Charity And Consumption Have Issues In Common

My post on cognitive aspects around charitable giving provoked a reply from Elver. The discussion continued in the comments there, from where I’d like to aggregate another thought that seems to be contextually important.

Getting funding for a charity is all about optics and active marketing to achieve it. Madelaine and Colin McRae are (were?) world famous, heavily pushed brands. Anonymous dying kids and anonymous flying tourists are not.

Numeracy and the ability to sanely differentiate between charity options with different levels of return come in as in any consumption process: you pick a brand that works best on you emotionally and go for it, without further analysis. You pick a toothpaste that promises to make your smile shine, not the 10-no-name-products-for-the-price-of-one next to it on the shelf. The brand hits you before you get to an adequate decision.

As Elver put it:

A single human life is easy to market. You build a story around it and it sells. It’s impossible to build a story that would make you care about all the 100 dead kids. You can’t fit that much character development into an article.

Now that’s where another dangerous parallel between charity and consumption comes in: drive for luxury, living above your capabilities. Buying a 60,000 EUR fancy sports car with lease payments taking most of your monthly income, for example.

Giving 2 EUR in an alley to a beggar – fine, impulse decision, nobody’s hurt. Economically, when the bids are significantly higher, like choosing where to throw 1m or 100m EUR of your charity fund the decision is weighed more and aimed for high efficiency/benefit. Going back to original Wired piece – Gates does it (curing malaria, etc). Some others occasionally don’t (Branson giving money to Madelaine – that’s an unfair example of course, given Virgin’s other honourable world-changing activities).

More money, better decisions? Of course – why should people who have made the right decisions to make the money in the first place be any worse at deciding where to get rid of it? But maybe it should be vice versa: people with less fortunes to share should have even more motivation to make sure their relatively limited giving results in most gain?

Maybe the dominance of brand-influenced impulses is a luxury the world can’t afford in charity in the long run?


  • http://www.moreintelligentlife.com/node/182 ties nicely into this thread.

  • bertrand

    Could it be so that stories are built around brand because of the structure of the “news-spreading” system ? It uses mainly traditional media approach i.e. the same channel that is distributing entertainment is distributing news, and it has a strong financial constraint : advertisement => competition on volume of listeners/viewers/readers.
    This said, it is also obvious that a news-diffusion system that is focusing on more fairness and less “brand attractiveness” such as the NPR, get a limited attendance. This leads to the same conclusion as Sten’s : the problem is in the attendance. It has to be motivated by fairness more than thrill (dream…).. and the attendance is us 🙂 And individually, we need to use the most efficient combination of heart and brain, without loosing the perception of the global picture : kind of challenging… but why not ?

  • bertrand

    I made a shortcut in the previous comment. The link with Sten’s post being the question of the accuracy of the decision : why focusing on such charity helping kids in this country rather than another… and behind this decision, there is the amount and quality of information I could have gotten through news (mainly).
    The problem is that the decider (people with less fortune i.e. the average citizen) is not a passive receiver of the news. And “wonder of the web”, I find this study that gives an interesting insight on the gap existing between “standard users” (does such thing exist ? 😉 ) and professional journalists while evaluating the importance of an information to be (or not) diffused.
    http://www.journalism.org/node/7493
    For those who are french speaking, the previous study led to an interesting post of Francis Pisani :
    http://pisani.blog.lemonde.fr/2007/10/05/a-quoi-ca-sert-lactu/
    A few steps later, world-news may become a rich conversation…