Charitable giving is a complex topic in the LDS church. While we’ve all been admonished to follow Jesus Christ’s example, it’s not always easy to know whether to help someone who looks to be in need.
How do we decide when to give and when to abstain? Should we allow stereotypes to stop us from giving? How about allowing naiveté and/or guilt to drive us to give without thinking? There is a happy medium, but it’s not always easy to find.
Sometimes you get burned
When I was at the University of Utah, my friend and I gave a man some money. After he took it, he told us he felt bad and that he was planning on using the money to buy beer. He offered to give it back, but we were both too timid to say no.
A few years later, I worked for a multilevel marketing company that had a non-profit arm. The company gathered donations from employees and distributors. The foundation’s focus was to provide low-cost medical procedures to the needy in developing countries. I donated enough that they added my name to a brick in the wall at the company’s headquarters.
I found out after I left, though, that it was all a sham. What had started out as a charitable foundation became a cash reserve to cover the company president’s business travel expenses.
The Gospel perspective
Having these experiences left a bad taste in my mouth with giving. I’ve always known that it’s important, but I don’t want to enable an addict or support a fraudulent organization.
Reading Mosiah 4 always seems to give me a little perspective, though:
And also, ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish …
For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind? …
And now, if God, who has created you, on whom you are dependent for your lives and for all that ye have and are, doth grant unto you whatsoever ye ask that is right, in faith, believing that ye shall receive, O then, how ye ought to impart of the substance that ye have one to another.
King Benjamin’s words are direct, but they don’t address the “How”. So, as I’m sure many have said before, thank heavens for Jeffrey R. Holland.
In October 2014, Elder Holland pointed out that there’s no one best giving strategy. He did, however, give some wise counsel to point us in the right direction:
I don’t know exactly how each of you should fulfill your obligation to those who do not or cannot always help themselves. But I know that God knows, and He will help you and guide you in compassionate acts of discipleship if you are conscientiously wanting and praying and looking for ways to keep a commandment He has given us again and again.
Ideas on giving effectively
With Elder Holland’s suggestion to seek divine help in your giving, I’ve gathered a few other ideas over the years on how to become a better giver:
Change your perspective. I’ve experienced firsthand the stereotype that beggars just want cash for booze or drugs, so I understand it. But my dad said something to me years ago on the subject that has stuck with me: “Who am I to judge?”
In the end, we have no idea which beggars want their next fix and which ones just want something to eat. And I’m not really sure it’s up to me to make that judgment, especially if it means passing up people with legitimate need.
Stock up on supplies. If you still don’t feel comfortable giving money to people on the street, don’t. Instead, keep a box of granola bars and some water bottles in your car to hand out. Or grab a burger from McDonald’s to share. It takes more effort, and some beggars may not appreciate it as much as they would cash, but it can make a difference with most.
Vet your charities. If you regularly donate to non-profit organizations, it’s essential that you know how they’re going to use that money. Charity Navigator is a great resource for that. It rates charities by their financial efficiency, accountability and transparency. For example, the March of Dimes has a terrible track record with how it handles donations, so I don’t donate to it.
A major drawback of Charity Navigator that the organization doesn’t rate non-profits with less than $1 million in revenue. If your favorite isn’t listed, reach out to them directly. They may be able to provide a report on how donations are spent.
Give with your time. For those who can’t afford to give money, there are plenty of organizations that can use volunteers. My wife and I volunteered to do deliveries for the Utah Food Bank Sub for Santa program a few years ago and it was a blast. And while we were living in Arkansas, I enjoyed helping prepare food at a community center run by a local Christian church. Even an hour a month is better than nothing! Check out JustServe.org to find volunteer opportunities in your area.
Look around you. When it comes to charity, it’s easy to focus so much on helping strangers that we forget the people we know. My wife and I have been on the receiving end of this kind of charity quite a bit lately. When we moved into our condo last August, people from our old and new wards helped us and our bad backs. In November, my wife gave birth and our ward members helped by babysitting our son and offering meals. Then just last week, I was out of town for work and both our kids were sick. Someone in the ward learned about it from a Facebook post and put together some meals for my wife to lessen her burden. Through all these stressful situations, these people were saviors.
Like Elder Holland said, I don’t know exactly the best way to give. I also don’t think what works best for me is what works best for everyone. That said, I believe it is part of our stewardship on earth to help the people around us in a meaningful way. As we do so, we show our gratitude to a God who has given us everything.