Antoninnnnn [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

April 20, 2019; Vox, New York Times, and Washington Post

Almost before the flames were out, while smoke still rose through the fallen ceiling of Paris’ famed Notre Dame Cathedral, donors began to step forward. In just two days over $1 billion had been raised for the Cathedral’s eventual rebuilding, much of it coming from mega-donors. And, just as quickly, others spoke up to question whether rebuilding an edifice, even one so prominent, was more important than meeting the needs of homeless, sick, or hungry people.

The outpouring of generosity was primed when four donors made gifts totaling more than $400 million. As reported in the Washington Post:

Luxury goods magnate Francois-Henri Pinault announced his family would donate 100 million euros ($112 million) to the effort. Not to remain on the sidelines, his rival Bernard Arnault—the chief executive of LVMH and the richest man in Europe—pledged twice that amount…. The Bettencourt Meyers family, which controls L’Oréal, quickly matched that pledge. And Patrick Pouyanne, chief of executive of French oil giant Total, offered another $112 million.

This level of generosity stands in stark contrast to response to another event that occurred just weeks before. Tropical Cyclone Idai devastated Mozambique, destroying more than 100,000 homes and the crops needed to feed much of the country. Estimates suggest that relief efforts will take more than $750 million, but fundraising is lagging. According to the New York Times, “The fundraising appeal coordinated by the United Nations to cover the initial emergency was for only $282 million—a far cry from the nearly one billion dollars pledged within days to rebuild Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris after last week’s disastrous fire. As of Saturday, $74 million had been raised toward the UN’s goal for Mozambique.”

Sigal Samuel, writing for Vox, wondered about the purposes of charitable giving when faced with this contrast: “What should we make of the competing priorities? As potential donors, how do we assess where our money would be best allocated? And should we be criticizing other people when they donate to causes, we think are less important?”

To add another question, is rational philanthropy better than giving motivated by emotion? Efforts to establish metrics that can determine the highest and best uses of giving, often described as effective altruism, have been underway for some time. From this perspective, donors should consider the importance of the problems to which they’ll giving and the impact their gifts will have toward building a solution and use those findings as guides, rather than go with their heart or gut. From this perspective, funding aid to Mozambique or “to Native American sacred lands destroyed in fracking and development, to historically black Louisiana churches devastated in arson attacks, to the fight against climate change, or to development aid for African countries” should take precedence over rebuilding a church, even one with Notre Dame’s prominence.

On the other hand, as Ruth McCambridge recognized years ago, giving is as much a “form of personal expression as anything else we choose to do with our spare treasure and time.” She recognized that it may not be possible or preferable to transform giving into a purely rational process, even with the best metrics about effectiveness. Samuel suggests that the rational and emotional motivations for giving need not conflict with each other, that both have their time and place. She suggests that the wise donor recognizes which motivation is stimulating their giving and is comfortable with their direction.

There’s nothing wrong with donating to the restoration of a burned cathedral if that’s something we’re passionate about. We can take that out of our “personal satisfaction” budget, or maybe our “preserving cultural identity” budget. But it’s worth making sure we’re also remembering the other problems—including urgent ones like homelessness—and dedicating resources to those problems in proportion to their urgency.

Moving from the individual donor’s perspective to a societal one makes reaching this balance more difficult. The fortunes of those who can make very large gifts result, at least in part, from collective decisions about tax rates, business subsidies, and labor laws. Allowing the emotions of one person to decide how $100 million will be spent to outweigh a more collective decision about importance deserves to be challenged. The questions raised on the signs of Paris protestors—“Millions for Notre Dame, what about for us, the poor?” and “Everything for Notre Dame, nothing for Les Misérables”—should be answered. We may not be able to change donor motivations, but we can advocate for needed social policies and governmental actions.—Martin Levine