The end of a calendar year finds many people fortunate enough to have discretionary income strategically doling out charitable contributions, giving in ways and amounts that enable them to support causes that are important to them, while maximizing tax breaks and other efficiencies within our financial structures. The Financial Independence Retire Early (FIRE) community is no exception and includes some who optimize even their philanthropic activities via donor advised funds.
Currently at a very, very lean stage of frugal FI, I make a number of small monetary donations throughout the year (primarily to community radio stations). Right now though, most of my charitable giving, consists of volunteering 3 to 6 hours weekly for causes that are really important to me – sustainability, urban agriculture, local politics, and refugee resettlement. I am not sure if when I reach a fatter state of FI I will significantly increase the amount of money I donate to nonprofits.
It’s not that I don’t want to help people and causes in need, on the contrary. I served three years in the Peace Corps and most of my professional work experience was at non-profit organizations. Having lived in Washington, DC and worked peripherally in international development as well as with marginalized communities in the U.S. I’ve also been exposed to some very informed and critical thinking about charity and the dependence as well as the intended and unintended consequences it can bring about. My thinking on this extremely complex, nuanced topic loaded with historical and cultural baggage is continually evolving. I’d like to share some of my thinking at present on this subject as it pertains to the pursuit of financial independence.
I don’t presume to have any answers, I simply want to encourage further discourse on this topic and possibly open people’s eyes to the bigger picture beyond those heart tugging shots of poor people in need foisted on us by the media, charities, and celebrities. We feel strongly compelled to help when looking at those pictures, yet we don’t consider the upstream conditions that created these situations or the long-term downstream effects of our well-intended actions.
The Dissonance in our Donations
Many people on the path to financial freedom are invested in the stock market, often thru low-cost broad based index funds. This means the money they will donate at a future date will be earned from investments in companies such as Coca-Cola, Proctor & Gamble, Merck, Microsoft, and many others. Maybe these index fund investors will some day donate to the American Diabetes Association (ADA) because a loved one suffers from this disease. Or maybe they’ll donate to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) because they care about the environment. Some may be compelled to make a charitable contribution to Save the Children’s efforts to alleviate poverty in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). And others will give to The Ocean Cleanup North Pacific Foundation, which is working to eliminate the massive island of plastic in the Pacific Ocean.
For a group of people as focused on efficiencies and optimization as the FIRE community is, I am struck by the lack of discussion of how inefficient and NOT optimized it is to invest in ways that encourage the destructive, extractive and predatory practices that cause the problems we later try to solve by donating money to non-profits. Alternatively, we could contemplate Martin Luther King Jr’s quote “Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.”
To me there is a tremendous disconnect when someone provides financial support to the ADA from profits they’ve earned on stocks they hold in Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, or a multitude of other companies pushing unhealthy products. I experience that same dissonance when I learn of people donating to the NRDC, who hold stock in Exxon-Mobil, Royal Dutch Shell, or a myriad of other companies profiting from the extraction of fossil fuels through fracking and off-shore oil drilling. Similarly, I sense an incongruity when a well-intentioned soul contributes to Save the Children and holds stock in Microsoft, Apple, or others, which may source cobalt from companies known to use child labor in the DRC. And if someone donates money to reduce the presence of plastics in our oceans (and especially if they publicly tout their zero waste practices) does it not border on hypocritical to own stock in companies like Glaxo Smith Kline, Johnson & Johnson, and all the others packaging their shampoos and other health and wellness products in virgin plastic containers?
If we are concerned about diseases like cancer and diabetes as well as sky-rocketing health care costs why would we want to hold stock in companies such as PepsiCo, Mars Inc., Wendy’s? If we’re worried about homelessness would it make sense for us to own Amazon stock given that “Amazon helped overturn a proposed tax on large employers in its hometown of Seattle that would have raised about $50 million per year to fight homelessness and create more affordable housing. The two million dollars Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and his wife donated to non-profits addressing homelessness locally in the aftermath of this seems paltry. Unfortunately, most CEOs and shareholders are also trapped in short term focused frameworks and are not at all versed in whole-systems thinking.
