Am I My Brother's Keeper?
I have extra cash. My siblings don't. How much do I have to help them?
Posted Wednesday, June 10, 2009, at 7:00 AM
Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to email@example.com, and Patty and Sandy will try to answer it.
Dear Patty and Sandy,
I am the lucky one in my big family: great job, great income, solid savings. Not all of my siblings are so lucky, and some really struggle. How should I think about their needs in the context of my giving plan? And when it comes to family gifts, should it be "even-steven" or "each according to his needs"?
When humans have excess resources, they first hoard a bit for a rainy day. Then they share the surplus with immediate family (partners and children), then the next circle of family, then those who share their lives in other ways (preachers, teachers, community leaders, and services they value), and so forth through greater and greater circles. This is an admirable human trait and one that helps make the world go 'round. So the question isn't "Should I share what I have?" but rather ... how much and with whom?
Here is what I think: To the extent that your sharing addresses "freedom from want," filling a basic need for shelter, security, sustenance, or education, then supporting family members should be thought of as a top priority way to share your wealth. But if your sharing goes beyond basic want (and I'm not saying it shouldn't), to help with that long delayed and much needed vacation for your sister, or that new car for Mom, or that retirement nest egg for your brother, then you need to think about it differently. In those cases, it falls into the personal choices bucket and should not be counted in your "leave the world a better place" giving plan.
We don't have to use all our resources to leave the world a better place, but we should be committing some portion of our time, our money, and our voice to that broader goal. If, after you've met your basic needs and fulfilled that better world obligation, you want to give part of the rest to family members as gifts—go for it.
Even-steven? As the youngest sibling, I was annoyingly concerned with equality: Who changed the channel, who sat in the front seat, and who chose the cookie half first? My parents instituted an even-odd day rule. My brother ruled on odd days, I on evens. In an argument, he (or she) whose day it was prevailed. I remain convinced there are more odd days.
Patty Stonesifer is the chair of the Smithsonian Institution Board of Regents and a senior adviser to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where she was president, then CEO for 10 years. She spent the first two decades of her career in the technology business, where her last job was senior vice president at Microsoft.
Sandy Stonesifer works on issues related to adolescent girls' health at a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.
Photograph of siblings by Stockbyte/Getty Images.