Archive for December, 2012

When paying for items at a store, sometimes an employee (or the self-checkout computer) will ask the customer if they want to donate to a particular charity.  This is some major pressure, because it is hitting on these near-niceness signaling desires that are such a huge part of our brainware.

While you have your bank card out, the nice employee smiles and asks “would you like to donate $3 to feed the hungry?”  They see that you have already spent $200 on groceries, including organic vegetables, alaskan king crab, and speciality cheese.  What kind of a selfish monster would not spend just $3 to feed starving children?  Even if you only bought essential budget items, you cannot spare a few dollars?

A lot of people probably say yes to the donation.  They get to feel good about whatever cause they contributed to and for appearing to be a nice person to the employee (and/or whoever is shopping with them).  The company benefits by being able to brag about how much money they raised for the charity.  The charity wins by getting a big donation.  So win-win-win, right?

Which charity?

Most people have some preferences in terms of which causes they care more about (e.g., cancer, environment) and what qualities the charities possess (e.g., effectiveness, efficiency, visibility of outcomes).  In addition, the amount of money that each person could potentially donate to charity varies and is not unlimited.  Thus, given preferences and finite resources, some people might not be very enthused about having other people try to pressure them into donating to non-preferred charities.  I have my favorites. You have yours.  Why should I try to pressure you into donating to mine or vice versa?

Charity has large social component

If I walked up to you and said “will you give me $20 so that I can donate it to my favorite charity?,” you would probably think that that was a strange and inappropriate request.  But if I make that request more social, it becomes socially acceptable (and even encouraged).  For example, I could say “I’m running in a 10K for Alzheimer’s research.  My father had Alzheimer’s.   It’s such a terrible disease.  I’m looking for people to sponsor me.”   Here it was made personal by citing my father.  By donating, you are showing me that you care about how tough it was for me and my dad.  Also, it is social by participating in a run with many other people.  People getting together to build a house is directly related to charity.  But people getting together to walk or run? Why?  Apparently, the social component greatly increases donations (or these events wouldn’t exist).  We love to get together with other people to feel like we are all in supporting this cause together.  We like to contribute to such activities.  (although I suspect if the charity event was “everyone dig a large hole and then fill it back up again,” it wouldn’t get as much support.  It would feel more pointless than a run for some reason (even though they are both exercise and exercise only))

The end result is you got somebody to donate their money to your preferred charity.  There is an understanding that you might return the favor, which has the feel of reciprocal altruism, but sort of is not (‘not,’ in the sense that person A could have just donated double the money to their own charity and none to person B’s, and vice versa, and the outcome would be the same).  This sort of fake reciprocal altruism really demonstrates the extent to which it’s social.  I donate to yours, you donate to mine, and we both bond with each other over it and feel great.


With that as background, when an employee asks me if I want to donate to a particular charity, these are the thoughts that flash in my head:

  • I don’t know anything about this charity.  Maybe it does more harm than good.  There are plenty of charities that fall into that category (unintended consequences and all that).
  • Even if it does more good than harm, I’m sure there are more effective and efficient charities out there.  I could take that (e.g.) $3 and spend it on one of (e.g.) GiveWell’s recommended charities.
  • I can’t help but resent the fact that a store is putting me in a position of either donating to their charity of choice (rather than mine), or looking like I want kids to starve.
  • I don’t want to encourage this kind of social pressure. I feel bullied.
  • Some people can’t afford to donate even a few dollars to charity.  It probably harms them to ask for a donation (they might experience shame or guilt).
  • But maybe I’m just rationalizing.  Maybe I won’t take that $3 and donate to my favorite charity.  Maybe I really just want to keep the money for myself and am using these arguments to justify doing so.  I know that if I could push a button and donate to a charity that has been proven effective (at something I care about), I would do it right now.  But realistically, I’ll go home and forget about this and not donate.
  • I know that this is mostly just a social thing.  Why can’t I just play along and feel good that I signaled caring?  Maybe if a lot of people say yes to the $3, the employees will feel like there are a lot of caring people in the world, and they will feel better about humanity (that’s worth something).
  • It really could be that the policy of stores like these leads to more total charitable donations, and even if the charities aren’t the most efficient, there is a net benefit (over the counterfactual world where no stores try to pressure people to donate)
  • But I really don’t think that this is the best way to distribute money to causes.  Is there reason to believe that the people making these decisions for businesses are better than the public at picking out good charities?

(that is a very good summary of my thought process.  my life is endless debates with myself about all kinds of things. is this common I wonder?)

I do not know how to estimate which potential world is better.  There are reasonable arguments on both sides.  I will probably continue to just say no to these requests (primarily because I want to discourage social pressure), but I do not know if I am net helping or harming the world.

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