Sunday, February 26, 2012

Reaching out

There are a lot of giving pledges out there.
So what is the point of all these pledges?

When I was about thirteen, I got very upset about the fact that I was spending my allowance — $4 a week — on things for myself instead of helping poor people. I spent most of my allowance on clothes, so I vowed never to buy new clothing again. My plan was to wear my current clothes until they wore out, and make new ones from the fabric in my mom's craft room. I requested that lightning strike me down if I broke my vow. (I was thirteen, okay?)

I don't think I made it even six months.

That's why I wish I'd had a community of people who were thinking about these things. People who could have asked me questions like:

Have you thought that if you got a job, you'd have more than $4 a week to give away?

How difficult and crazy-making will this be for you compared to the amount of good it does?

Did you know the clothes at the Salvation Army thrift store on Broad Street are $1 on Wednesdays? Seriously, kid, you're growing out of those sleeves.

A community can help us stick to a well-considered pledge. I'm more likely to keep a public pledge than the one I made alone in my bedroom at age thirteen. And the internet has helped me find people I can ask the questions I have now. Like: is it better to give some money now or more money later? How did you pick a charity? If I want to pick a career that lets me earn more money to give, which ones should I consider?

I'm glad I don't have to think about these things in isolation anymore. A few weeks ago I signed the Giving What We Can pledge, to give at least 10% of my income for the rest of my life. I was already planning on doing that, but now I'll be connected to other people who are doing the same.

So here's an offer: if you're looking for community, I'll try to hook you up. In the Boston area, we have periodic dinner discussions on the topic – let me know if you want an invite to the next one. You don't have to take a pledge - maybe you just have questions or want to chat.  I'm happy to talk with you or connect you to someone who knows more than I do.


Monday, February 20, 2012

Value yourself as a donor

I used to work in donor services at a large nonprofit. For low-dollar donors, there was a person who could answer your questions by phone or email. Once you started donating more, you were assigned a “gift officer” whose job it was to stay in touch and be nice to you. They rarely ask you to donate, but they're there to answer your questions and provide you with glossy brochures about the good work you're funding. If you're interested in a particular program, they can get you more information on that. They host receptions for major donors to meet each other.

For its employees, the charity provided an attractive workspace with good coffee and tea. At first I wavered on things like this – did it really make sense for a charity to spend money on courting me as a donor, or free tea for me and my coworkers? Shouldn't it be sending every possible penny to the actual field work?

Well, no. The attractive setting, good benefits, and free caffeine probably reduced turnover and improved productivity. And given that fundraising is a business, I'm sure that the optimal level of sucking up to donors was well-studied.

People love to tell me, “If you give everything away, you'll have to depend on others for charity!” I never proposed to do that. If I did that, I would burn out before you can say “rice and beans.” If my life as a donor is difficult enough that I hate it, I'd quit. That would be a bad outcome for everyone.

Imagine a charity that wants your donation. How would they best interact with you? They probably shouldn't wine you and dine you too much, or you'll think they were wasteful. Nor should they be too pushy or lay the guilt on too hard, or you'll feel used and bitter. But they should be friendly and appreciative and perhaps ply you with your favorite coffee.

If you donate to a good charity, you are doing a good and important thing. You want to reward that kind of behavior - even when it's yourself that you're rewarding.

Of course, you know your own limits better than you know other people's, so you can press yourself farther than you would press someone else. And you know whether you're likely to err on the side of giving too much or too little. But whichever one it is, treat yourself like a valued donor.

So next time you make a donation, celebrate. Give yourself a nap, a croissant, a beer, a long bath, a special meal – whatever would feel good. If you tend towards burnout, a treat after donating will give you some respite. If you tend towards hoarding, it will help remind you that giving can be a pleasure. Either way, positive reinforcement is a good thing.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Our worst subjects

“I prefer to give to local organizations.” I've heard this a lot.

Imagine a high school student who sits down to study for exams. Her chemistry book is lying closest to her on the desk, so she decides to study chemistry. Her father points out that since she has an A in chemistry and a D in history, studying history might help her grades more. “But that book is all the way over there in my backpack,” the student points out; “I prefer to study locally.”

If you were her parent, you probably wouldn't let her get away with this. All things being equal, she would benefit most from studying the subjects where she's most behind. Even though she hasn't learned all the chemistry there is to know, a few hours of studying history will get her farther than spending the same hours on chemistry.

Even within rich countries, we don't have straight As on our report card. Homelessness, environment, prisons, health, schools – we're behind where we should be in lots of areas. As a social work student, I've seen many of these problems first hand. It hurts to see, and I can't help wanting to fix them.

But these are not our worst subjects. The fact that millions of people every year die of easily preventable diseases, and billions live in grinding poverty – that is a much worse failure. Only it's not happening right here next to us; it's happening far away.

The good news is this: the same amount of effort goes a lot farther on our worst subjects. For a few hundred dollars, I can save a life somewhere in the developing world. There’s no local charity (local to me in the United States) where that money will accomplish anywhere near as much.

