ENACT: The Educational Network for Active Civic Transformation

How Should I Choose My Commitments to Causes?

Ethical Inquiry is a monthly series that examines ethical questions, highlighting a broad array of opinion from journalism, academia and advocacy organizations. Our intent is to illuminate and explore the complexity of some of the most vexing ethical questions of our time.

February 2012

Brandeis prides itself on an active commitment to social justice, which it considers “central to its mission.” As of the writing of this Inquiry, there were 29 official clubs on campus related to political and activist issues, and even more clubs dedicated to community service and volunteering.

Speakers address a wide range of issues and causes on a weekly basis, and events occur with a frequency that many members of the University community cannot keep up with. It is not feasible for anyone to commit him or herself to all of these meaningful issues.

In February 2012, the first Deis Impact! festival of social justice featured more than two dozen social justice-related events in just one week. In February 2013, the second Deis Impact! was held at Brandeis. In 2014 the third Deis Impact! took place. In 2015 the fourth Deis Impact! took place. And in 2016, the fifth Deis Impact! festival of social justice took place from Jan. 28 to Feb. 7.

As a part of the “exploration of social justice on campus and around the world” that Deis Impact! seeks to encourage, in this installment of “Ethical Inquiry,” we ask: How does an interested individual decide which ones to commit to, let alone how to act on those commitments?

We will consider three parts of this question:

  1. Where to help, i.e., the scope of involvement, whether local or global.

  2. Whom to help — people within your own group/community versus others.

  3. How to help — use of personal resources, namely choosing to provide support with time and/or money.

Where to Help? Local vs. Global Action


From high-profile campaigns like RED to celebrities like George Clooney championing causes like the end of the genocide in Darfur, it seems as though giving back to the developing world is an “in” form of philanthropy and activism.

There are many positive aspects to this sort of action. Aid from foreign governments, nongovernmental organizations and individuals have played an important role in the development of many countries. India and Bangladesh are two countries where foreign aid has benefited development. In fact, “100% of Bangladesh’s development budget depended on aid ... in India, foreign aid has financed over 8% of domestic investments.”

This sort of aid also works to realize other global development goals, including “poverty alleviation, the spread of democracy, gender issues, social development.” Thus, one of the benefits of helping developing countries comes from the impact this can have on issues of global importance. 

People also engage in global causes to increase their own sense of international citizenship or to meet humanitarian impulses by working to help people in other parts of the world, rather than just their own areas.

However, introduction of foreign funds can “inadvertently shift the balance of power and potentially induce violence.” Often, foreign aid is a shock to the economy of a developing country. In fact, Dambisa Mayo writes, “money from rich countries has trapped many African nations in a cycle of corruption, slower economic growth and poverty.” Critics argue that this sort of action leads to dependence on the part of the developing nation, looking for aid from more developed nations, rather than growing its own self-sustaining abilities.

When this aid slows or disappears, there can be a sudden and severe decrease in aid and services available to people. When the government cannot compensate for the decrease, or promises to but fails to compensate, violence can ensue.

Furthermore, once the check is written by the donor, that donor may not able to oversee the way that money is spent. Donations may be used inefficiently. The money might even lead to or support corrupt practices.


Another option is to take local action, e.g., tutoring a student in a local school, volunteering at a soup kitchen or working on an area politician’s campaign. 

A benefit is that results can be directly seen and felt: the improvement in the grades of a tutored student, the appreciative faces of people in the soup kitchen, the conversation with people about their feelings about the candidate you support.

Local action also holds the advantage of the donor being able to acquire hands-on knowledge and information about what is needed in the community. Rather than trying to impose — as an outsider ­— ideas of what constitutes “help” and what a community needs, people can base their actions on local problems.

On the other hand, there is much more that needs to be done in the world than just what we can be seen in any given community. The relative weight of the needs in one’s own community may not be as pressing or dire as needs elsewhere.

For example, some argue that contributing to causes addressing matters of life and death, such as hunger or AIDS, does more for the world than actions like donating time or money to an afterschool program at the local community center. And some contend that while there is real need in developed nations, the suggestion “... that we should seek to help the poorest at home by withdrawing support from people abroad who are much poorer, while the rich make off with their millions, is surely morally indefensible in any philosophy.”

Whom to Help? In-group vs. Other

Should we devote ourselves to causes that benefit our own group (i.e., people who share our religion, nationality, class, gender, political ideology, or other identity/affiliation), or to people belonging to other groups?


“In-group” action refers to work that supports our own socially defined groups. Thus, ways to be involved with in-group action include Jewish people supporting organizations that provide aid to Jewish people, or immigrants supporting organizations that provide services to recent immigrants.

This support allows for increased chances for success for one’s own group. If one’s own group is lacking in numbers, voice or power, it may depend on it own members to speak up and act, rather than depending on those in the majority or in power. It may also increase the chances of success, since knowledge of the group’s dynamics and needs is high.

In-group action is a common component of religious charity. Tithing ­— a “religious practice of giving ten percent of one’s income to a religious institution” — and similar practices appear in one form or another in many religions. The fact that various forms of giving to one’s own religious community have existed for so many years indicates historical precedent for helping one’s own group.

