What are Our Charitable Obligations?

12/10/2013 05:36 pm ET | Updated Feb 08, 2014

This is the season of charitable giving. In 2012, Americans donated $316 billion to charity; that is roughly $1,000 per person, or about 2 percent of the GDP. Is this sufficient? Some religions promote the practice of tithing: giving away 10 percent of one's income. But is even that enough? Bolder Giving is an organization with a mission: "To inspire and support people to give at their full lifetime potential," and it encourages people to take its Give Half Pledge. As the name suggests, this is a promise to give away 50 percent of one's income. Is that sufficient?

My answer to all of these questions is a resounding no. None of these are sufficient to meet our charitable obligations. But neither is giving away 100 percent of our incomes.

The act of giving away money is nothing more than self-sacrifice, not inherently different from flushing money down the toilet. There is nothing inherently "good" about giving money away. What makes charitable giving different from other ways to use money is that it is intended to help others.

Giving money to the most effective charities is certainly one way to meet our obligation to help others. However, many people pursue charitable giving in a way that is selfish -- more about the donor than helping others. A common example is when someone gives money to a street beggar with no regard for how it will be spent. The "donors" are simply sacrificing their own money to be able to walk past the person without feeling guilty for ignoring their situation: Giving a dollar is a cheap way to clear their conscience. Could a homeless shelter be a more effective way to help this person? Could an educational or drug rehab program prevent the same situation from happening to others? These donors probably don't know. They may get a warm feeling from thinking they helped others, but this feeling is underserved, and only possible through self-delusion. The harsh reality is that giving a dollar to a street beggar is an act of a person who made minimal effort to actually help anyone.

Unfortunately this isn't the only form of selfish giving. Many people give to the medical causes and charities that have touched their lives. Do they think about whether there are diseases that can be prevented or treated more easily or cheaply, thus allowing donors to do more "good" with their donations? Probably not. More likely, they either haven't thought about it or simply don't care.

And how about donating to one's alma mater? Although some may try to establish whether any other nonprofit could make better use of a contribution, most donors don't. They typically give to the institution they graduated from because they want to show gratitude, not because that particular school will best use their gift for the purpose of helping others. That method of choosing a charity is about the donor, not the potential benefactors of the gift.

Unfortunately, a study conducted by Hope Consulting found that only 35 percent of donors do any research before deciding which charities to give to. Thoughtless, charitable gifts may be acts of financial self-sacrifice, but they aren't enough to meet our obligations. This is true even if the donation does some good -- like gifts to most medical charities or universities -- but doesn't do as much good as possible. The donor who gives with all "heart" and no "head" actually gives with neither.

Some may consider my view overly abrasive and inappropriately critical of many people who give to charity. That's not my intention. Instead, I hope to motivate people to think about how to make their giving more effective at improving the world.

Actually, I used to practice selfish giving because it felt good and was easy. I gave to beggars to clear my conscience, I gave to medical charities based on how they affected me instead of what they could do for others and I gave to schools simply because I went there. But after thinking about this approach, it no longer felt good to give to a charity without seriously considering whether there were better options. Doing that didn't feel like I was meeting my obligations to help others.

I stopped giving to organizations because of personal connections, instead picking charities based on research. For example, I've made sizable donations to the Against Malaria Foundation, which focuses on an illness I have no experience with, and works in countries I have no connection to -- but rather because there is substantial evidence that their work is extremely effective.

Many people have told me that this approach is less fulfilling because it takes the passion out of charitable giving. Ironically, however, I get more authentic personal satisfaction from giving when I put aside my personal experiences, do some research into charitable effectiveness, and give based on what I think is most effective at helping others.

I don't have a precise answer to how much money people should give to charity. But I do know that giving based on selfish criteria isn't sufficient, and picking a charity based on a well-researched view of its effectiveness feels better than being selfish.