Sometimes it feels like we’re so focused on the pursuit of the financial bottom line, trying to get our family to FI as quickly as possible, that we’re left with no time or inclination to acknowledge and ponder the fact that we make up a very small part of a large, interconnected system here on planet Earth. Being steeped in permaculture I gravitate towards whole-systems thinking, which is a method of analysis and decision-making that looks at the interrelationships of the constituent parts of a system rather than narrowly focusing on the parts themselves.
This FI community often pats itself on the back for its long term thinking regarding financial returns. And yet, there seems to be very little acknowledgement of the long-term, upstream, and downstream effects on this larger system, which we inhabit, of the actions taken by the companies we’ve invested in through our retirement accounts. Our primary concern is that our stocks continually provide a solid enough monetary return to allow us to live comfortably until we die. We seem to have limited to no awareness of the economic concept of externalities and the true costs on this larger system of the new tech gadgets, deodorants, books, furniture, etc. that people bought online from companies, in which we’ve invested. We investors would benefit from thinking about what happened upstream asking questions such as where did the money I have to donate truly come from and at what cost?
I worked for a number of years on early childhood education policy traveling the country making the business case for investing in the birth to five years. Business leaders were quick to grasp the data that shows how much less it costs to fund early care and education versus remedial efforts at the high school and college level. Similarly, research shows that attempts to restore wetlands rarely achieve the quality of the initial natural wetland that was destroyed. And it takes much longer for restored wetlands to store the same amount of carbon. This equates to money, energy, and inputs being directed to an inferior product when the original option was free and of higher quality.
Donor Advised Funds – Looking at the Bigger Picture
It’s worth applying this whole systems thinking lens to donor advised funds (DAF) as well. According to the IRS, a DAF is a separately identified fund or account that is maintained and operated by a section 501(c)(3) organization, which is called a sponsoring organization. Each account is composed of contributions made by individual donors. Once the donor makes the contribution, the organization has legal control over it. However, the donor, or the donor’s representative, retains advisory privileges with respect to the distribution of funds and the investment of assets in the account.” DAFs have become the vehicle of choice for a number of popular FIRE personalities when making charitable contributions including Tanja at Our Next Life, Liz from Frugalwoods, Mr. Money Mustache, and Physician on Fire.
This is another area where FIRE walkers get so focused on their short-term life-hacks and efficiencies that they may be missing the implications of their actions in the bigger picture. In an August 2018 article Forbes magazine reported that the largest charitable organization in the U.S. is Fidelity Charitable Gift Fund, which is also the largest donor-advised fund in the country. That same article referenced UCSD economics professor James Andreoni’s, who had recently written that “if people claim tax breaks for steering money to donor-advised funds but don’t send the money to active charities, ‘they may create no benefits for society, but add significantly to the tax costs to the U.S. Treasury.”
Chuck Collins led a team of researchers at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) to prepare the report Warehousing Wealth: Donor-Advised Charity Funds Sequestering Billions in the Face of Growing Inequality. IPS is a progressive think tank based in DC. If you have more faith in the market economy and philanthrocapitalism to solve major societal woes than local, state, and federal governments then you can disregard this section, but if you still think public policy can and should play a role in addressing the challenges we are currently facing please consider the following:
“For every dollar of appreciated assets donated to a DAF … U.S. taxpayers are providing as much as 57 cents of subsidy in the form of lost tax revenue….taxpayers must pick up the slack in paying for public services such as veterans’ health care, infrastructure, national parks, and defense.”
I offer these additional findings from the report as further food for thought:
- As currently structured, DAFs encourage a wealth preservation mentality in donors, rather than incentives to move donations to qualified charities. This delays the public benefit from those donations, which has an opportunity cost for society.
- DAFs provide loopholes for both donors and private foundations to get around tax restrictions and significantly reduce transparency and accountability.
- In many cases, financial advisors are rewarded for steering their clients towards DAFs affiliated with their corporation, and financial advisors and corporate fund managers are rewarded for keeping money in DAFs once they are established.
