What Issue Matters to You?

March 05, 2020

From education and the environment to hunger and homelessness, there are countless issues you could potentially support with your charitable giving. How are you supposed to choose one, or even a few, in the face of so much need?

Sometimes the choice may be clear cut. A personal passion or concern may hit close to your heart or home. Or perhaps the urgency and enormity of some social problem compels you to act. On such occasions, your giving path may make itself clear as a function of how you relate to the world and perceive your agency to make a difference in it.

Other times, that path may not be so obvious; the challenge of navigating the world’s vast needs may feel daunting, even overwhelming or depressing. To keep yourself from feeling paralyzed by indecision, remember that there is no objective “right” choice about which issues to support and there is no deadline for figuring out what’s best for you. Your philanthropic sense of purpose may emerge gradually as you engage with the world within and beyond your communities. It can also change over time as you take on new roles and responsibilities that expand your experiences and worldview. Giving with purpose is not a destination you can find on the map of your life, but rather a journey of patience, learning, and growing as a human being.

As we’ve discussed in previous months, the values that drive your impulse to give and your commitment to one or more communities will serve as touch stones along that journey, drawing you to some giving opportunities over others. As you explore them, cultivate habits of mind that help you resist the urge to seek simple, straightforward solutions to humanity’s many challenges. Learn to look beyond your perception of issues and problems to the complexity that lies beneath the surface. Become a systems thinker.

Systems thinking is a way of looking at the world that allows you to recognize the dynamic interaction of political, economic, social, and environmental forces generating the phenomena we can easily see. The complexity it reveals may at first seem overwhelming. How can we possibly make sense of or make a difference in a world governed by chaos? But confronting that reality - embracing it rather than shying away from it - allows you to flip the diagnosis and see not an insurmountable mess, but an abundance of opportunities to make a difference. Even better, it can help you determine which of those opportunities are the most powerful levers of change and the most compelling for you to support.

In practical terms, systems thinking is what allows you to look at a challenge such as homelessness and recognize the many forces that can make a community vulnerable to it: rising housing costs, inadequate or unaffordable mental health care, lack of jobs offering providing livable wages, insufficient support for veterans, inadequate supports for formerly incarcerated individuals, and so on. Equipped with that more sophisticated understanding of what lies behind the problems we perceive, you’ll move closer to appreciating the reality of how people experience it. As you learn to navigate the complexity, you’ll be able to seek out giving opportunities that are powerful levers of change and resonate deeply with you.

The gist of this advice? Don’t fret too much about not knowing what spot your giving will land on. Embrace the journey of getting there.