And Charity to All

Jeff Brown, MD

In this season of giving, it is important to plan giving ahead and take the time to inquire into some charities. You might be appalled at their poor businesses practices.

In this season of giving, it is helpful for a moment to turn away from the avalanche of commercial purchasing and look to some feel- and do-good forms of giving. Yes we all feel a buzz when we trickle some cash into Santa’s kettle on the street corner, but there can be a lot more that is impactful in the long term as well as briefly satisfying.

Let me give you a few examples. One of my doctor friends goes to parties at this time of year armed with a small batch of letters from the post office written to Santa to hand out to anyone willing to help fulfill simple requests. Typically, they are from deserving kids with few prospects except hope, and some of these letters can break you. I heartily recommend that you go to your post office and volunteer to sponsor a few.

Or buy an extra bag of basic groceries when you venture to the market next and drop it off at your local food bank on the way home. No wrapped gift you give this season will make you feel as good. I know, we all pay lip service to these kinds of things, but the personal act can be transformative.

On the more mundane matter of the regular deductible contributions that we dutifully run through during the year, I have written before about the importance of planning ahead to organize our giving rather than the haphazard responses to friends and mailed requests that we episodically engage in. These casual donations are fine, but we rarely pay much attention to them except at tax time. Or question the impact or the effectiveness of the otherwise “good cause.”

If we inquire into some of these, even well-known, charities, we would be appalled at the poor business practices and even corruption that salt so many, according to Ken Stern in his book With Charity For All.

He points out that charities are both easy and inexpensive to launch. So the IRS ends up approving 99.5% of all applications for non-profit status — about 50,000 per year. He also notes that it is almost impossible to shut down malfeasant charities because “…the lines between illegal fraud and lawful inefficiency are so blurry.” And the few ratings agencies that are supposed to provide oversight are “ineffective,” according to Stern.

He also goes on to state that we donors are partly to blame because we do not do our homework or follow-up to make sure that our hard-earned donations are being put to provably effective and cost-conscious use. Best practices are not just for docs, they are also for non-profits. He claims that 65% of us do “some” background work on the charities that we donate to, but a non-scientific survey I recently conducted of friends and passersby elicited a 0% rate.

Lastly, Stern maintains that his study of the situation shows that “…the charitable sector is thoroughly fused with government.” And the non-profit lobby is so large and well-funded that the realistic prospect of reform is remote.

Which brings me back to planning. Get to know or, even better, get involved with one or two charities that you really care about and can pay attention to. Your good-hearted intentions will have a more realistic chance of being realized.

Oh, and don’t forget those post office letters addressed to Santa. You, and those kids, will not be sorry. Happy Holidays!