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Retired guide dog Lucy inspired her owners to make donations to a school that helps train guide dogs.

New York Times,

Giving from the head or from the heart?

  • Article by: paul sullivan
  • New York Times
  • July 6, 2013 - 4:47 PM

Our dog Lucy died last month, and it got me thinking about the role she played in making both my wife and me more charitable.

Lucy was a retired guide dog who, during her working life, gave birth to 32 puppies, many of whom also became guide dogs. My wife got involved with guide dogs by accident — she saw a striking Labrador walking down Fifth Avenue and asked the person walking it for the breeder’s name. Instead she heard about a program where volunteers take puppies for a year and train them in basic obedience before they’re ready for formal training as guide dogs.

When I came into the picture a few years later, my wife had trained several dogs before becoming a foster parent, as it were, for Lucy, a yellow Labrador who had been selected as breeding stock.

As the years went on, we traveled back and forth to the foundation for Lucy to be bred and to whelp her puppies. We got to see how the school turned energetic puppies into well-trained guides. We also started to make larger donations. In 2007, we paid to sponsor a puppy, Ocho, from Lucy’s last litter and then asked to train it.

When that year was up and we had to give him back, my heart would have been broken had I not seen the good these dogs do for people. Ocho is now guiding a young woman who sends us periodic updates.

A few years ago, a friend asked if I’d like to become involved with another group that helps blind people achieve their full potential in life. I agreed and have been giving time and money since.

Today, probably 90 percent of the money my wife and I give to charity each year goes to groups involved with helping the blind. Before Lucy came into my life, I didn’t have a dog, know any blind people or think much about charity.

In giving this way, we also unwittingly waded into one of the big debates among donors and their advisers: Is it better to give in response to an emotional need or feeling, or are dollars better spent when tied to a metric that measures how effective they are?

“The whole issue of measuring and metrics and trying to have impact data is, I think, a very contemporary part of philanthropy,” said Thomas E. K. Cerruti, former personal lawyer to Sam Skaggs, a billionaire philanthropist who made his fortune in supermarkets and drugstores. “What motivates people to give? For selfish reasons, a name on a building is at the top of the list. But some people want to effectuate something that has some personal interest to them.”

Ani Hurwitz, who retired this week after 24 years of working at the New York Community Trust, said she came from a family of emotional givers.

“My father gave a lot to religious stuff because he was religious,” she said. “He was also a bleeding heart.” She recalled him crying as he watched the nightly news and then making a donation to a charity aimed at easing whatever troubling situation he had seen.

Even though she has worked in philanthropy for decades and knows how to evaluate nonprofits, she said she was personally moved by stories more than measurements on the impact of her money. She gives money to Doctors Without Borders because she admires their courage in caring for people in war-ravaged places.

“I don’t look at metrics,” she said.

The other side of this debate would say that you not only can evaluate it, but you should. The desire to improve the world and quantify the process is a byproduct of the first Internet boom, said Gene Tempel, founding dean of Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. Many big donors, like Bill Gates and Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay, direct some or all of their giving with measurable criteria in mind.

Eric Friedman, an actuary in Chicago who gives 10 percent of his income to charity, is not in their league. But he is determined to find the best way to make his dollars matter. He said this started more than a decade ago when he graduated from college and made his first charitable gift to a group of nuns who cared for children.

“I’m not Catholic, but I figured they’d be good at taking care of homeless children,” he said. “Then I started to get these letters and key chains, and the frequency made me think they’re spending all of my money on fundraising.”

Friedman, who has written a book about his experience called “Reinventing Philanthropy: A Framework for More Effective Giving” (Potomac Books), said he grew frustrated with charities that couldn’t tell him how his donations would make a difference. Now he bases his personal giving on the ratings from GiveWell, a charity rating service that aims to find groups that make the next dollar donated to them count.

Tempel said that it was fine to ask organizations to be accountable, but that it could go too far. “People who follow their head looking at return on investment — they will be most disappointed if they have unrealistic expectations on what is possible,” he said.

As for us, we plan to sponsor a puppy this year in honor of Lucy. That’s an emotional decision, but intellectually we hope that it will become a dog that makes someone’s life better.

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