How Much is Enough?

As we enter into the “season of giving,” it’s important to note that our decisions about how much to give are rooted in a deeper question of “how much is enough?” Yet many of us leave that underlying question unasked – acting based on general social norms related to wealth instead of finding an answer that fits our lives and our values.

When John D. Rockefeller was asked “how much would be enough?” he answered “just a little bit more.” What an ironic answer, coming from America’s wealthiest businessman who at the height of his financial success personally accounted for almost 2% of total US GDP!

But, regardless of income or wealth, the fact is we are conditioned by society to answer the question of “how much is enough” with an answer of “more.” We often begin conversations about finances from a place of scarcity and fear, a focus on worst-case scenarios, and a basis of comparative financial goals that views becoming wealthy (whatever that means personally) as the target.

Instead, what if we began a conversation with the possibility that we have what we need? What if we approached financial planning from a grounded feeling of abundance or sufficiency? What if we set our target as having a full personal life with our basic needs being met, rather than one where we could buy more things?

While these alternative questions may sound idealistic and naïve, they are real questions I’m encountering more and more frequently in my work as Executive Director of Bolder Giving. Our mission is to inspire people to give more and as we talk with people around the country about why they made the decision to give big, one recurring response is “I realized I had enough.”

And interestingly, we hear that response from people from wide-ranging financial backgrounds. In July, we highlighted the story of Elspeth Gilmore, a young woman with inherited wealth who has made the decision to give the majority of her wealth to support progressive social change work. When reflecting on the role of money in her life, she shared that “I believe having less money will actually improve my quality of life, not diminish it. I want to be self-supporting and to rely on my community rather than my money. Wealth is too often isolating.”

Like Elspeth, Douglas Tsoi has also grappled with these questions of how to view the role of money in his life. Ten years after he left a career as a technology lawyer to align his work with his values – first as a teacher at a Quaker school then as a local environmental leader in Oregon — Douglas Tsoi pushed himself to take another major step in his personal journey (you can hear more about this experience by joining a free teleconference with Douglas on Dec 15th at noon EST). Aiming to “meet his needs, not his wants,” he began giving first a third and then a half of his income away each year. As he says:

“I’m new to philanthropy and I sometimes wonder if I’m being naïve. Am I foolish for not “enjoying” my money more and spending it on myself? Should I have invested it all for a secure retirement and at that point made a decision to give? Will I regret the money I gave away if I am laid off, get sick, or start a family? I don’t have answers to these uncomfortable questions. But I believe that I can make and experience a stronger, more resilient community through giving. I’m excited to see what happens.”

Douglas’ commitment along with continued questioning is a really common experience that many of us face if we challenge traditional norms about money, class, giving or any other aspect of our lives. We come to wonder: “Who am I to say that the accepted wisdom is wrong? Do I know enough to chart my own course?” We begin doubting ourselves and wondering if planning for the worst-case is indeed the best course of action. At Bolder Giving, we’re not advocating that people throw all accepted financial planning out the window. But what we have seen is that, especially with rising wealth inequality around us and growing dissatisfaction with modern consumer culture, when you question commonly held beliefs about wealth you may surprisingly discover that you answer differently than society does.

So as we enter into the holiday season, the traditional “season of giving,” I encourage us all to take a moment to not only ask ourselves the question of how much we can give this year but the bigger question of “how much is enough?” You just might surprise yourself with how you answer.

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Jason Franklin, Executive Director of Bolder Giving, is a Lecturer on Public Administration and Doctoral Candidate at New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service. His research at NYU focuses on the role of charitable foundations in the policy making process and he teaches courses on nonprofit management, public policy, and philanthropy. Before coming to Bolder Giving, he was the Deputy Director of the 21st Century School Fund. Previously, he coordinated the Rockefeller Foundation’s Next Generation Leadership Network housed at the NYU Research Center for Leadership in Action and has also worked for the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, White House Office of National AIDS Policy, and Oregon Commission on Children and Families. He has an MS in Urban Policy and Nonprofit Management from the New School’s Milano Graduate School and a BA in Political Communication from the George Washington University.

2 Responses

  1. Jason- I love this! I often answer “because I have enough” when people ask me why I give money to strangers. I am still trying to figure out how much is really enough; part of me is still afraid I might give away too much. Love this quote I saw today for the first time: “No one ever became poor by giving” (Anne Frank). Thanks for all you do!

  2. Sam Hummel

    Thanks for this reminder, Jason.

    I realized a few years ago that while I thought I was doing good because I was giving away “thousands” each year, I was actually giving away less than 10% of my annual income. The thing that led me to that realization was seeing a map that showed giving patterns of different communities in my area: http://www.countercartographies.org/static/tim/giving_in_triangle.jpg What the map shows is that wealthier people give a lower percentage of their annual income than lower-income earners. That might seem perfectly justifiable, since a smaller percentage of a bigger number is still a significant chunk of change, right? I think that’s how I was justifying my giving, too.

    But the problem I realized is that a smaller percentage of one person’s bigger income is NOT a significant chunk of change when compared to how much money would be given away by a group of lower-income earners collectively earning that amount. Here’s an example: If 1 person makes $100k and gives 5% annually, that’s $5k. If 5 people making $20k each give away 10% annually, that’s $10k!! The same total amount of income went into both scenarios ($100k), but boy is there a big difference in what comes out!

    Anyway, I felt embarrassed when I realized that if my income were going to lower-income earners in my community instead of me, more money would be getting shared through giving than what I was doing with it! I remembered at that moment my grandfather imploring all of us grandchildren to “tithe” 10% every year (he probably meant to the church) and I resolved that I would start with tithing 10% of my income each year to social justice organizations. That was a great way for me to get started because I knew I couldn’t really balk at “10%” given that for hundreds of years millions of people – from all class backgrounds – have voluntarily found some way somehow to tithe ten percent of their annual earnings as a show of their devotion to their faith, church, community. If they could do it, so could I.

    It’s inspiring and challenging to read about Douglas’ plan to give 33% and then 50% of his annual income away. The 10% tithing level was a great place for me to start because I knew I should be able to do it – because others are doing it. Now, I need to do the harder work you are describing, Jason, of asking how much exactly is enough so that I can figure out what % I can be giving because it is more than I *need*.

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