In Howard County, should charity really begin at home?

6 minute read

A month or two back I donated in support of HoCo Rising’s personal End Homelessness in Howard County drive, and have through the years also donated to other local organizations and causes. It’s natural to do so, and if I were more involved in Howard County affairs than I currently am I’m sure I’d encounter many more opportunities to promote and donate to local Howard County and Maryland charities. However today I’m going to stop and consider the question: In one of the wealthiest counties in the United States, should we really be spending our charity dollars locally?

There are multiple ways of looking at this question. One of the most rigorous is taken by GiveWell, a new charity research service whose mission is to focus on how well programs actually work—i.e., their effects on the people they serve. GiveWell has high standards for charities, recommending only 2% of those organizations it reviews and awarding only two charities its highest rating. Although GiveWell does recommend some U.S. charities, they put more emphasis on charities in developing countries where donors can have large impact—saving a life for less than $1,000.

The founders of GiveWell came out of the financial services sector, and in a sense they are looking at charitable giving as they would look at potential investments: where should people invest their donations to get the maximum return? It’s a clear-eyed approach to giving, with a focus on transparency, analytical rigor, and using reason to harness the emotions that drive giving and direct them to the most effective ends.

I doubt that most local charities (whether in Howard County or anywhere else) would be well-equipped to pass the GiveWell test. Most charities don’t do rigorous self-examination of how effective they are, and most don’t have the level of transparency that would allow others to do their own examinations. (As a simple example, pick any charity of your choice and see if it provides on its own web site even basic information about its finances, including the Form 990 tax returns that the IRS requires 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations to provide to the public upon request.) So that’s one reason a devil’s advocate could cite in support of not giving to local charities.

A second reason has to do with need: As mentioned above, Howard County is one of the waelthiest counties in the U.S., which means that it’s one of the very wealthiest places in the world. Moreover, as wealthy places go it has a relatively low level of income inequality, and is less marked by extremes of wealth and poverty than many other localities. The devil’s advocate asks, shouldn’t we instead focus our charitable giving on places where people are truly poor and desperate, and where only a few people can even dream of leading what in the U.S. would be a modest working class life?

Finally, there’s the problem of discerning desert (as the folks at the Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog recently called it): In a relatively wealthy county with a relatively low rate of unemployment, how do we know that those who remain poor truly deserve our help? Perhaps, the devil’s advocate might say, those who are poor in a rich county are that way due to their own faults (whatever those might be)? If so, why should we devote our charitable giving to their needs? When we consider the plight of the truly poor in other countries the question of desert is less urgent: poverty is so widespread in such countries that we can assume that most (if not almost all) of the poor are undeserving of that fate.

What responses can we make to these questions? A first response is to assert that whether someone deserves our help or not is not an issue: We’re talking about donations to private charity, not government money taken from us by men with guns (as some libertarians like to say), so the issue of desert discussed at the BHL post referenced above doesn’t come into play. I don’t think this is a particularly strong response. There is in fact government funding of at least some local charities, so not all of the money we’re talking about is freely given; some of it does come from taxpayers.

Moreover, even private donations to charity impose a burden on taxpayers due to U.S. and state charitable deductions: If someone chooses to donate to an undeserving or ineffective charity then the taxes they pay could be reduced by a substantial fraction of that donation, and other people must bear the burden of making up in their taxes what the charitable giver avoids paying. Moreover, the people bearing this burden are more likely to be less well off themselves, since people with lower incomes (and hence lower taxes and tax rates) don’t realize as much benefit from charitable deductions.

I think a better response to the question of desert is to note that a local charity serving local people is (or at least should be) better equipped to evaluate who most deserves help, and who does not. Since those running local charities are our neighbors and perhaps even our associates or friends, we can in turn better judge whether they are to be trusted with the task of doing that evaluation.

What about the relative need of those local to us versus those in distant lands? Here I think we have to acknowledge the universal principle that things that happen near to us affect us more than events far away. Even if we don’t consider them as close to us as our family, friends, or neighbors, still those people whom we pass by on local streets and see in local shops, who may serve us in local restaurants or at our homes and local places of business, and whose children may sit next to ours in local schools—these people, when they need help, exert a claim on us that is immediate and direct, and one that I don’t think we can or should simply ignore in favor of those more distant from us.

Finally, what about the effectiveness of local charities? Here again being local can be an advantage: If we want to hold local charities to higher standards for evaluating their activities and promoting transparency than they currently meet, we have the opportunity to make the case for those higher standards directly to the people running the charities, and to put our money where our mouth is by serving on boards, helping to raise additional funds to support evaluation efforts, or otherwise lending a helping hand where needed.

This speaks to a final point in favor of giving to and working with local charities: They give us an opportunity to participate in the web of reciprocity that binds together the people of the county and ultimately makes it a community and not just a place to live. Many of these opportunities are admittedly somewhat frivolous and at times excessive (just how many charity galas and golf tournaments do we really need?), but others are key to building and developing a cadre of people who will see Howard County through the first half of the 21st century.

So what did I decide in the end? Should charity begin at home, or not? I decided this isn’t really an either-or question. As I noted above, I contributed to the HoCo Rising campaign because I felt that my fellow citizens of Howard County shouldn’t have to experience homelessness, and also because I had at least some small experience with the work that the folks at the Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center do. (I’ve dropped by their Route 1 center many times with dishes of mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, and other food we’ve cooked for the center’s visitors.)

At the same time I also donated to VillageReach, Givewell’s top-rated international charity, both because I want to encourage other charities to aim for the high standards for evaluation and effectiveness that VillageReach meets, and also because I wanted to help give other people elsewhere in the world a chance to someday build for themselves, their families, and their countries the kind of society that we experience and take for granted every day here in Howard County.