I'm not saying we should neglect local causes altogether. If our own society falls apart, we’ll be less able to help. But we should put most of our effort – and money – toward areas where we’re failing.

A version of this post appeared earlier on 80,000 Hours.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Sensing our impact

Last time, I wrote about evidence that donating or buying gifts makes people happier. At least on the $5/$20 level, the amount doesn't matter. That means if you have $20 to give, you'll enjoy giving more if you spread your donations out over several days.

How might we arrange things to give ourselves more pleasure from giving? I saw a great idea in a post by "Orthonormal":

This summer, I had just gone through the usual experience of being asked for money for a nice but inefficient cause, turning them down, and feeling a bit bad about it. I made a mental note to donate some money to a more efficient cause, but worried that I'd forget about it; it's too much work to make a bunch of small donations over the year (plus, if done by credit card, the fees take a bigger cut that way) and there's no way I'd remember that day at the end of the year.

Unless, that is, I found some way to keep track of it.

So I made up several jars with the names of charities I found efficient (SIAI and VillageReach) and kept a bunch of poker chips near them. Starting then, whenever I felt like doing a good deed (and especially if I'd passed up an opportunity to do a less efficient one), I'd take a chip of an appropriate value and toss it in the jar of my choice. I have to say, this gave me much more in the way of warm fuzzies than if I'd just waited and made up a number at the end of the year.

And now I've added up and made my contributions: $1,370 to SIAI and $566 to VillageReach.

I love this method. We evolved to respond more to tangible things - like filling a jar - than to numbers on a spreadsheet. We're sensory creatures, and we might as well work with that.

The jar method gives us a sense of doing something. But it doesn't let us sense our impact. On my last post, Orlando Weber commented that grouping donations with buying presents is a bit unfair, because buying a beer for friends is probably more enjoyable than buying a mosquito net for somebody you'll never see. Like her:

Source: Against Malaria Foundation

We're social as well as sensory creatures. Buying gifts for people we know is fun because we get to see their pleasure and thus experience some of it ourselves. If every day we saw cute kids in danger of dying from something stupid like malaria, we'd probably feel a lot more motivated to help them. (Sponsor-a-child charities work on this principle, but in reality you're not sponsoring a particular child. Which is fine, because it's more efficient to fund a program than an individual.)

So what if we did actually see these people every day, or every time we donated? I want a nonprofit to offer an option where your donation receipt includes a picture of a person being helped — not that your money is literally going to that person, but it will go to help someone in a similar situation. Or maybe every week you would be able to access a new photo or video (Oxfam does some nice ones). Or, maybe you use it as a kind of digital chip jar - every time you want an altruism hit, you pledge to donate a certain amount, and you get rewarded with a picture or video. Every year you add up your pledges and make your donation.

Someone with better programming skills than mine could write something like this — it would keep track of your pledges, and after each pledge you could access some new piece of content. You'd need to get content related to the various causes people could choose, either from the charities themselves or images of a similar population. (SIAI would have the perennial problem that all its photos are of guys standing in front of a blue screen.)

If any of you programmers want this project, please, run with it!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Does giving make you happy?

Psychology has traditionally focused on mental illness and other problems.  The field of positive psychology focuses on how to be healthier and happier.

One example is the study "Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness". It looks at how personal spending (paying bills or buying things for ourselves) and prosocial spending (donations or gifts for others) affect us differently.  The findings:
  • People with higher prosocial spending report being happier than those with low prosocial spending. The amount of personal spending, on the other hand, has no effect on happiness. Of course, this could just mean happy people are more generous, or they're happy and generous because they're rich.  But the second half of the study addresses that. 
  • Researchers asked people to rate their happiness in the morning, then gave them either $5 or $20 and told them to spend it by 5 pm.  Half the participants were told to spend the money on themselves and the other half were told to use the money for a donation or gift.  When the researchers called participants that evening, the people assigned to prosocial spending reported greater happiness.1
  • Participants predicted that personal spending would be more enjoyable than prosocial spending, and that $20 would make them them happier than $5.  They were wrong on both counts - they were happier after prosocial spending, and the amount didn't matter for either kind of spending.
For me, the takeaway points are:
  • Our intuitions about what will make us happy are sometimes wrong.
  • If a transaction (spending or giving) makes us happy, but a larger amount doesn't make us happier, we should go for smaller transactions.  In my experience, this is true - I like buying things, but buying a pastry or a few flowers makes me as happy as a larger purchase.  And I enjoy two small helpings of dinner more than a single large one.
  • Giving $5 is not the same as giving $5,000.  And it may be more fun to give researchers' money than your own.  Does the pleasurable effect still apply?  Maybe.  I know I get pleasure out of giving large amounts, but probably not as much as spending them.
  • It's most efficient to give large amounts every year or so, so that the charities don't have to process a lot of small donations.  But it's probably more enjoyable to donate small amounts often.
1. Someone's probably going to ask, "What's the effect size on that?" and the answer is "[F1,41 = 4.39, P < 0.04, effect size estimate (ŋp2) = 0.10]". Unfortunately, I have no idea what this means. If you know, do tell.