A quick thought about altruism

Some of you may remember my little Planned Parenthood media event, where they rejected a donation from me that would have saved one of their clinics. Then PETA swooped in and offered to take the money for a pretty cool idea. But since they are an awful organization, I countered them with the proposal to donate to a pet charity that was no-kill.

As far as anyone knows, that’s where it stands–I offered to make the donation. Nothing more was written by me or really reported at all in the press, yet after I posted that, a ton of people wrote me saying that my desire to help a no kill shelter was very noble in their eyes, changed their perception of me, etc. Or they said I was a good person because I gave this money, or that they loved that I was willing to help a charity, etc. Basically, I got a mountain of praise for this. All these people were commending me because of my donation–even though I hadn’t even made the donation yet.

And you know what no one, not once, ever asked me? Anything about the specifics of the donation, or the organization I was donating it to, or what the money would do.

Now, don’t get me wrong–I actually made the donation to Austin Pets Alive (not 500k, but many multiples more than 20k). I did it after I got to know the amazing people in that organization, I have seen the work they do and the results they get, and I love helping them, either with money or advice.  I plan to continue helping them in the future, because I believe in them and their mission.

The point is not about me, it’s not even about charity, it’s how people are. Everyone’s praise and everyone’s thoughts about the donation did NOT come from the actual results of the donation itself. They came from my public signal that I was going to give the money. No one cared what happened after I said I was giving the money.

I’ve thought a lot about this, and it meshes very well with everything I’ve ever seen in my life about charitable giving: The overwhelming majority of people who give to charities do not actually care about the cause or the results of their gift, they do it simply to signal to others what type of person they want to be seen as. To them, charity is about status, not results.

You may want to argue this point, but ask yourself this simple question: If this isn’t true, then why does almost no one actually follow-up with their charitable gifts, and see where or how the money’s being spent? Why are almost all celebrations of charitable gifts about the money being donated, and NOT the results of the gift? Or even better, look at most fund raising campaigns–they just excuses to party and show off, they have nothing to do with the actual causes.

This is NOT how I am. I only gave the money to APA once I got to know them, and I saw precisely how they were using it. Unlike most charitable organizations, APA is not a cause the masquerades as a way to raise money, its the opposite: they are amazing people doing amazing work saving the lives of thousands of dogs (and cats I guess, but who cares), and raising money is just a means for them to accomplish that mission. They are inspiring, not because of their beliefs but because of their actions.

Also, I know there are many new charities like this; in fact almost all the best new charities are very results oriented, and that is a great change in how non-profits operate. But very few large, established legacy non-profits are like this, as evidenced by the atrocious overheads costs (e.g., the United Way spends 70% of every incoming dollar on non-core costs, like paying executives and raising more money). But my point here is that I don’t think many people even think about this, even consider what drives someone to give and why, and how that impacts the entire non-profit sector:

For most people, altruism is not about meaning or results, its about status signaling to their social circle.