ATM Book Club Week 9 (Chapter 8)

I’m running an informal book club devoted to All the Money in the World here on the blog. You can start at any time; there are links to past weeks’ discussions at the bottom of this post.

Chapter 8 is called “The Selfish Joy of Giving.” Broadly, it looks at the intersection of philanthropy and happiness, and specifically gets at the topic through the lens of microphilanthropy. This is the trend in the non-profit space for organizations to try to create a connection between donors and recipients. On Global Giving, for instance, you choose a cause you find compelling, and can give at a level that is associated with a specific image. A $25 donation pays for school books for six girls in India. That sort of thing. (You can read a USA Today column I wrote about the topic here: “Microphilanthropy is changing the face of charity“; you can listen to me on NPR talking about it here).

There is much to like about the trend, though much not to like about the trend, too. For starters, your money is often not actually buying those bags of maize you see on a website. Microphilanthropy has a tendency to favor the most articulate or photogenic among those in need, and there are efficiency arguments, too. In the chapter, I write about an organization called Family-to-Family, which (among other things) has families pack up groceries for other families in need. It’s a great way to feel connected, but if you think about it, families buying groceries and paying retail is not a very efficient way to solve hunger. Except…what is a good way to solve hunger? Our government has been fighting a War on Poverty for decades, spending billions more than any charity will raise, and still hasn’t conquered hunger. So what can a non-profit do? Making donors feel connected to the problem, and helping some families, isn’t a bad start. I maintain that when donors feel connected, they give more, even when times are tight. That’s why individual giving didn’t fall that much, even as the economy cratered from 2008-2009.

So, despite some misgivings, I do think that giving does kind of have to be about the giver’s happiness. And the good news is that giving does make us happy. Humans are social creatures, and research has found that “pro-social” spending — that is, spending on gifts or charity — makes us happier than spending money on ourselves. It creates social ties. A strong social network is highly correlated with happiness. This is one reason that tithing tends to make people happy. You’re giving the bulk of your donations to your place of worship, where it helps create a community that in turn supports you.

Anyway, on to this week’s discussion question! I also talk about “random acts of microphilanthropy” — small instances of spending money on other people. Which act do you remember best, and why? What compelled you to do it?  On my way to the All the Money in the World book launch party, I passed by a woman asking for money in Penn Station. This is nothing unusual. There are armies of folks asking for money in Penn Station. I also know one is not supposed to give money in train stations and subways (the MTA even had a campaign along those lines for a while, “give to charity, just not here.”) But this particular woman had a small child with her. I cannot imagine sitting in Penn Station with my two-year-old, asking people for money. So I gave her $20.

I’ve pondered since if this was the right thing to do. On one hand, I know that kids by their nature tug at your heartstrings. It is the great horror of travel in the developing world to have children come up to you and beg. Their parents send them out because they are more compelling, though of course giving them money means people keep doing it, rather than sending their children to school or to learn more useful skills. It would be best for everyone if the woman in Penn Station could somehow be connected with NYC social services. But, in the meantime, there she was. Should I have given her the cash? And if I should, should I have given her more? 

Links to previous weeks:

ATM Book Club Week 1 (intro)

ATM Book Club Week 2 (Chapter 1)

ATM Book Club Week 3 (Chapter 2)

ATM Book Club Week 4 (Chapter 3)

ATM Book Club Week 5 (Chapter 4)

ATM Book Club Week 6 (Chapter 5)

ATM Book Club Week 7 (Chapter 6)

ATM Book Club Week 8 (Chapter 7)

photo courtesy flickr user 401k

9 thoughts on “ATM Book Club Week 9 (Chapter 8)

  1. This is an area where I am incredibly invested: my husband runs the local wing of a social services non-profit that serves homeless families and my latest book, A Necklace of Virtues, explores what would inspire a princess to give up her treasures to help those less fortunate. I want my children to recognize that even though we are far below the 1% in our county, we still have the ability to dramatically change the lives of those in our neighborhoods and around the world.
    Last night, I attended an evening fundraiser at a home with a view of the Pacific where drinks were served on a bar made from the front end of a Bentley. Tickets were $125 a piece and the receiving organization touted that 94% of funds raised went directly to programming. People were pleased with that number but what inspired the oohs and awws was when a volunteer spoke up about serendipitously delivering food to a woman who was part of the “working poor” but couldn’t afford food at the end of the month.
    When people feel personally connected to a problem, they give and feel better for it. When people can spend time with their friends in an atmosphere where people are giving, they give more and feel better for it. We are social creatures as you have said and giving, particularly in the context of a community, can be incredibly fulfilling.

