How people of different generations think about giving to charity

What is your approach to charitable giving?

Being good with money has come to mean stock market skills, budgetary discipline, and expert bargain hunting. But the other way to be good with money is to give yours away to those who have fewer advantages than you. Charity might be the most personal of all the personal finance habits we need to develop. It gets right down to our core beliefs, our life experiences, and the families we grew up in. That’s why it’s so fascinating to put this question to different age groups.


“Donating to good causes is very important to me. I try to select two or three organizations that do work I care about and give to them monthly in small amounts. As a libertarian, I feel it’s important to create communities around giving that are not linked to government programs. Nonprofits have to be much more accountable to their donors than government programs must be to taxpayers. Tangentially, there are many fake foundations out there, and friends of mine from high school create dubious children’s ‘charities’ so they have a reason to go to a party and get their photo in the style section of the local paper. Good philanthropy should be a quiet mitzvah. I do it because it’s the right thing to do, not because it’s a status symbol.”

—Sadie Weston James, Manchester, N.H.

Takeaway: What role we believe the government or business—or other institutions—should play in helping others reflects our take on what makes society work best. But giving is also a deeply private act, one that should be mostly motivated by intrinsic rewards we get from the knowledge that we’ve helped others rather than some extrinsic reward—such as the praise of our peers or a fancy plaque.

Gen X 

“It’s important to both my husband and me. It’s not rooted in our faith, though my husband was brought up Jewish, and it was important for his family. For me, it’s motivated in part by how neighbors helped our family through some hard times when I was a kid. I feel like the social safety net isn’t what it once was, so I remember how people helped me and I try to do the same. Because of homelessness and the opioid crisis, we give to local organizations that work on those issues. We often talk about giving more, then we look and see our two teenage kids and looming college bills, and honestly it keeps us from making the next leap in terms of our giving. We’ve tried to make up for this by volunteering (I was on the board of a local animal shelter) but sometimes I feel like we could do more.”

—Sally R., Corea, Maine

Takeaway: Giving, and working to expand programs that help others, is an investment in our communities. Maybe you haven’t personally been the beneficiary, but one day you might. In any case, the return on this investment is knowing that you’ve helped to make our society—and especially our more vulnerable neighbors—just a tiny bit stronger.


“I just give what I can when I can. It depends what the cause is for. Like, when the church is building a new school for kids, or asking for money for returning veterans. I’ve been giving more since I’ve been older—since I’ve had the means. But I don’t want to be expected to do it. That would turn me off completely. Fortunately, my church isn’t making giving guilt-oriented. If the government took away the charitable tax exemption for charity, that would definitely affect what I give. That is a real consideration, the fact that it’s tax-deductible.”

—Gini Garcia, Redding, Calif.

Takeaway: Many faiths require that followers give—there’s the Jewish tradition of tzedakah, or charity, dana, in Hinduism and Buddhism, Christian almsgiving, and zakat for Muslims. But having a religious obligation does not necessarily make the faithful more philanthropic. In fact, one study showed the opposite—altruism is more pronounced in the children of nonreligious families. On the other hand, certain forces do nudge people toward charity. In this case, the nice tax break we get when we give.

(Quotes have been edited for style and length.)

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