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:
photo courtesy flickr user 401k