Boston The kitchen table was set with the usual utensils for our annual family conference: A mug of coffee, a pot of tea, a stack of fundraising requests, a checkbook and a pen.
Our domestic scene was by no means unique. Americans donate around $250 billion a year. We give half of it between Thanksgiving and Christmas, driven by seasonal good will and (blush) an IRS deadline. This week alone, thousands of families will put billions of dollars into sealed envelopes all destined to do good.
Though we are not, to put it mildly, Melinda and Bill Gates, my husband and I perform this ritual with some generosity and good feeling. But this year, as we shuffled through the requests, with their check-off boxes and carefully honed appeals, something clicked.
It occurred to me that we spend more time devising a financial strategy for our good retirement than for our good deeds. We spend more time researching a much-coveted espresso machine than we do many of the charities on the table. A family as feisty and independent as my own has been strikingly reactive when it comes to charity.
We are not alone in this either. The average American family gives 3.2 percent of its income to charity. But the number one reason that people give to a charity is that they were asked, says Daniel Borochoff of the American Institute of Philanthropy, who adds succinctly, "People are too passive."
Maybe it's the series of disasters from tsunamis to hurricanes to earthquakes. Maybe it's the war in Iraq that costs $2,000 a second. Maybe it's another round of proposed budget cuts for the neediest. But this year it seems vital to make active and conscious decisions about what we give. Which doesn't make it easy.
Not far from my kitchen/conference table is a dictionary that defines philanthropy as "the effort or inclination to increase the well-being of humankind, as by charitable aid or donations." There are over a million nonprofit groups in this country, each one making its case for humankind. Picking charities, admits Borochoff, is "a little like playing God." Albeit, God on a budget.
My own search for help in helping others sent me to a half-dozen philanthropy experts. For openers, they think donors should behave like savvy consumers. That doesn't just mean deleting the plea from some e-mail scam artist, or being wary of slick alarmists. It means asking questions and using watchdog tools such as charitywatch.org or charitynavigator.org.
Their practical suggestions sounded like teachers: Do your homework. Their financial choices sounded like stock pickers: Give more money to fewer groups. As personal donors, they avoid the "CNN effect," preferring unheralded groups from Indonesia to their own neighborhoods.
But that still leaves the hardest question: How do you assess which groups best "increase the well-being of humankind" anyway?
Think global? Act local? Do you ante up for meals to feed people or for advocacy groups trying to solve the problem of hunger? Do you support people who jump up and down or who work within the system? If you think about cancer, do you give money to the care or the cure? If you believe government should be responsible for poverty programs, should your dollars go to make up for cuts or to turn the cutters out of office?
Kathleen McCarthy at the Center for the Study of Philanthropy says, "My first piece of advice is, trust your gut." She believes the value of wrestling through the options, if it doesn't drive you nuts, is the ethical conversation. "This is a chance to sit down and ask yourself what you really care about. How do you think society should look? What's important for your country and your neighborhood? This is a good time of year to take stock."
There are adults who haven't had these conversations since midnight freshman seminars in "How To Make A Difference" and children who've never had them. We rarely hear such talk in politics today. But the one voluntary economic decision we make in everyday life offers a chance to put our voice and values, our money and our morals, in the same place.
As for round two at my own kitchen table? I bring back a smaller, better-vetted list: Local groups where I see the need and the result. Social change advocates and agencies. Programs that are foreign but near to my heart - and gut - from Afghan schools for girls to family planning.
I am well aware that mine is just a drop in the bucket of need. There are 20 other buckets just as fine. But if we carefully pick and choose the moral target for the dollars we donate, who knows where we might focus next? Maybe even on our tax dollars.