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!

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