Fish or Fishing: How to Make Your Charitable Contributions Count



December 5, 2013


Our last WEALTHWISE, about including philanthropy in your life, moved some to contact us, so we decided to continue the conversation in this issue. Apparently a number of you are interested in making your giving more impactful. But what is the best way to do that?

A recent article in the New York Times by Peter Singer presents a thought experiment in which you have $100,000 to donate and must decide which of two groups will get the money.

The first is an organization working to stop the spread of trachoma, a preventable disease that causes blindness for many in developing countries. The second is an art museum that wants to build a new wing. By making some assumptions about how many can be saved from blindness, and how many will see the new wing of art, Singer comes to the conclusion that the harm of potential blindness is greater than the benefit of the museum wing. Your $100,000 will do the most good, he says, in the fight against trachoma.

Singer’s point is larger than this. He believes charity directed to the urgent-needs of extreme poverty is always the best kind, because it gets the most bang for the buck. It’s a persuasive case. After all, don’t the extremely poor need help more than, say, museum-goers?

A Forbes article by Howard Husock, written in response to Singer, argues that the issue is more complex than that. Husock believes that promoting cultural values, through things such as art or education, can help permanently alleviate poverty. He uses as an example the island nation of Singapore. In the early 1960s, it was a “tropical backwater” where disease was common. But by developing its economy along market-based principles, it is now wealthy enough to provide for its own health care.

Maybe Singer and Husock are stuck in a fish vs. fishing argument. In the long run, teaching someone to fish is better, but in the short run a person may need a fish to keep from starving. In other words, both types of giving can be valuable. Let that free you in your own approach to philanthropy. Do consider where your money will do the most quantifiable good. But don’t be afraid to follow your passion, either. Motivation is the critical element in philanthropy that is all too often missing. And nothing will motivate you like passion.

You can learn more about philanthropy at Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors’ website, where a number of guides are available with ideas for targeting your charitable efforts.
We’d like to hear your thoughts on this complicated subject. What are the best kinds of causes to give to, or the best ways to give? How do you decide how much to give, and how do you make sure your gift has the intended impact? Click HERE to respond.*

At PARTNERSINWEALTH , we help clients gain more control over their time and money. Our job is to take a 360-degree view of their financial lives to help relieve worry while accelerating the growth of net worth. For more information, helpful guidance or professional assistance with this or other issues, please contact Jim Waters, CFP®, at PARTNERSINWEALTH , 713.964.4028 or

*We may present some of the best feedback in a future issue of WEALTHWISE.