    Several years ago after hearing a very interesting lecture, I totally changed my policy toward buskers. If someone asks, I give. I know the MTA or Trader Joes or whoever may not appreciate it, but I’ve come to a place where I’m very aware of my inability to judge a person in a 10-second interaction. If they are asking, even if I’m pretty sure they’re on the way to buy beer/drugs/comic books–it’s my responsibility to recognize their humanity and respond one way or the other. And if that’s the case, I’ll let them be responsible for their own actions and be willing to be held accountable for mine–so I give.

    1. @Calee- This is starting to become my thinking too. If someone is asking for money, they have a reason to do so. The debate Family-to-Family had is one that’s common in the non-profit world. Are you trying to solve a very specific problem (these 500 families are running out of food during the last week of the month) which you can actually, effectively solve, or are you trying to solve a systemic issue? (Why are people hungry in the US?) The lure of the latter, of course, is making a big social impact. We also have a lot of phrases along the lines of “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” But it turns out to be difficult to teach people to fish. It might not work. And in the meantime, they’re still hungry. It’s a tough question.

  2. I think what most needy people really need isn’t money, but an investment of time. Once my kids are older, if I’m able to find a job with flexible hours, I hope to volunteer with our local CASA (court appointed special advocate) program. Many of the problems of the poor are due to previous and/or current poor choices. Hopefully by becoming personally, not just financially, involved, I can make more of a difference.

    This is a tough topic, because in general, there are significant differences in the behavioral choices between advantaged and disadvantaged people.

  3. Hi Laura,
    In reading your other post I saw you did a talk about money and freelancing. I am very interested in this topic since as of June 1st I will be freelancing full time. Do you think you might do a blog post on this topic? I would love to gain from your experience in this area.

  4. I think that a lot of us can afford to do both. My husband and I carefully select four or five charities and send big checks to them each year. But I also will give directly some times. For instance, I was downtown for jury duty last week, and a young woman stopped me and said she was pregnant and hungry and had finally scraped together enough money to take a bus home to her home state, but didn’t have any money for food. Could I give her a few dollars? I gave her $20, which was all I had in my wallet at that time. I couldn’t tell for sure if she was pregnant, but so what? Maybe she was going to go and spend the money on something other than food, but my gut told me she was telling the truth, and if that was the case, she needed that $20 far more than I did. She didn’t need a referral to the local homeless shelter. She had a solution to her problem and was trying to execute it, so why not just give her a little help? If I was wrong… well, I’ve wasted $20 on other, less noble things. I wear $300 sunglasses, for god’s sake. Like Calee said, I refuse to stop acknowledging other people’s basic humanity. In general, I feel worse about the times I walk by and don’t try to help than the times when I do help. I’m still bothered by the memory of a woman I saw holding up a sign at an intersection near my house, saying she was escaping an abusive relationship and needed money for a bus ride home. I wish I’d stopped and given her some money. And by the older man who came to my door once wanting to do odd jobs for money. I wish I’d given him some, too. So I’ve decided to be less hard-hearted. That made sense when I was in college and scraping by. It doesn’t make sense now.

  5. It would seem if they are asking it is the right thing to give something.. even if it is food or whatever… Also you can give information… I know of a chuch in our area . I gave my friend who just lost her job my extra yoga video… and it made me happy and didn’t cost me anything and increases our ties (my husband works sats and she is single mom so guess who keeps me and my kids company on sat morning outings) also did you know that the wealthiest exporter in US is CHinese woman who sells people’s paper and garbage..t hat would be cool to figure out a way to sell your garbage or batteries and directly give that to folks in need..

  6. I’ve stopped handing out cash to people waiting at freeway exits or busy intersections because I read a story about how folks in our area tend to get a bus to the “more affluent” parts of town just to panhandle because they can make 100s of dollars a day, and there are also groups of people who get together on who holds the sign and they split the cash, often taking advantage of each other (esp women and older folks).

    Which isn’t to say these folks don’t need help – I think they’re still mostly homeless, but it just seems sketchy to me. So I tend to concentrate my local donations to our food bank instead.

    We also have a pretty big Giving Campaign at work where they conveniently do payroll deduction and matching so we choose a few organizations each year to make bigger gifts, and we also gift our parents charity donations instead of “stuff” for birthdays and holidays.

    I hate that I’m so cynical about giving out cash but I just can’t get past that.

    1. I tend to agree. At some point, panhandling becomes a science as to what stories people respond to. Not to minimize those people’s needs, whatever they may be, but being in a tight financial place myself right now after having started a business last September, I have to ensure my dollars go to the highest good right now.

      I am not able to give as much to charity right now as I have in years past, but having worked as Executive Director of two non-profits and serving on the board of four of them, I am a firm believer in giving of my time to offset my financial contribution. However people choose to donate, it is just important to do so in whatever way possible for them.

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