Published on: September 9, 2013
In Charitable Giving, No Û÷Hierarchy of GoodnessÛª
The New York Times
Peter Singer raises important issues, and we at Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors are glad he considered our Philanthropy Roadmap donor guides. But I believe that his conclusions overlook significant dimensions of why people give, how our society encourages giving and how we can compare giving options.
While we should support charities that are effective in achieving their goals, we cannot create a hierarchy of goodness. In our advisory work with donors, we find that people give more, and more consistently, when pursuing their personal convictions. Giving is voluntary, and people’s choices are not fungible.
Comparing supporting medical care with providing funding for a museum wing makes for a stark emotional contrast, but the arts are not simply transitory entertainment. They are how we share culture, challenge thinking and experience the world. They are an economic engine and an aid to learning.
Even beyond Mr. Singer’s hypothetical, the proposed ethics of choices grow murky. If $100,000 can prevent blindness in 1,000 people, is that better than using $100,000 to feed the starving? Rescue abused animals? Protect women from rape? Keep glaciers frozen? Provide education? Housing? Accountable government?
There are no precise answers to these questions, and sound impact assessment won’t create them. It will only allow us to compare programs addressing similar objectives with one another. It won’t tell us whose fate is most worth changing. Hard as it is, we must each answer that question for ourselves.