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Your Charity Choices are Too Touchy-Feely

This is a summary of insights from the webinar, "How to be Great at Doing Good." It was originally published on Medium. The recording of the webinar can be accessed here

The way we typically decide which charitable causes to support is unscientific and fueled by emotion.

Think about it.

The last time you donated your money or time, why did you do it? Because a friend asked you to help? Or because you had some other personal connection to the cause?

It is highly unlikely that you made the decision based on how efficiently the charity achieves its goals or the total number of people it is helping.

The good news is — it’s not just you. We pretty much all make charitable decisions this way. But therein lies the problem, according to a recent talk by Nick Cooney, author of How to Be Great at Doing Good.

People make charity decisions based on what feels good and not necessarily based on which charity does the most good. To maximize our social impact, we have to change that response, Cooney says.

Step Away from the Emotions

Granted it’s not so easy. In fact, training ourselves to make charity less emotional is kind of like breaking an addition. A 2006 NIH study found that when people gave money to causes of their choice it activated the same pleasure parts of the brain that light up when one is enjoying food or sex.

“The danger is that just as once we’ve had really delicious food or used certain drugs, we remember the pleasurable rush we got from doing those things and it makes us crave more of it,” Cooney said.

As noted above, people tend to give to causes they have a personal connection with or are connected to their community. While these proclivities are understandable, doing more good, requires that we train ourselves to make personal charitable decisions based on data rather than pure emotion, according to Cooney.

Just take a look at the difference between the Make a Wish Foundation and the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, which provides treatment for the neglected tropical disease schistosomiasis.

  • Make a Wish — spends about $20,000 for each wish experience
  • Schistosomiasis Control Initiative — spends $1 in program costs for each child that it spares from a month-long bout with schistosomiasis

Of course, Make a Wish is a much easier sell than schistosomiasis. Most of us reading this probably know a kid who had cancer or know someone who did. Few of us likely know anyone affected by schistosomiasis. Yet with Make a Wish, $20,000 will give ONE kid an amazing experience. While $20,000 given to SCI will prevent 20,000 kids from suffering from debilitating, painful illness.

In that case, the choice should be simple, according to Cooney’s calculus. When it comes to charity “we are paying far, far more than we need to for the good we are accomplishing.”

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