Give For, Don’t Give Against

This time of year, as long as you have a landline or a steady mailing address, you get a lot of pleas for donations from non-profits, (I just got off the phone with someone calling from a phone bank in Phoenix, asking for my help in Ending Breast Cancer), and I’ll share an idea I’ve had about what philanthropy is good for and not good for.

That is, any philanthropic organization is going to find itself redirecting resources to advocating its continued relevance and importance. This created an obvious problem for organizations set up to End Racism or End Poverty, since they require Racism and Poverty to exist in order to keep the lights on. What’s bad for the nation is good for The Nation (as a slogan at the liberal magazine goes) and I’m sure that Trump’s election has been good news for the SPLC. I’ve heard that Teen Pregnancy Prevention programs are in dire financial straits, now that long-acting birth control and Snapchat have largely ended Teen Pregnancy.

If you think most problems of rich countries are simply hard to solve without unexpected cultural shifts or hard-to-accelerate technological advances (rather than just requiring more resources to solve), a conclusion that seems appealing to me is that you should give money for rather than giving money against. You should give to what you want more of, not what you want to stop or prevent. This is, after all, what the most successful non-profits of the past two centuries, the premiere American Universities, have done- leveraged alumni’s fond feelings about their alma maters to build new Ivy-covered buildings and enormous tax-free hedge funds.

I of course am not urging you to give money to any rich university: they have far too much. But I do think you should give your money to institutions you like and want to support and help grow, even if their ostensible purpose is to address poverty or other kinds of need. Give to a soup kitchen you think does a good job sheltering and feeding homeless people rather than giving money to End Homelessness. Give to an inner city arts organization that does cool murals and photography classes with poor kids rather than to an organization that thinks it’s going to Close the Opportunity Gap.

This is almost the reverse of the Effective Altruist idea that we can Target Funds to the most evidence-based interventions, finding the One Weird Trick that will heal the Wounded Land. It’s not that Weird Tricks don’t appear  from time to time (I mean, bread mold pretty much ended infectious disease), but nonprofits are generally institutionally ill-suited to accelerating this process, a thousand Ted Talks nonwithstanding. In the meantime, most of our problems as a nation are just not going to go away in any kind of permanent way, but they can be ameliorated, and the civil society made slightly more humane, the cities slightly less ugly and unkind. And for that, you want to give for, rather than giving against.

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