- There is no legal requirement for DAFs to pay out their funds to qualified charities—ever. According to one estimate, the average annual payout rate for DAFs in 2016 was 20 percent, although some DAFs give considerably less.
- Even as the amount of funds flowing to DAFs has increased, payout rates have been steadily going down.
Looking Beyond GiveWell to Increase Diversity, Equity, and Effectiveness in Philanthropy
Some of the same FIRE bloggers I referenced above have also commented on their use of GiveWell to identify highly effective, underfunded charities to support, yet again approaching philanthropy from a very efficient angle. I certainly admire this desire to optimize charitable contributions as well. What gives me pause with a good number (not all) of the charities that GiveWell recommends is that the majority of the board and staff members are white men, even when the work the non-profits do is focused on Asia and Africa. Women and people of color also populate these organizations, but in lesser numbers.
Is it truly effective in the long-term to have the major decisions in these organizations striving to address issues often in developing countries made by white men steeped in the systems that created the inequalities in the first place? Admittedly, more needs to be done to educate, train, and empower experts in these countries to help them secure leadership positions in these non-profits. I have to wonder, for example, if James Tibenderana, a Ugandan working as Global Technical Director at the Malaria Consortium (one of the top non-profits recommended by GiveWell), is being groomed as Charles Nelson’s successor when the time comes for him to step down as Chief Executive.
It’s heartening to read articles by non-profit leaders, such as The Future of Philanthropy in The Nation in which Jee Kim of the Ford Foundation and Leah Hunt-Hendrix of Soldaire posed this very important question to their peers: “How does a 21st-century philanthropy contend with the economic system that both produces its conditions of possibility and makes its lofty aspirations necessary? Should it address the structural inequality of which it is a symptom—and if so, how?”
This modern day version of philanthropy consists primarily of philanthrocapitalism and the charitable industrial complex, which is driven by (among other things) poverty porn – pictures of suffering children in Africa with the most recent celebrity to visit the continent. According to Ruge at tmsruge.com, these images are examples of a reckless, but not malicious “reductive seduction,” through which donors have often mistakenly diagnosed the problems they are seeking to address as easily solvable without attempting to acknowledge the underlying complexity of the issues (which it is unlikely most donors have any real handle on as they live in completely different settings).
Ruge cites the 2013 article that David Bornstein wrote in The New York Times, in which Bornstein notes that after four decades of westerners working on clean water in resource poor countries the end result was“billions of dollars worth of broken wells and pumps. Many of them
functioned for less than two years.” Most of these projects didn’t include funding to train locals to fix the wells or leave behind replacement parts for the local communities to use when needed and more importantly didn’t involve locals in the planning of these projects or the larger issues facing them regarding access to clean water. Theo Sowa, chief executive of the African Women’s Development Fund has been quoted as saying: “When people portray us as victims, they don’t want to ask about solutions. Because people don’t ask victims for solutions.”
Here in the U.S. executive recruitment firm Battalia Winston recently analyzed the leadership teams of the largest foundations and nonprofits and found that that while 42 percent of the organizations surveyed are led by female executive directors, 87 percent of all executive directors or presidents were white, 6 percent were African American, 4 percent were Hispanic, and 3 percent were Asian American. Similarly, Gara LaMarche President of the Democracy Alliance noted in a 2014 article in The Atlantic that 85 percent of foundation board members are white, 7 percent were African American and 4 percent were Hispanic. Nearly three-quarters of foundations had no written policy on board diversity.
I found Malik Yakini’s article in the new economy edition of YES! Magazine extremely thought provoking. In it he makes the point that large sums of money are needed for large-scale economic development efforts to lift large numbers of people out of poverty. Foundations and other grant giving institutions prefer to direct their giving for such efforts to the organization(s) with the “best capacity” to manage the funds.Yet,“because of historical inequity, and historical underdevelopment which has occurred in Black communities and Brown communities, often we don’t have the mechanisms in place to handle large grants, like a large White nonprofit that’s been around for 20 years might have. And so, if the grantor is looking at who has the most capacity, then invariably more established White nonprofits have that capacity over smaller emerging groups.” This further concentrates wealth in the hands of Whites, exacerbating the situation these smaller, less well-established grassroots efforts are trying to solve.
