Charity: Should I Talk About It?

Follow up to: Joining GivingWhatWeCan and Why Don’t People Help Others More?

I’ve been writing a bit about giving to charity in the abstract from a detached psychological perspective, and I will definitely continue to do so as long as nice people keep asking me to. But I want to balance that by zooming in on myself, personally, and it seems appropriate now that we’re nearing in on the traditional “giving season”. So, what is my stake in all of this?

I give to charity. Indeed, after joining Giving What We Can, I’ve pledged to donate 10% of my income to whatever charity I find to be most effective in combating global poverty. However, there’s a bunch of people who would suggest that I’m being a bit rude and self-serving by boasting about all of this. Why can’t I just donate to charity privately, like everyone else? I’ll tell you why.


Challenging the Self-Interest Norm

This kind of response confuses me, so I want to lay my cards out on the table. In “Why Don’t People Help Others More?”, I survey some of the evidence demonstrating that people tend to greatly overestimate how self-interested everyone around them is, because no one is willing to do anything to show otherwise. Furthermore, lots of people tend to settle on these norms and donate about how much they expect everyone else to donate.

We seem forced by society to pretend to be self-interested, because we’re asked to not talk about our acts of kindness. But this only goes to re-enforce the deadly cycle. The only way to push ourselves out of this cycle is to demonstrate that some people do donate and push up this norm. And groups like GivingWhatWeCan, 80000 Hours, and BolderGiving are working on doing just that.

Personally, I’d have to agree that this works — I’m inspired by these stories, and I don’t think I would ever be donating 10%+ without a group that makes it seem like a completely normal and awesome thing to do.


Motivations and Fights for Status

Reflecting on the need to push up the norm to accurately reflect the giving nature of society, it seems like the pushback to privatize giving is harmful. And I think it is. But why does it come about in the first place? Robert Wiblin speculates that being public about giving calls your motivations into question. If you’re only motivated by compassion for those in need, why do you need to boast?

Well, of course, there’s an interest in raising the norm. But let’s assume that giving was really just a giant fight for status… would that be so bad? All else being equal, I prefer pure intention to that of giving just to prove to others, but competing for status via donation oneupmanship is considerably more useful than competing for status via bigger houses, bigger cars, and bigger flatscreen TVs.

Or rather, people still end up competing over their charitable contributions, but it comes in the forms of significantly less-effective (though still arguably worthwhile) charitable competition, like volunteering, building schools, or adopting African children. If, instead, we normalized people giving checks, at least more people could be helped while the status fight goes on.


General Publicizing

Lastly, many people want to leave the world in a better place than they found it, perhaps even going as far as wanting to do the best they can. To these people, I hope that the idea of donation, especially to effective causes in potentially large amounts ends up appealing. But if this cool idea is seen as “boastful”, it won’t catch on, and won’t get the publicity (I think) it deserves.

Moreover, people won’t be able to network together and share information about more cost-effective charities or the latest trends in development economics, because everyone will be keeping it to themselves, ending up being collectively self-defeating.

So is talking about donations too boastful? I think, for the sake of those the donations help, we can afford a little boasting in this one area.

Followed up in: Charity – How Much Should I Give?


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On 27 Nov 2012 in All, Me, Optimal Philanthropy, Utilitarianism. 2 Comments.


  1. #1 milly says:
    2 Dec 2012, 1:13 pm  

    I started to sponsor a child in the third world but Plan uk kept trying to get more and more money out of me until i just cancelled the arrangement.
    I hope they explained to the poor little child that its through their sheer greed that hes not going to get the help anymore.
    There are thousands of charities, each a good cause but once you start to donate, its never enough. Ive been on benefits for over a decade and dont need any charity to make me feel bad.
    They certainly need to rethink their strategy, maybe an preference option that i only want to help this child and thats enough. I would still be donating if they hadnt got so greedy.
    Save the seal,whale,donkey,polar bear,tiger,elephant, then its cancer,meningitis,leukaemia blah blah blah on and on.
    I told them i was on a limited budget but did that stop them asking for more?
    Ive had enough of charities. They just dont listen or learn.

  2. #2 Peter Hurford (author) says:
    6 Dec 2012, 12:09 am  

    I started to sponsor a child in the third world but Plan uk kept trying to get more and more money out of me until i just cancelled the arrangement.

    That’s unfortunate. I, myself, have had to deal with the question of how much to give, especially when I can always give more, which I answer in “Charity: How Much Should I Give?”.

    I do hope, however, you can find a non-greedy organization that does not pester you for more money.


    Save the seal,whale,donkey,polar bear,tiger,elephant, then its cancer,meningitis,leukaemia blah blah blah on and on.

    There are lots of possible causes, and we certainly can’t save them all, hence the idea of triage — figure out how many resources you can allocate toward helping, and then focus on doing as much as you can within that budget, focusing on the highest priority causes.

    A compelling example can be found with vision organizations — certainly people need seeing eye dogs, but those cost about $50,000. However, you can cure blindness in Africa for about $25 a person. Thus, with the same amount of resources, you can do 2000x as much good work! Hence, what Toby Ord calls a moral imperative toward cost-effectiveness.

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