From world hunger to global warming and the arts, there are numerous causes that indi­vid­uals, foun­da­tions and NGOs choose to sup­port. And even in an economy that has been slow to recover, bil­lion­aires are con­tin­uing to pledge sig­nif­i­cant por­tions of their wealth to phil­an­thropy. But when con­sid­ering what phil­an­thropies to sup­port, a North­eastern pro­fessor says the wealthy need to address some moral and eth­ical ques­tions. In her new book, “Giving Well: The Ethics of Phil­an­thropy,” Patricia Illing­worth, asso­ciate pro­fessor of phi­los­ophy in the Col­lege of Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties, explores these issues as they relate to giving.



What con­sid­er­a­tions should indi­vid­uals make when donating money?

In making deci­sions about giving, people ought to con­sider how great the need is and the like­li­hood that the money donated will actu­ally address that need. People should under­take a kind of moral due dili­gence in which they look at the charity to see how much of the money donated will actu­ally be spent on addressing the need, and how much on other kinds of costs. Some­times char­i­table money can actu­ally make things worse for ben­e­fi­cia­ries — for example, making them depen­dent on donor agen­cies.   Because of this, char­i­ties are inter­ested in sustainability.

People should also con­sider what kinds of “causes” deserve their sup­port. Should they give to the people most in need, such as the global poor? Or, should they give to envi­ron­mental orga­ni­za­tions, and the inter­ests of future gen­er­a­tions? Some people believe that their oblig­a­tions to help are owed most strongly to those close by, such as family and com­mu­nity groups, while others believe that those with greatest need world­wide deserve their help. Ethics are often key in resolving many of these ques­tions. There are even orga­ni­za­tions that spe­cialize in eval­u­ating char­i­ties for donors.

What do you think are the most sig­nif­i­cant moral ques­tions in the prac­tice of phil­an­thropy today? 

Who should give?

Should everyone give, or are only the rich under an oblig­a­tion to give? Poor people living in wealthy OECD (Organ­i­sa­tion for Eco­nomic Co-​​operation and Devel­op­ment) coun­tries are much better off than people living in very poor coun­tries. Do the poor in the United States have an oblig­a­tion to help the poor in Burundi?

How much money should people give? Is it the same for all people or do bil­lion­aires have an oblig­a­tion to give a greater per­centage of their wealth than people with incomes in the middle range?

Are there any moral pri­or­i­ties among char­i­ties? Is poverty, for example, morally more impor­tant than the arts? Is giving a purely pri­vate ques­tion to be left to the indi­vidual, or should ethics pro­vide guid­ance on pri­or­i­ties based on moral prin­ci­ples and the demands of global justice?

How do NGOs nav­i­gate the moral pri­or­i­ties that inform their deci­sions regarding their projects?

NGO’s use a variety of cri­teria for deter­mining what projects to sup­port. They have oblig­a­tions to both the donors who sup­port them, and to those they are orga­nized around serving. What­ever cri­teria NGOs use, they need to be trans­parent about them, and ensure that donors under­stand the terms of their gifts.  In a world in which there is so much need, it is impor­tant that char­i­table monies not be wasted, nor that they cause more harm than good. There­fore, NGOs need to use some kind of cost-​​benefit analysis in deter­mining what projects and people to support.