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News & Views

Individual and Communal Giving

James Bell, Chapel Board Member and member of our Social Action Group, recently led a service on the theme of Individual and communal giving. You can watch the full service here or read his homily:

It’s often hard to know what premises to start from when trying to convince Unitarians of something. It would certainly be convenient if I could just quote the Bible and expect everyone to agree with what it said. However, the premises that I would like to work from today are not particularly extreme, and I think they will be broadly accepted.

The first is that it is important to help others. We are, after all, a chapel of helping hands.

The second is that we should treat people as having equal value, irrespective of their characteristics. This statement is one I hear a lot, especially within this chapel. I’m not particularly fond of hearing it, because I think there is a lot of ambiguity in what is meant by both equal and value. And it is too often easy to hide our hypocrisies in these ambiguities. Exactly what is meant by it will change the conclusion of what I have to say. But hopefully thinking about this interaction will be fruitful.

Thirdly, helping more is better than helping less. If we can feed 10 hungry people, this is better than feeding one. I hold that (at least all else being equal) this is uncontroversial.

Fourthly, we have limited resources. This is true in the sense of humanity as a whole: there are a finite number of us and we can only work so many hours a week. It is even more clearly true on a smaller scale: each of us has only so much time, energy and money.

Finally, there are options that we have for how to act that are tremendous opportunities and/or horrors depending on how you look at them. There are organisations in the world today who could save a child's life for mere thousands of pounds, but they are funding constrained.

This claim should not be considered implausible. The NHS will spend up to roughly £30,000 to buy an extra year of healthy life for a British person. It would take the poorest people in this world four decades to make that much money, and most of that would need to be spent on food. It should not be surprising that there are fairly basic healthcare needs not being met. Research has also shown that specific interventions to meet these needs can be highly effective.

Altogether I claim: we should help others, people should be valued equally, it is better to help more than less, we have limited resources and there are opportunities to help. That is a collection of premises; but what follows from them.

Charity choice is important

If we are to help others and value them, then we should care about how effective our actions are at helping them. If two bakeries sold bread and one charged £4 a loaf and the other 40p, you would notice the difference in expense per loaf and you would care. If one charity saves a life for £4000 and another for £4,000,000 we should care far more.

These kinds of gaps in effectiveness do not exist in the bakery business or in pretty much any other industry (bar possibly luxury goods like watches, but the dynamics there are very different). They exist here in part because whilst almost everyone agrees, in polite company, that people are of equal value, some people do not in fact believe that.

But probably far more importantly, because when buying a car we care about whether we are getting a car that is 10% better, and we would certainly not buy a ten year old banger for the price of a new Tesla. When donating to charity we barely ever stop to ask the corresponding questions.

If we care about people equally and are giving money to charities without being very choosy about what they are working on and how they are working on it, then we are spending money as wisely as if we bought the old banger for £50,000.

Even if you wish to assert we should fundamentally care more about people who are in some sense close to us, I was struck by the following quote from Holden Karnofsky “I personally would prefer to help people whose lives I can more easily identify with, all else being equal – but looking into these issues, I’ve become surprised with how unequal all else is.”

Researching charities can be hard. Karnofsky’s organisation Givewell is a good source of some information. However, I would recommend reducing the work by giving a large amount to a few or just one charity, rather than smaller amounts to many. This way you are able to give all your money to a charity you have looked into thoroughly.

How much should we give?

Part of the reason I am uncomfortable with the notion of everyone being equally valuable is that, if that is true, then it follows that we ought to value ourselves (our loved ones and friends) equally to the poorest people in the world. If those people are dying for want of about £4,000 each (which they are) then it follows I shouldn’t value my own life more than that. But if in practice I placed such low value on my well being, then I think I would pretty quickly cease to function. Dental care would be an unjustifiable expense, as would food other than cheap rice or any kind of luxury spending whatsoever. For Americans, virtually all healthcare would be unjustifiable. Shortly after adopting this strategy, I would lose my job, massively reducing how much I could give to charity. This approach is fundamentally self-defeating. Therefore I am pretty sure I must spend at least 10% of my income on myself, even though that already implies valuing myself much more than the world's poorest. Where the optimum rate is will depend on the individual. But as someone on median income in this country will be earning 40 times as much as the poorest people in the world, I suspect for most of us it will be between 10 and 90 percent.

What about direct work?

The good that we do through work, be that paid or voluntary, political or in the production of goods or services, will be a substantial, possibly the substantial, part of what we contribute to society in our lives. I certainly don’t mean to devalue it. The same concerns about remembering the vast inequality in the world and the importance of caring about how effective we are carries across, but I don’t have time to discuss this harder topic here.

What about giving as a chapel?

I promised in my title to talk about communal giving. To be honest, I see little to gain from giving through a communal pot. Perhaps if you don’t want to put any thought into the question of where to give, you might want to just give all your charitable donations to the social action group and let us decide what to do with it. But, as a member of the social action group, I have no intention of doing that. Perhaps for social or political organisation, pooling resources would be a good model. But when it comes to monetary donations, I think the more appropriate model is one centred around sharing information and advice.


Today’s reading [was an abridged version of This] is a poem that I find helpful for reminding me how much better things can get. Infant mortality in this world is a tenth of what it used to be, in substantial part thanks to the eradication of smallpox. In the 18th century Theophilus Lindsey (shortly before founding Essex Road Unitarian congregation) funded smallpox inoculations in his Yorkshire village. Today, due to globalisation, the children we can most help are far away. But also due to globalisation, we can reach them. Infant mortality in western Europe today is a tenth of the average across the world. That means we can cut the worldwide figure by a factor of ten again if we are willing to be clear eyed and honest about our situation, acknowledge and deal with tradeoffs and prioritise those in need. That is to have open minds, loving hearts and helping hands.


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