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August 15, 2013 9:14 am

Where and When to Give to Charity

avatar by Ronn Torossian

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A Tzedakah box. Photo: WMPearl.

I read a thought provoking article in Sunday’s New York Times entitled “Good Charity, Bad Charity,” in which an Ethics Professor from Princeton University argues that all philanthropy is not equal.

The article says, in part:

“Try a thought experiment. Suppose you have a choice between visiting the art museum, including its new wing, or going to see the museum without visiting the new wing. Naturally, you would prefer to see it with the new wing. But now imagine that an evil demon declares that out of every 100 people who see the new wing, he will choose one, at random, and inflict 15 years of blindness on that person. Would you still visit the new wing? You’d have to be nuts.”

“Even if the evil demon blinded only one person in every 1,000, in my judgment, and I bet in yours, seeing the new wing still would not be worth the risk.  If you agree, then you are saying, in effect, that the harm of one person’s becoming blind outweighs the benefits received by 1,000 people visiting the new wing.”

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“Therefore a donation that saves one person from becoming blind would be better value than a donation that enables 1,000 people to visit the new wing. But your donation to the organization preventing trachoma will save not just one but 10 people from becoming blind for every 1,000 people it could provide with an enhanced museum experience. Hence a donation to prevent trachoma offers at least 10 times the value of giving to the museum.”

Indeed, anyone engaged in philanthropy has choices to make.  A friend of mine, a mega-philanthropist with an eight figure endowment, refuses to donate to, as he calls it, “Saving the whales, or wildlife.” He says that as long as there is no cure for cancer and worldwide hunger, other things can wait.  And indeed, I can understand him.

I am proud to give charity and believe it is every single person’s duty to give back via philanthropy. A few years ago, I founded the Ronn Torossian Family Foundation, a mechanism through which my family and I focus some of our philanthropic efforts. The Foundation gives to education, youth, religious groups, and to Israel – things which I believe make people’s lives easier and better.  I routinely turn down important causes because I simply believe in focusing on the causes most important to me.

Indeed, anyone who gives must ask themselves these questions. What and where to focus? Do you give to the homeless person in front of your building, or a charity focused on feeding the hungry? Do you provide for the poor in your local city, or in Israel? Do you give to help sick kids, or cure cancer?

What I do know is that there are many philanthropies and important causes that make the world better – and it is indeed necessary to give and “pay it forward.”  Where and what to give is an extremely personal decision, but it is a matter worth examining for everyone who gives. What I am certain of is that those who give charity are better off than those who don’t.

Connect with Ronn Torossian on Linkedin Here.

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