You’ve read The Life You Can Save and decided to give some of your income to organizations working to save lives, reduce suffering, and eliminate poverty in developing countries. If you’ve never given before, your task is simple: pick a charity or charities from the recommended list on this website. But what if you already give to charities working on other causes, or to charities that aren’t very effective?
Shifting your philanthropic priorities can be tricky, especially if you make regular monthly or annual donations. It's not easy to tell an organization that you no longer wish to support it or its cause. Some charities will want to know why, and they may challenge your explanation with counter-arguments of their own. No charity wants to lose a long-term donor.
How can you break these kinds of relationships without awkwardness and guilt?
First, it’s important to understand that you don’t have to stop giving to other charities. You might want to continue supporting other causes, even if it means you will save fewer lives. You could (as I do) set aside a separate budget to support local charities, environmental groups, office fundraisers, crowdfunding campaigns, and charities working to find cures for illnesses. There’s also an argument to be made that if you provide at least some token support to favorite charities of your friends, family, and work colleagues, they may be more receptive to suggestions from you to give more to highly effective charities.
But regardless of how you allocate funds to other causes, it's important to recognize that you won't be able to contribute as much as you might otherwise to effective charities working to save lives and end poverty in developing countries. If you feel uncomfortable with that tradeoff, you may want to eliminate or at least cut back your giving to other charities.
In some cases, ending support is easy. If you only give occasionally to a particular charity that you no longer wish to fund, just stop giving. Chances are they won’t even notice, or at least they won’t hound you about it. But if you give regularly, ending or reducing your support usually requires a phone call, letter, or some other interaction with the organization. That can be harder. Here are some ideas for how to handle the process:
- Use the opportunity to educate. If you want to stop giving to a charity because it isn’t very effective or its effectiveness can’t be demonstrated, you have an opportunity to explain your position to the charity and help convince the people in charge to focus more attention on demonstrating its effectiveness. Some people even make a final donation to a charity with a request that the funds be used specifically to help the charity improve its transparency and documentation of results. You’ll have to approach this opportunity diplomatically, and you should anticipate potential arguments that the charity may make in its defense. On more than one occasion, I’ve been talked out of reducing my support for a charity by articulate and passionate staff who backed up their arguments with data and documentation.
- Give time instead of money. I’m on the board of an arts nonprofit. I don’t give any money to the organization, but I give many hours of my time. That allows me to continue to support a cause dear to my heart without diverting funds from the charities I support that are working on more pressing life-or-death problems. If you want to cut back or eliminate your donations to a particular charity but want to stay involved and contribute to its work, think about whether you could volunteer some of your time. Some will argue that your personal time is worth something, and that you could spend that time earning extra money to donate to effective charities instead. But I don’t place a monetary value on my personal time, and volunteering has its own rewards.
- Sneak out the back door. If you’re a conflict avoider or don’t want to engage in a discussion with the charity you’re about to stop supporting, find ways to slip out under the radar. For example, most of my recurring donations are charged automatically each month to my credit card. Credit cards eventually expire, and I’ve used those expirations strategically a couple of times in the past to end monthly donations to a few charities I no longer wished to support. Some charities will follow up and ask for the card’s new expiration date, and you can use that opportunity to say that you’ve decided not to continue giving, or that your priorities have changed. Somehow I find it easier to say no if the charity calls me rather than me calling them.
Switching your support from one charity to another is usually simple and painless. But some charities can be remarkably tenacious and adept at retaining their donors. If you run into a situation like that, try one of the approaches above—and feel free to suggest other options in the comments below.