Monday, December 14, 2009

Generosity Abounds

or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Emotions

I recently had a (kind of) discussion with Sasha Dichter about his proposal for a month-long "Generosity Experiment," where he decides to give to whomever asks him, whether they be family, friends, organizations, or just people on the street. My initial reaction was "AHH! NOO! STOP!" I was able to recompose myself and offer this more timid and respectful response:
I’m not sure if I support this. What would you say to someone who told you to buy anything anyone offered you? Your generosity experiment is the same concept, but instead of buying a product, your donations are going to a service: change within the charity’s area of focus.
I don’t want most of the products out there and I don’t want to support most of the charities out there. I have no issue with other people supporting those charities, assuming that they have a good reason to. I just don’t think “because they asked me” is a good enough reason.
Basic social investment stuff. Dichter responded with this:
Jeff, solid points all, and aligned with why I try to be very discriminating most of the time. What about the personal angle of generosity as a practice?
I was not placated. I responded with this:
I think being generous as a practice is a wonderful thing, be it personal, professional, or casual, but we have to remember who is being helped by our giving. I feel like its irrelevant what we learn about ourselves through giving when looking at the broader goal in mind, i.e., helping others. If our donation to the homeless man on the street could have been better used at an organization that provides services to the homeless, then our money should go there. If it is actually better spent by giving it to the homeless person, then it should go there. But determining that takes discernment and thought, and not indiscriminate generosity.
This discussion (as well as the other comments on the post) represent the tension between giving with your head and giving with your heart, or as I've usually thought about it, the difference between social investments and giving. I think I've always had a knee-jerk negative reaction to anyone who claims emotional reasons for his or her giving, because it's hard to work towards efficiency and build systems of accountability when people are just motivated by "doing a good thing," rather than "getting something done." I am not interested in people who are looking to "feel good" or for "personal growth" through service or giving, because ultimately, the people in the position to give are usually not the ones who need the help.

But that does not mean the emotional side of giving (or social investing) should be ignored. I think I've always assumed emotions have no place in effective philanthropy and anyone motivated by their emotions must be a do-gooder who doesn't understand what it takes to get things done. But emotional connections can be used to increase giving and to make connections between donors and organizations. And you can't dismiss the emotional toil that comes from seeing and working to change an imperfect world.

I think Philanthropedia's philosophy of “choosing a social cause with one’s heart, but choosing an organization with one’s mind” is the best way to combine the emotional side of giving with the scrutiny needed for social investments. It recognizes the emotions that are a part of any motivation to create change while still leaving room for accountability and effectiveness. It separates those out who are motivated by their emotions from the ones who act solely based on them.

I now realize that the heart does have a place in social investments. I don't know why I did think that before. Maybe its because, deep down inside, I'm afraid of my own feelings, or maybe its because I'm a cold-hard capitalist underneath it all. I still don't agree with Dichter's "Generosity Experiment" in practice, mostly because I don't have the income to support that, but in theory, it helped me see that emotions are a key part of social investments.


  1. I hadn't connected to the 'choose a cause with your heart and an organization (or a campaign) with your head' idea before, but it really resonates with me. I mean, there are so many causes in the world, and I certainly can't support all of them, and, moreover, there are some that I'm just not 'interested' in (for lack of a better word), as much, even if, logically, they're the best investment. But, in a context of scarce resources, wasted money is inexcusable in social change work, which is why we can't afford to skip all of the analytical work.

  2. Thanks for reading, Melinda, and for your response. I couldn't of said it better myself.