Writer Rebecca Walker, daughter of The Color Purple author Alice Walker, is affiliated with the Third Wave Foundation. This entity is at the forefront of efforts to alter philanthropy’s typical elite-driven model of change by shifting “decision-making power into the hands of those who’ve been historically locked out of that role.” The two co-directors of this Foundation, Ana Conner and Fujikomi Fujikawa encourage people “to consider giving away decision-making power as a philanthropic act in and of itself. “
To Donate or Not to Donate: Where Do We go From Here?
I am NOT suggesting that we never donate to charities, use donor-advised funds, or refer to GiveWell. What I do encourage is a more wholistic approach that factors in the upstream and downstream effects of all of our actions and what role we may play through other aspects of our lives in making our charitable contributions necessary in the first place. The current system we keep trying to apply band-aids to through our charitable contributions isn’t working. The richest one percent is getting richer and the wealth gap and environmental challenges are growing more severe. While we in the FIRE community hunker down to increase our own piles of money, if we truly want to make a difference might we also benefit (in the long-term) from more frank conversations about how the wealth we likely acquired through privilege, systemic advantages, and environmental plunder might be more equitably and strategically distributed. As the quote that is apparently often falsely attributed to Einstein states, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”
In an interview with ColorLines Edgar Villanueva, a Native American whose worked for a number of U.S. based non-profits and author of Decolonizing Wealth states:
“The conversation around equity is now a buzzword in philanthropy. I’m excited that they were having it, but folks have to really understand that it is so much deeper than diversity. It is about equity, it is about a shift in ownership and a major shift in power. The sprinkling of dollars in the way that it’s currently happening will never, ever, ever repair the harm that’s been done. It’s really just kind of throwing nickels at the problem. I’m pushing us to really think and imagine something really difficult. How can philanthropy play a role in true reparations? [In] using these resources and really getting excited about the investment in giving back and restoring what has been taken away? Versus the idea of hoarding wealth and growing our endowment.”
In my mind, for now we still need to help non-profits that are addressing immediate (or band aid) needs like hunger and medical care and other problems that need to be tackled in the short-term. But it is equally if not more important that we find ways to simultaneously promote the structural changes necessary in the US and overseas to eliminate these conditions completely. Supporting efforts that take the “teach someone to fish” approach is also vital as well as recognizing the value and potential of those we serve and not simply viewing them as helpless victims, who have no role to play in developing solutions. In fact, the success of efforts to help people significantly increase in the long-term when they are involved in identifying, designing, and implementing those solutions.
I want to be clear that my philanthropic efforts are incongruent and full of dissonance as well as I navigate these complicated waters. Currently, 25 percent of my retirement accounts consists of investments in socially responsible stocks, which still include the likes of Microsoft, Proctor & Gamble, and Bank of America. Even though I’ve transferred the other 75 percent of my retirement funds into a self-directed IRA identifying alternative investment options available to non-accredited investors and then finding the time to fill out the paperwork to initiate these investments that are more in line with my values (and reduce the dissonance in my philanthropy) takes a tremendous amount of time and effort.
As the team behind the documentary, Poverty Inc. notes, donating is a way to quickly reduce the discomfort of encountering people in need. But if we are truly concerned and would like to optimize the money we direct to solutions focused on the long and not just the short-term we need to learn more and dig a little deeper. We need to challenge preconceived notions that donations will automatically bring relief to people in poverty – or that charity itself is the only way to address it. I’d like to posit some out of the box ways we could pursue philanthropic goals that create less dissonance for those of us on the path to FI (and once we’ve reached it).
- If you invest in rental properties consider purchasing one in a marginalized community and providing high-quality low-cost housing to people in need. Develop a relationship with a local affordable housing non-profit to identify good potential tenants and connect them with wrap around services to help them improve other areas of their lives.
