Return on Donation

An argument that Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson present in their book The Elephant in the Brain is that when we donate to charity, we are signaling to others how caring and generous we are as humans. The actual good that our donation will do is secondary to being the kind of person who is caring enough and generous enough to help out with what ever cause we donate toward. It is not, the authors argue, the suffering of other people or creatures that we are concerned about, it is whether or not we think of ourselves and are seen by others as the kind of person who cares about it.

 

Simler and Hanson write, “Occasionally, we’re even happy to donate without knowing the most basic facts about a charity, like what its purpose is or how donations will be spent. “Within two weeks of Princess Diana’s death in 1997,” writes Geoffrey Miller, “British people had donated over 1 billion pounds to the Princess of Wales charity, long before the newly established charity had any idea what the donations would be used for, or what its administrative overheads would be.” When we analyze donation as an economic activity, it soon becomes clear how little we seem to care about the impact of our donations. Whatever we’re doing, we aren’t trying to maximize ROD [return on donation].”

 

If we were very concerned about making sure that we made a difference in the world with any money we donate, then we would take steps to ensure that our donation was going to make a difference. We would want to see a spreadsheet showing how the foundation used our money. We would want to know how many people were helped and in what way. We would want to know how much money went to the salaries of the employees of the charity, what money was spent on office furniture, and how much money was simply used as fixed office costs that didn’t benefit the cause we wanted to support.

 

Instead, the charities we donate to very rarely present any information along these lines. Our donations and charity are something we feel in our hearts, not something we think about in a rational way. Effective Altruists have argued that if you want to actually make a difference you can feel good about, if you actually want to show that you are a caring person, you should make an effort to understand how much good your donation is doing. We act as if that is why we donate, but then we don’t do any of the things (most of the time) that would support the argument that we care. A much more simple explanation of our donations is that we want to look good and feel good internally about our generous and charitable behavior, even when our generosity and charity is effectively wasted on organizations that are ineffective.

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