illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)
Some days ago, a statistic has been circulating which states
« Annual deaths caused by the ALS: 5,600
Annual deaths from having no access to clean water: 3,400,000 »
and, unsurprisingly, those who did feel sympathetic to the ALS "ice bucket" campaign (and possibly made a donation, not just cheaply empathised with empty words) felt criticised and reacted.
One of the more moderate among such reactions was akin to « People get to pick their own charities. It's none of anyone else's business and no one else should be so arrogant to be critical or assert themselves as the arbiter of what others choose to prioritise as a charity. »
It's unclear that competition between charities over funding should be left to what's fashionable and goes viral, rather than to 'objective' measures (be they in 'deaths', or related to "quality of life"... or to the availability of ready solutions over research!). Moreover, when money is "not growing on trees", the collective shouldn't push charities to "get viral or waste money via advertising costs."
Funding cannibalism is a real issue for charities, because there's evidence that what is given to one usually is 'taken' from (not given to) another… because the donator has limited funds, but also because the donator 'bought' a 'clean' conscience, or some 'merit', with whatever first donation they made and then reverted to selfishness with "what's left" of their wealth.
It's not a good idea to make it harder for the critical-but-not-so-fashionable causes!
Not all charities have the same overheads and some charities have higher running costs (including to raise funds) than others. The recent campaign by the ALS Foundation raised over $100 million, but until now only 27% of its budget was used to fund research… I'm unsure paying overheads is what donators wanted to contribute towards; I'm also unsure recent donators enquired much into the foundation before giving… If one gives a particular amount to a specific cause, it makes sense to pick among the relevant charities the one that makes the largest "difference per dollar".
We're blessed with intelligence and (limited but not-null) rationality, so maybe it's good if we don't limit our thinking to emotions. Emotional responses might be useful up to a point, but they shouldn't entirely deprive us from reason.
This might sound like there's thus no much choice about where to give, and people might feel "this is not right" so let's continue.
You do have some latitude about the criteria you use to assess charitable causes: e.g. "deaths vs. quality of life" is a choice with no easy ethical priority (euthanasia is a hard question in ethics because of this!)… "Known but imperfect solutions vs. research for better solutions" isn't easily solved either… "Education vs. material goods" isn't always straight-forward… etc.
Most causes don't need infinite funds (because e.g. there's no decent idea —at this point— on how to invest more than a specific amount…), so what was raised by a particular campaign might justify not giving more from some point on and might push to pick the next charitable cause on the list…
But you cannot confuse "following whims" with "having a choice"… Having a 'choice' doesn't mean randomness, nor does it mean discarding reason.
No matter how much you might wish 2+2=5, it just doesn't work that way (and 3,400,000 remains a lot larger than 5,600). So, indeed, once you chose criteria to assess and order which needs require the most urgent response, then you won't have so much 'choice' in your conclusions…
If you stick to being driven by emotions (making you a victim of the stimuli you receive —rather than an example of free choice), then you're pretty guaranteed to propose a sub-optimal response to the complete situation. Your response might well be locally optimal, and generous, and wholesome… but it might still be inappropriate and unwholesome globally (gplus.wallez.name/aeCr4KinJaw). It might even be inappropriate locally, e.g. if you pick an inefficient charity to implement your charitable contribution.
At times, reason will definitely limit your options! This is expected: reason is a tool we use to make 'good' choices, so it will exclude other options. This points to a classic of game theory: even if you can choose to play sub-optimally, doing so would be a waste (here, a waste of your generosity) and wasting some resource rarely is constructive, so wise freedom doesn't particularly lead to random acts!
At other times, multiple equally-valuable paths will be offered to you and 'choice' will be appropriate between these options (but still inappropriate w/r to suboptimal others).
A bucket challenge for other causes?
Someone recently threw a challenge to my followers, based on the "ice bucket" challenge but to fund me this time… and I explicitly refused to attract attention to it:
I support teachings on generosity and inter-dependence, but I also regularly repeat that « intentions do matter. »: supporting a cause out of understanding and realising inter-dependence isn't comparable to supporting a cause out of fear due to a social manipulation based on "shame on you if you don't…".
If you pick criteria that make you favour particular causes (ALS included), it's totally fine. Maybe they're not the highest priorities worldwide but maybe they nonetheless deserve a share of support and don't receive it when all the fashionable and/or big causes capture the attention of most people…
By contrast, giving out of emotional blackmail, out of social bullying, out of fear based on peer pressure, out of selfishly clinging to a "good image" one can advertise on social media, or out of "having fun with a challenge" (and the charity becomes secondary concern really) is not generosity, it's either fear or lust!
The Perfection of Generosity is cultivated alongside the Perfection of Wisdom: blind, naïve generosity isn't the goal (as per the many points above, in relation to picking causes but also to picking amounts and best returns on investment)… but, this being said, any generosity is a lot better than to hide behind one's rational doubt (in order not to give)!
Any generosity will, in fact, support the cultivation of Wisdom (once one wonders how to maximise one's contribution… while still acknowledging one's budgetary constraints and overall reality).
The sole "ice bucket" challenge that makes sense is "support what needs solving (for the benefit of all), or solve it!" By comparison, "over-support what needs solving, or waste drinkable water" doesn't add up (if only due to funding cannibalism)!
Intentions do matter. So, by all means, be generous (it's a primary tool to cultivate selflessness, and to embody compassion and loving-kindness)… but don't throw wisdom to the dogs on the way!
There's no contradiction between generosity and being wise / smart (i.e. between generosity and doing one's homework to embody "wise generosity"). Support a cause out of understanding, and realising, inter-dependence! Part of your generosity is in time and efforts, the time and efforts spent to wisely allocate resources (time, effort, money…).
I'm well-aware that some of my 16 patrons might reconsider their donations, e.g. thinking that they see what I contribute and that I suffer no overhead to produce teachings, but also that I shouldn't be a priority in funding (compared to e.g. clean water)… If that's because this post helped them see a particular clinging they had, that's great —I fulfilled the 'teaching' function!— and I'm glad to lose their support for whatever more wholesome cause they will now pick! I'm mindful of what I bring, I do my best for it to be worthwhile for all, and I had some success at supporting people towards the cessation of ignorance and towards the cessation of dukkha, but I also have no pretence of offering a magic cure for all the ills of the world!