- Instead of donating to non-profits consider taking a risk and investing through crowdfunding websites in startups that can help raise people out of poverty by providing jobs and bringing wealth to communities as well as address other pressing issues. I’ve invested in a number of companies that I think have this potential such as Native American Natural Foods, Terracycle, and Urban Juncture. You could also prioritize investments in startups led by women and people of color. I’m especially excited to follow newcomer Buy The Block, the first black-owned real-estate crowd investing platform, which aims to raise millions of dollars in funding for property development in black communities.
- Consider depositing some money in a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI). They make low-interest place based loans that strengthen communities.
- Reduce your consumption – of everything: energy, gas, consumer products, processed and packaged foods, etc. When you do buy things vote with your dollars and spend more money to purchase high-quality ethically made products that last from locally owned businesses, fair-trade companies, and organic farms and other regenerative enterprises.
- Again from the team behind Poverty, Inc. “Focus less on writing checks to causes and more on having relationships with people, who are struggling, particularly in your community, where you have the most understanding. Develop relationships that are reciprocal and not predicated solely on donor-recipient power dynamics.” I would add that as Americans we need to educate ourselves about foreign policy We live in a complex, convoluted, world full of incongruencies. In particular, we should be mindful of the role trade agreements and tariffs play in flooding markets in developing countries with cheap and subsidized exports from the US. The end result is often that local companies and farms in those countries that were producing the same goods while providing locals with jobs and stimulating economic development, can’t compete and then go out of business.
- Recognize that true change requires far more than our charitable contributions. For example, citizens of these countries need to demand fundamental services like improved healthcare or better roads in addition to pressing local agencies to be more responsive to public concerns. Their governments must also better manage their budgets. Let’s figure out ways to support them in these efforts.
- In lieu of or in addition to opening a donor-advised fund establish a self-directed IRA thru which you can purchase and repair real estate to offer innovative affordable housing in distressed neighborhoods, invest in minority led or sustainability-focused start-ups, make 0% or low interest loans to successful local small business owners in marginalized communities who don’t have access to affordable credit, acquire a certificate of deposit at a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI), and other out of the box options for injecting more cash directly into the hands of those in need who can do something meaningful with it.
A few musings for when you do make charitable contributions:
- Research gathered by the international team of scientists behind Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming shows that of 100 solutions, when combined educating girls and family planning are the #1 Drawdown solution. You could get exponential bang for the buck supporting programs that help more girls access education and connect women with family planning options.
- If you are interested in supporting an organization working with child sponsorship and adoption, the Poverty, Inc. team recommends asking the organization “about what they are doing to empower parents and to help keep families together. In the case of sponsorship, is the organization working with the parents to help address the underlying reason why the child needs sponsorship in the first place?”
- Seek out local charitable organizations with more diverse leadership teams that are based in and employ people from the communities they serve.
- Ask people of color in leadership positions in your community about which local non-profits they believe are successfully lifting people out of poverty and donate to those.
- Get in the trenches and volunteer in marginalized communities to learn first hand what the challenges are and engage in conversations about effective, culturally appropriate ways to address them. Let this guide your philanthropy.
- Tap the online informational materials offered by Resource Generation, a group of affluent milenials tackling the wealth gap head on.
- Of all the charities recommended by GiveWell I am most intrigued by GiveDirectly, which makes cash tranfers directly to individuals in extremely poor communities and lets them decide how to spend the money. The leadership is pretty male and white, but the local staff is quite diverse and the results are quite impressive.
- Don’t leave funds sitting in a donor-advised fund longer than 3 years. DAF account holders receive a public subsidized tax benefit upon placing their money in a DAF, but the public does not see any benefit from that until the money is distributed to an active charity.
This is a long, sweeping blog post that I have worked on for weeks. I hope I have avoided the “reductive seduction” of these complex, unwieldy and nuanced subjects, which have no one or easy solution. Each of us has to walk our own path. I simply offer this post for further contemplation by anyone trying to apply a more whole-systems approach to the ways they earn, spend, invest, and donate their money.