When you start seriously studying the ways American give money, as Christian Smith and his colleagues did for his recent book Passing the Plate, one of the first things you realize is that they give very little.
One of the next things you realize is that they give money mostly to people like themselves, who lead organizations that benefit people like themselves, for causes that matter to people like themselves. And when they do escape from such self-referential giving, it is largely in response to crisis and sentimentality rather than an intentional approach to lasting investment.
Catherine and I have tried over the years to make sure that our giving doesn’t just end up being a tax-deductible subsidy of organizations that serve people like us. We think of it very much like investing. We want to have a “balanced portfolio” in three important dimensions.
1. We want to balance our giving between organizations based in the United States and those based outside (mostly in the developing world, where a dollar often goes incredibly far).
2. We want to give equally to organizations that have non-white-Westerners in major leadership roles and to organizations that are led by people who look like us.
3. And we want to support some organizations where the gift we can afford to make is greater than 1% of their budget (so that we’re making a noticeable impact on their total need) and others where our gift is a smaller portion (but is likely to be used efficiently).
As this snapshot shows, we missed our target this year on domestic versus international giving, but did well on the other two categories. We’ll try to make up the difference in 2009.
Having disciplines like this in place helps us to make good choices among the many opportunities we have to give. And it’s fun to make the little pie charts, too.