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.

Was it ever mine?

The experience of giving isn’t an objective one:  our relation to the money we give and the attitudes we bring to bear directly impact our own experience and on our practice.

So much collected teaching and wisdom about giving rests in the religious traditions, and I’m just beginning to explore what this ancient wisdom has to teach us about modern giving.

All the major faiths place great emphasis on giving – how could they not, as giving binds a community together, keeps it coherent, ensures a level of well-being for members of the community and stability for the whole community.  In the Jewish tradition, one gives the maaser (1/10th of one’s wealth and 1/10th of one’s income) as tzedakah; this translated into the Christian tradition of tithing.  Islam has a similar tradition of zakat, the laws of which are specified in the Qur’an.

In all of these traditions, giving is completing the circle in one’s relationship with God.  Our abundance is a reflection of the blessings we have been given, and when we give we are returning some of that abundance.

Whatever your faith (and even if you not religious) there is wisdom here.  If we are in a position to give, we have been blessed with good fortune.  We have the honor of being in a position to help another.

How different this notion is from a sense of scarcity, of needing to learn to let go each and every time we give.  I find this notion freeing.  We approach giving with the knowledge that what we are giving away was never ours; we approach giving with a sense of humility and with the knowledge that good fortune has played a role in our own good circumstances, and we are passing on a bit of that good fortune to another.

Canned beans or bananas?

Every year, between the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, many Jewish congregants take home a brown paper bag to be filled with non-perishable food for people in need.  It helps fill food banks, and is emblematic of the principle of tzedakah, or charity, which plays an important role in most major religions (tithing, zakat, etc.)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the surge of interest in volunteering / working in the nonprofit sector, especially the social enterprise sector (where I spend my days).  There’s a tsunami of people, young and old alike, interested in using their skills for good in the world.  Organizations like Acumen Fund, where I work, seem to be attracting particular interest, and I think it’s because of the impression that nonprofits that work with social enterprises are more likely to be able to take advantage of people’s business skills and put them to good use in solving social problems.

(I say “impression” because I still haven’t been convinced that “business skills” – which I take to mean effective leadership, management, strategy, organizational design, use of capital, etc. – have any more or less application in social enterprise organizations vs. the nonprofit sector more broadly.  And I bet the leadership of CARE or Mercy Corps or UNICEF or Save the Children would agree here.)

Part of the challenge of matching this talent to needs is about canned beans vs. bananas.  Historically, “volunteering” has often been about applying less specialized skills (serving in a soup kitchen, helping to build a home) to directly serve a population in need.  This is canned beans: highly nutritious, long shelf life, can plug in almost anywhere.

Bananas are tougher.  They don’t travel particularly well, they spoil quickly, they’re best if you pick them and buy them locally.  Yes, you can transport a banana across the world (and we often do), but you would never think that a banana and a tin of canned beans are interchangeable.

I think it’s time we start calling bananas bananas, which may mean distinguishing between “volunteering” and “service.”  This is a tough one, because even those words feel like they imply that one is more valuable than the other…which isn’t true.

But if we could develop a common vocabulary about long-term, on-the-ground, specialized engagements requiring  screening and specialized skills, we’d be a long way towards clearing up a lot of confusion.

Because, in truth, we really do need a lot more bananas.

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