The more you think the less you give

Leon Neyfakh at the Boston Globe just published a nice article about why people give to charity.  The bottom line seems to be: the more people think and the more information they’re given, the less people give.

So, for example, from Neyfakh’s article :

Daniel Oppenheimer, a psychologist at Princeton and coeditor of the book “The Science of Giving,” found that simply giving people information about a charity’s overhead costs makes them less likely to donate to it. This held true, remarkably, even if the information was positive and indicated and the charity was extremely efficient.


The best approach for a charity raising money to feed hungry children in Mali, the team [Deborah Small at Wharton and George Loewenstein of Carnegie Mellon University] found, was to simply show potential donors a photograph of a starving child and tell them her name and age. Donors who were shown more contextual information about famine in Africathe ones who were essentially given more to think about were less likely to give.

The first question we can ask ourselves about these findings is: what exactly is someone doing when they decide to give?  It is a rational, maximizing decision or is it first and foremost (as I would argue it is) an act of passion and a statement of purpose? Based on what we think is going on, we can decide whether or not to be surprised that our rational mind tends to curb generous actions.

Borrowing from another corner of human behavior, I’d observe that we don’t spend the most when we’re told all the specs of what’s under the hood (RAM, processor speed, CD/DVD features, etc.); we spend the most when we’re sold a dream and a story about who we are and who we can be (the iMac).  Having all the specs gets us comparison shopping online and buying at CompUSA, trying to save another $20 with a mail-in rebate on a $999 purchase.  The story and the dream gets us to buy an iPad when no one could ever convince anyone that what’s missing in our life is a “tablet PC.”

And so, once we’ve realized that our surprise is misplaced, what are we to do with the (still residually troubling) finding?

We want a philanthropic “marketplace” in which the best ideas win out, in which the organizations that are most effective and that are making the most change in the world attract the most donor dollars.  Yet, armed with information from psychologists and behavioral economists, we fear that the same forces that are creating a needed pull to nonprofit accountability could inadvertently be undermining the generous action that is the lifeblood of all philanthropy.

(Side note: for another day, there’s a whole conversation here about whether accountability inadvertently undermining generosity is another way to describe what’s going on in the evolution of the impact investing space).

So how do we fight this?  How do we keep generosity alive?

I can’t help but come full circle back to my original generosity experiment, to see what happens when I graft these new findings onto my original, not fully articulated instinct that I needed to make a shift: steeped in the culture of “new,” “better,” “higher impact” philanthropy – through my work at Acumen Fund and as part of the social enterprise space – I felt the foundation of my own giving was buckling under the weight of all the left-brain analytics.  Nothing was ever good enough, impactful enough, scalable enough, anything enough.  I needed to (and continue to need to) reinforce that foundation with a practice of generosity that was as powerful, as forceful, as robust as the added weight of my demands for nonprofit excellence.

I’d this a step further and argue that those who are beating the drum for increased nonprofit and philanthropic accountability owe it to themselves and to the world to ensure that we are cultivating and advocating for a deep and abiding spirit of generosity in everything we do.  As a start, I invite you all to be active participants, on February 14th, 2012, in Generosity Day.

Where we all hope to arrive is a practice of giving that starts and ends with generosity – with each and every step infused with all of the right, tough questions.  The challenge from the research is that, in practice, this is incredibly difficult to do.

But rather than advocate either for turning off the brain or for throwing the generosity baby out with the bathwater, I’d suggest that we have some old traditions that hold the answers we seek.  Tithing is, at its core, a pre-commitment to give and a recognition that there’s strength in a common bond and a clear expectations about the individual actions that create a strong whole.

We too can pre-commit, we can decide in advance – whether because of our faith, because of a sense of shared ownership, or because we understand that if we are in a place to give then we have been blessed – that we are going to give a certain amount every year.  We can lay that foundation of generosity and make it strong by sharing the commitment with others who engage in the same practice as we do.  And then we can get as wonky, as robust, as analytical as we like about where we are going to give the money, with, I hope, the space to retain every last bit of joy and abundance that giving entails, no matter how smart it is.

My dream for advocating for more generosity in the world isn’t because, alone, generosity is all that we need.  But it is and always must be the foundation for everything that we do, the intention that underlies each and every action.

2 thoughts on “The more you think the less you give

  1. Tithing, however, was based on and driven by a religious belief: the belief that everything we have comes from God, and that God demands, as a condition of His continued favor, that we give 1/10 of what He has given us either back to the Temple (as originally) or to those less fortunate. (The priests preferred the former, as religious authorities still do, for obvious reasons.)

    I doubt that your secular “pre-commit” idea based on nothing more gutsy than “a sense of shared ownership” can take the place of vigorous and well-articulated faith such as that which drove the original tithe.

    By putting God into the picture, the old structure took the focus off the guy with his hand out, whether this guy was priest or social worker. It even, to some extent, took the focus off the woeful-looking child in the street. (This was more or less explicit in Christianity, where Jesus instructed his followers that if they treated the poor and unfortunate well they were really directing their love and care to Jesus himself. I believe this was a powerful motivator, since so often the recipients of that kind of charity are not very attractive as personalities.)

    I’m wondering how effective it can be to promote “generosity” itself, without these underpinnings. More and more of the voices I’m hearing in the political press are advocating the idea that it’s every man for himself in this world. I’m not suggesting that we “invent” some kind of religious faith in order to get money out of people (though God knows there’s enough of that going around!), I’m just skeptical that “generosity” itself is robust enough to motivate us without some kind of underlying shared belief system.

  2. Susan, how’s this for a shared belief system: we stand or fall as one.
    There’s a lot to comment on in this article, but I’ll just say one thing: there’s a certain point in life at which you realize that it’s your responsibility to give. Not the rich, not the generous, not anyone else’s: yours.
    It’s also your responsibility to figure out the details: how much you can afford to give, and to whom or what organization, and why you’re doing it, and even whether or not you tell anyone about it.
    I’m convinced we’re all here on this earth to serve each other and give what we can give best, so that makes it easy for me. I know not everyone agrees, but I hope that everyone will, eventually.

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