In-group action also includes the donation of time and energy, not just money. For example, the Corporation for National and Community Service supports a mentoring initiative, including the designation of January as National Mentoring Month. This initiative aims to provide young people with positive role models in the community to work towards the goals of “improved educational outcomes and ... reduced juvenile delinquency.”

The "Other"

Still, there are potential pitfalls to focusing attention solely on one’s own group, when “outsiders” might be the most deserving of that attention. To take an example from history, the 1973 Wilder lawsuit argued against the funding of religious agencies by New York City to provide foster care. Essentially, religious agencies were focusing on helping their “own kind,” with Jewish and Catholic agencies serving children within their religion. A large group of children not affiliated with the religions served by these agencies were not being helped.

The concept of global citizenship — that people should identify as part of humanity before their own subgroups — also supports action that is not limited to one’s own affiliations. This ideal finds support in civic life; in the academy, including at Brandeis University itself; and in religious tradition — for example, the American Jewish World Service helps non-Jews around the world, citing an “obligation to pursue justice,” regardless of religious affiliation, at the heart of Jewish tradition.

How to Help? Money vs. Time

Even if one has decided where to act and whom to help, a question remains: how to act? Here we look at one part of that question: Is it better to send money to a worthy cause? Or is one’s time and energy more valuable?


In some situations, donating money is the most effective action to take. For example, when the Red Cross was acting in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake, they specifically requested financial donations, rather than donations of goods or visits from volunteers. Shipping items to the country proved too expensive, and managing untrained or unfamiliar volunteers would be a drain on valuable time.

Furthermore, in addition to helping the ultimate recipients of aid, money invested in the country can support the local economy, while goods purchased elsewhere and shipped in may benefit the non-local producers of the goods and their shipping companies.

Financial action can also be the most effective action when it pertains to a problem that one may be unable to confront and remediate directly, like human trafficking or child abuse. The knowledge and training needed to best deal with these problems is less common than the ability to write a check for a foundation that works on the cause.

However, money also creates opportunities for misuse. There have been multiple examples of charities stealing donations, or using them for purposes other than what they claim.

One solution is to research charities and foundations before making donations. Signs of a reputable organization include accreditation from the attorney general of its home state, and recognition by independent accreditors, such as the Better Business Bureau and Charity Navigator.

Jakob Svensson of The World Bank contends that one problem with financial aid to foreign countries is dependence. Since foreign aid is only given to the poor, “recipients have little incentive to improve the welfare of the poor.”

For example, the Red Cross is still working in Haiti on post-earthquake efforts. What will happen if and when the Red Cross leaves for good? Even before the earthquake, Haiti “received billions in foreign assistance, yet persists as one of the poorest and worst governed countries.” Clearly, the billions of dollars donated to Haiti from other countries have not thus far created the independent success that was hoped for.

(For an exploration of questions about the use of donated funds and supplies following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti see Chapter 1 of “Haiti: Two Years After the Earthquake, Where Did the Money Go?” an article included on a Brandeis University Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism resource page inspired by Haiti Grassroots Watch’s investigative journalism project.)

Furthermore, some refer to a “nonprofit industrial complex” and wonder whether some of the organizations and funding foundations are actually motivated to make social change, or are instead supporting a political status quo.


Money is the easiest way to help — for some. But not everyone has money to donate. For some, a donation of time might be more feasible. Particularly with the current recession and high unemployment rates, many people have turned to volunteering as a way to make a difference.

Donation of time has been shown to stimulate a different mindset than the donation of money. Donating time is associated with thinking more about emotional meaning and fulfillment.

While donations of time are certainly important, if everyone were to stop making financial contributions, and instead just volunteer, many foundations and charities would cease to exist. Nonprofits “can’t pay the rent with volunteer hours” — if donations stop coming in, many agencies cannot afford to pay their staff, complete their commitments, or invest in new action.

More Questions

There are other factors that can be considered as one chooses how to make commitments to causes, such as: 

  • Should one take direct action to help individuals in need, or should one instead work for systemic change, perhaps through policymaking and advocacy?

  • Should one engage with multiple causes and organizations, or one focus all efforts on one?

  • How much can one afford to give, in terms of money, energy and/or time?

  • In addition to turning inward, should one turn to workplace programs or members of one’s community for guidance? For example, some major corporations and organizations give time off and other benefits to employees so that they will volunteer in the community, clearly encouraging local action in the form of time volunteered. Here on campus, Brandeis encourages members of the community to support The United Way, Community Works and the University though the “Brandeis Unites Us” campaign.

Final Thoughts

How to help? The questions explored in this “Ethical Inquiry” may serve as a guide to determining the best way to focus your desire to make a positive difference, but no one approach can provide a definitive answer. There is no mathematical formula to decide which cause is the best fit for any one person.

Perhaps the diversity of ways to get involved is a good thing. We each make different choices, and thus we each make a different impact. If everyone — or even just all of the Brandeis community — decided to act in the same ways, for the same causes, in the same places, much less might be accomplished on the path to social justice.