We recently hosted a debate about billionaire hedge fund manager John Paulson’s decision to donate $400 million to his alma mater, Harvard University. We explored whether the Ivy League is a worthy cause, or if Paulson’s money could have done more good elsewhere … say, by giving it directly to the poor. After our podcast was posted on The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s website, one guest wrote in there.

“Bill C.” said:

The introduction to this debate is comical. Paulson should give his money directly to the poor – for what social benefit? Why do commentators feel obliged to criticize a gift to an institution with a proven track record? The conversation merely goes downhill from there, but is a brilliant example of cultural imperialism.

Tiny Spark advises Bill to look at the success of GiveDirectly, a program that gives cash to the poor. The charity evaluator GiveWell writes of this organization: “The available evidence supports the idea that unconditional cash transfers significantly help people.

Another person by the name of “maryanno”  also wrote on the Chronicle’s website:

Regardless of what one might think of John Paulson and his work, it is his money to give away as he sees fit. … As someone who has made a career primarily in smaller not-for-profits, I empathize with those who wish they could have even a fraction of the gift. But no one ever promised that life would be fair.

In our last letters segment, we shared a note from Michael Garcia in San Francisco. He explained that his friend did some earthquake relief work in Peru several years ago, and developed a personal relationship with a mother living there. Since that time, the mother has personally asked Michael’s friend for financial help on several occasions. Michael continues, “She’s had several tearful phone conversations with this woman, who is in a somewhat desperate situation. However, my friend is not rich, she barely scrapes by on freelance design work, and she’s really not in a position to continually and personally sponsor this family. I’d appreciate your take on what my friend should do in this situation.”

To get some advice, we decided to call an anonymous aid worker who’s been on our program before. “J” replied:

Veteran aid worker "J." (Photo credit: "J.")
Veteran aid worker
“J.” (Photo credit: “J.”)

I think your friend, Michael, needs to get in touch with this woman from Peru and manage her expectations. Say straight out, “This is what I’m capable of doing, this is what I’m not capable of doing.” If, as you say, she’s not really in a position to continually and personally sponsor this family, she just needs to say it and be firm about that. And I guess right alongside that, be prepared for a relationship to end badly.

In terms of how we manage personal relationships when doing work like this, it seems to me it’s very much same kind of code of ethics that applies to physicians, lawyers, law enforcement. We have a role to play in providing a service that people need, supposedly to make their lives better. But we do need to maintain some kind of professional distance.  I think we can all think of examples, either fictional or maybe real from the news where a physician got personally involved in the life of a patient and how it went badly.

We also asked for a response from Mark Horoszowski. He’s co-founder of MovingWorlds, which helps people volunteer their skills around the world ethically and sustainably. He said:

Hi Michael, here are some tips on how to approach the mother in Pisco: Schedule time to talk with her proactively — when she’s not poised to ask for money. If she works, perhaps this is after pay day. If she sells goods, perhaps after the market closes. Or if she’s in agriculture, perhaps right after harvest. Ask her what kinds of opportunities exist and help her figure out how to reach them. Then follow up with the mother to hear how things are going, give other suggestions, and congratulate her on taking initiative. The goal here is to get her to look to her local network for support, and to start building self-confidence and dignity. The personal bond will help facilitate that.

Mark Horoszowski, CEO and Co-founder of MovingWorlds. (Courtesy of Horoszowski)
Mark Horoszowski, CEO and Co-founder of MovingWorlds. (Courtesy of Horoszowski)

If any of you want to weigh in, or need advice for a moral quandary about the business of doing good, drop us a line at [email protected]. Better yet, record your thoughts on your smartphone, if you have one, and send us the file as an email attachment. We might share your voice on an upcoming Letters segment.