Reflections from “Giving: Limited Resources, Maximum Impact”

huifen talk on giving

Photo: Event speaker Zheng Huifen (left) receiving a token of appreciation from HSS President Mark after the event.

By Zheng Huifen

On 1 Sept 2013, I had the pleasure of leading a discussion on the topic of “Giving: Limited Resources, Maximum Impact”. The aim was to explore how each person, with limited resources, can and should make charitable contributions, and how to maximise the effect of such giving. Some 30 HSS members and guests gathered to explore the subject.

(In this article, I use “NFP” loosely to refer to not-for-profit organisations, including charities and interest groups such as the Humanist Society, which depend on donations to fund their activities.)

The session started with my presentation on the rationale behind giving. It is important to understand why you want to give, as this will help prioritise how to give. In my view, there are three main reasons for giving:

  1. Pure altruism, based on compassion and empathy.
  2. To feel good from the act of giving.
  3. In support of your own values and beliefs.

I also highlighted the difference between “monitoring” and “evaluating” the work of a NFP. “Monitoring” a NFP looks at how well the NFP is doing its work, whether it complies with the law, etc; “evaluating” a NFP looks at how good its ideas are and whether the stated aim can be reached.

There is no generally-acceptable ratio between the costs of overheads of a NFP and the amount spent on its programmes. Each NFP has a different structure and purpose, so it is more helpful to look at the evidence for its achievments in relation to the amount spent.

After my presentation, the participants broke into small discussion groups. A summary of the more noteworthy ideas from the discussion:

  1. No person can choose the circumstances of her birth, and this leads to fundamental inequality within society. Those people who are born in fortunate circumstances then have a moral duty to give, to reduce the unfair effects of such inequality.
  2. Some prefer NFPs which take a long-term view – both of the organisation itself and the activities it conducts. A NFP should be able to manage its money to have a future stream of income, instead of relying on donations alone. The programmes of the NFP should ideally provide a long-term benefit to the recipients.
  3. Some avoid giving to NFPs, instead giving directly to less fortunate people in their community, where effect to the recipient is immediate.
  4. It’s easier to give to a NFP whose work is related to your profession, as you are better able to evaluate and monitor it.
  5. Other ways of giving include blood donations and donating one’s body to science after death.

When the talk concluded, the positive review from participants was a pleasant surprise – even those who initially came with cynicism about philanthropy. The enthusiasm was heartening and reinforced the view that compassion and empathy are innate to all, regardless of religion.