Blog Reaction: Philanthropy and Guilt

Yesterday, I saw a twitter headline in my TweetDeck that read, The Guilt of the Social Investor, from the Tactical Philanthropy Advisors blog. Naturally, I followed the info trail and was surprised to be directed to a February blog post by Martin Brookes of New Philanthropy Capital (NPC) titled, I admit it, I'm guilty of wasting charitable funds. Gasp! Before I reached over my desk to phone the social investing police, I read the blog further to come to terms with Brookes' admission. His guilt is linked to his knowledge and experience in philanthropy and social investing, and the research conducted at NPC on certain charities. His crime, in his own words: “it was charitable giving to make me feel good, not charitable giving for public benefit.

Brookes also questions the degree of accountability that donors should be asked to bear when making donations and also the degree to which donors share this responsibility with the charitable sector—the industry charged with providing crucial information for charity effectiveness. As I pondered these questions, it was then that I realized, “I'm guilty, too!” See below for my comments on his blog:

Expectations. The reasoning behind this kind of guilt makes me wonder about what we as a society have learned to expect from these “random acts of kindness” or RAOK. (There is even an unofficial day for RAOK in February.) Just the other day I gave money to a woman on the street because a few days prior, I'd heard her screaming at the top of her lungs out of madness. Do I plan to follow-up with her and ask how she spent the $8 dollars that I had in my pocket? No. Martin, do you plan to follow-up with the Donkey Sanctuary and ask that they report to you how your adoption money and gifts are being spent? Or do you just have the expectation that your relatively small gift is just another “drop in the bucket” with a big hole in the bottom?

What do we learn about expectations when giving? Aren't we taught that altruism is to be practiced WITHOUT expectation? That's what I was taught. So, yes, I understand your dilemma when you say that the impact of every individual who makes irrational giving decisions regardless of how big or how small their gift is, contributes to the overall problem of wasteful donations. But perhaps there is a larger lesson to be taught and to be learned about generosity and philanthropy. It doesn't have to be random, or done out of guilt, or as a gamble. If we donated each month, the same way we pay our utility bills, perhaps, we would then expect that the service we donate to will provide evidence of our monthly investment.

I'm curious to know what others think, as I realize my views are not that of everyone else's and especially because I have an American perspective and am not privy to other cultures' thoughts/attitudes on giving.

You can read various other comments from different perspectives here and here. And now, after responding to the first part of Sean Stannard-Stockton's twitter shout: What do you think about social investor guilt?, I'll take an initial crack at answering his second question: What do “I'm Not Rockefeller's” think? Rather than speak on behalf of anyone, I will instead make a few inferences from the 2008 Noonan, et al. study, I'm Not Rockefeller: 33 High Net Worth Philanthropists Discuss Their Approach to Giving.

First of all, after running a document search for the word “guilt” or “guilty” in the pdf document, I found “0” instances. Secondly, the majority of the participants' decision criteria for giving was influenced by their peers and not necessarily by “bang for the buck.” See quote below from the authors:

The majority of HNWP participants, however, seemed reluctant to inquire about specific costs before making an initial or repeat gift (“I think you can drive yourself nuts trying to quantify this stuff”). This seemed implicitly, if not explicitly, related to the fact that HNWP participants did not want their giving activities to feel like work.

Lastly, when I conducted a document search for the word “expect,” I came up with “8” instances. See one quote below from an interviewee:

“We’re not like some of the foundations and the government where they give you a little bit of money and they expect you to turn out all of these results.”

I'm still curious as to how others perceive emotional and or irrational giving that makes people feel good. Why is guilt involved? Is it possible to separate this emotion from acts of charity and philanthropy? Is it a case for more education which can possibly lead to behavioral change in how we as a society think about and practice charity? These are just my initial thoughts and feelings and do not reflect the overall views of the Center but I wanted to bring this discussion up for debate.