Dear Sophia: Good Intentions

I have a dilemma that I’m reminded of every time I go downtown. I never know whether to give money to the homeless people and street performers on the sidewalk, or to give money to the little collection bowls for shelters and charities, or if I shouldn’t give money at all because it’s better to give a big amount to a really good charity. I feel guilty turning the people down who ask me for money, but you never know if they actually need it or not. I think this bothers me so much because I feel like I’m not doing enough to help the world. Dear Good Intentions,

There is no right answer to this question. Ideally, we’d all have infinite money to give to every worthy person and cause. In the meantime, when faced with constrained resources, we have to make relative value judgments.

Are you trying to feel better about yourself? Giving money can seem like a compassionate act. But if it’s done as an emotional catharsis or an opportunity to pat yourself on the back and feel less guilty, it becomes selfish. It is true that you will never know if the money you give to an individual is going towards a “legitimate” use, with the implication that legitimate means immediate needs for survival, or the way that you would choose to spend the money in their situation. But so what if they spend the money on something else? Who are you to decide what anyone should spend their money on?

If you care about providing direct services or changing the structural injustices yielding such inequality, your money may be better spent going to an organization – even though you don’t get to see the look of relief from the person you’re helping. (Non-profits, too, should reevaluate how they use money.) This does not carry the same emotional satisfaction as directly giving money to someone, but it could maximize the impact of your money – it all depends on what you’re looking for.