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Giving to Charity

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Akhila (whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting in person before) and I recently had a discussion on Twitter about charity.  On Friday, I tweeted a link which made me feel guilty and want to give more money to charity, and then another link which made me feel guilty for feeling guilty.  So, I wondered,

Whoops. Sorry, that one was about the hawk cam.

I wondered about the effectiveness of giving to charity, and about the second article which discouraged it:

And Akhila then picked it up and said she disagreed with the whole premise of Altucher’s piece, because:

Our discussion centered on two viewpoints: Mine, that I kind of agree with Altucher because it’s impossible to monitor charity behavior and Akhila’s in that she believes in people’s inherent ability to research and choose charities correctly.

I think this discussion could have easily veered into one about the benefits of electoral college versus true democracy, but another argument that came out of it was whether it matters why people give to charity.

Being a cynical student of economics, I argued that it doesn’t matter. Whether I give money to Kiva because I want you to know that I give money to Kiva, or whether I give money because I want to help people (specifically, women in countries where entrepreneurial opportunities for women are rare,) I’ll still give, right?

However,  Akhila argued that we need to know we’re doing good in order to donate correctly and effect positive change:

I don’t have a correct answer to account for all of human nature, but I think our disagreement stems from two different viewpoints: I don’t trust people.  I think we’re inherently lazy, self-motivated, and stupid, so much so that we’ll donate to anything as long as it looks cool; i.e. Red Cross, and not examine where the money is going.  It takes forever to research charities, even with organizations like Charity Navigator and GiveWell , so how do you know whether the money you’re sending to send little girls to school in Pakistan is really going to some asshole, or is sitting, doing nothing?  How do I even know my Kiva donations are going to the right place?

The second part of it is that I believe people donate at least 50% to give themselves a huge ego boost. I know I do.  I do know people that are selfless and give their time for nothing more than to give time.  But I’m not going to pretend that giving to Kiva doesn’t give me the feel-goods, or that I gave blood in Israel solely for that purpose and not to tell people that I did it, or that I want to volunteer with dog-related causes to make them feel good. Mainly it’s because I miss petting dogs.  What I don’t know is if this perception hurts us more than it helps.

But Akhila doesn’t feel that way.  And I’m glad. Because some of us have to be  optimistic and in the business of helping people. And some of us have to be in the business of pessimism watching hawks remotely.

Edited to add, speaking of Kiva, I thought this was funny:

4 Comments Join the Conversation

  1. It depends on your perspective. As a donor, no, it doesn’t matter *why* you give.

    As a charity, it matters enormously. How can I increase giving by appealing to your stated reason for giving while also subconsciously triggering your underlying, additional (selfish) reason for giving, if I don’t acknowledge or respect the selfish part?

    As an agitator or organizer, it matters because I can link the feel-good selfish stuff you get from giving not just to the immediate giving experience, but to the overall aims of my movement, and make you feel good about and trust me, if I understand those connections.

    It’s all about thinking like a marketer, not a consumer.

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  2. As someone who worked in the marketing department of a fund-raising organization, I have to agree with Tzipporah: the reason for giving matters in as much as we can leverage it to make people give more. Studies show that people also care if the organization has low fund-raising costs and is trustworthy — we’re talking both big donors ($10K+) and small donors who think they might be in a position to be big donors someday (though it’s hard to quantify who thinks like this in an empiric way and who is just pinning the whole thing on amorphous dreams and hopes).

    Personally, I donate to Jewish causes because I believe in helping my own community first. Since I don’t have the monetary resources to spread the love around, I also volunteer for a lot of non-Jewish causes. And in my job, I’ll be doing a lot of advocacy work on both Jewish and non-Jewish causes, ’cause let’s face it, the Jews can’t feel safe & secure in a society where other minorities aren’t safe & secure.

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    • Great points from both of you guys. Thanks for helping me think about this.

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  3. I’m sorry I haven’t responded to this – I just have so many thoughts on this matter that I think it’s hard to really respond.

    My main thought is that we have an obligation to give back, regardless of who we are. There’s a better use of your money than spending it on the latest fashions or unnecessary gadgets/luxuries. When people are literally dying due to poverty and human rights violations, we who are the richest 1% of the world (literally) have an obligation to give back. We have all come into our situation of wealth and power by benefiting from an exploitative economy and structure; like it or not, we have all contributed in some way to exploitation of the poorest. We have an obligation to give back, at least to try to right these wrongs.

    Second thing is I believe motivation matters. We should be donating, as I said above, out of a sense of justice: justice for the poor who have suffered centuries of exploitation. Justice to right wrongs. NOT out of feeling good for ourselves or even, pity for “those poor people.” But out of a sense of justice and solidarity. That is the only way we make the right decisions.

    And yes there are many crappy charities out there. But there is enough information out there now through orgs like Givewell, etc that we *can* make evaluations that our money is going in the right direction. It takes research, but I believe we have an obligation to at least care enough to do that. If we aren’t even willing to put in the research, we clearly don’t care enough about this world.

    Ultimately, I think charity is great but it’s only necessary right now because the current world structure/order is extremely exploitative. In the long run I don’t care to work towards more charity, but rather justice. Justice for poor people and poor countries, and justice and basic human rights. Yes and ultimately this change isn’t going to come from charity but from a restructuring of the current world order.

    But, considering the world sucks right now, charity is necessary in the short run, if at least to save a few more lives.

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