this issue ought to include a careful consideration of "The Life You Can Save," a brief and provocative book by Peter Singer, a Princeton University professor of bioethics. To lead a truly ethical life, he writes, we should be doing much more to help poor people in faraway places. Our money can go further there, too, giving us more bang for our charitable buck.
It is hard to argue that there is anything more important than saving one additional child's life. But where does that leave those of us who still have a strong affinity for causes and places closer to home?
Many of us would not be where we are were it not for the educational institutions that picked up the bill when we could not pay full freight. To my mind, that creates not just a debt of gratitude but a running tab that I hope to clear long before I die.
Many religious communities depend on their members for much or all of their annual budget. They would not exist but for our (still tax-deductible, for now) donations.
One other new twist in our household this year was bringing our 6-year-old daughter in on the discussion.
Our daughter wanted to share: equal amounts for groups that help people far away and the groups we have given to in the past, she said. Some rough approximation of this seems like a good place to end up this year, as it both brings her into the process and gets us closer to our goal of an ideal allocation without necessarily bickering over the last few percentage points.