The Guilt of the Social Investor

Once upon a time, people gave to charity to relieve their guilt. People felt guilty that they had more than other people and so they “gave back” to repay their debt to society.

Then social investors came along and decided to change all that. They insisted that their giving was not intended to discharge a moral obligation. Instead, they were making proactive “investments” meant to generate positive “social returns”. These social investors were operating higher up in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as they sought self actualization rather than the more lowly need of being accepted by their community.

But then something strange happened. Social investors began to experience a new kind of guilt. And now, putting the sarcasm aside, we turn to Martin Brookes. Martin is the CEO of New Philanthropy Capital. I admire Martin and his firm very much. But recently, he posted an entry to the New Philanthropy Capital blog that typified the emerging guilt complex of the social investor.

Martin, who has long pointed to fact that donkey sanctuaries in the UK (where he’s based) have long received far more donations than charities that work to end domestic violence, wrote the following:

I admit it, I’m guilty of wasting charitable funds

By Martin Brookes

I need to confess to a misallocation of charitable funds, as well as a flouting of my own personal rules. In short, I gave some money to an animal charity.

Recently, I wrote a blog post about why I don’t give to animal charities. This argued, in essence, that giving money to (say) donkey sanctuaries rather than domestic violence charities represented a misallocation of charitable funds, and that this is wrong.

On holiday in Cyprus last week, my five year-old daughter Alice asked to go to the local donkey sanctuary. I couldn’t resist and she ended up having a fine time walking and grooming Popeye and Lorraine, (Alice and Popeye are pictured), two aged and well looked after donkeys. She then asked to adopt Lorraine, which we duly did, handed over more money by way of donation and bought several gifts.

This broke all my rules about charities. The only compensation is that it makes me feel like a better dad. But it was charitable giving to make me feel good, not charitable giving for public benefit.

To make matters worse for me, the donkey sanctuary in Cyprus is funded by The Donkey Sanctuary here in the UK, the very charity NPC used for the comparison with domestic violence charities. The most recent published figures show The Donkey Sanctuary had an annual expenditure of £19.6 million in the year to September 2008. Reserves were £37.1 million. That is, to put it mildly, rather a lot. After my visit, that reserves figure is now a tiny bit higher.

After my visit to the donkey sanctuary, I felt good as a parent, but bad as a donor. Alice feels marvelous and is inseparable from her picture of Lorraine, but that is not a sensible charitable objective…

I’m all for social investing. My take on effective philanthropy, what I call Tactical Philanthropy, makes no mention of making donations to donkey charities to make your child happy. But I think that guilt, whether the traditional guilt that comes from noticing inequity or the neo-guilt of the non-optimized social investor, is one of the worst emotions to drive charitable giving.

Here was my response to Martin:

Martin, with all due respect, your guilt around this is crazy. Under your logic, we should all feel guilty about all of our giving that does not go to the single best charity in the world. Under this logic we should all feel bad that we spend a penny on anything discretionary. Under this logic, we should all feel permanently anguished by the fact we don’t spend every waking moment focused on the needs of others.

You did a great thing for your daughter. She had a moment of feeling empathy for someone else. As a five-year-old, that’s a big developmental moment (I know, I have a four and six-year-old). And in that moment, when she felt the most fundamental emotion that drives all of philanthropy, her father stepped up, fought back the analytical monster in his mind who insisted that this was an illogical allocation of philanthropic resources and demonstrated that empathy (for your daughter) was more important to you then satisfying your own needs to feel logical in your giving.

You should be damn proud, Martin. Your actions exemplified the very best of the human urge to care for others. Without that urge, the work of New Philanthropy Capital would be pointless.

Yes, the way the situation mapped to the example you use to highlight the importance of analytical philanthropy is ironic. But it is this very irony and your awareness of it that makes your support for your daughter’s empathetic urge so tangible.

Be proud of yourself, Martin. You’re a great philanthropist.

Martin responded here with a thank you for my compliment to him, but an insistence that he was guilty as charged. What do you think? Was Martin’s support of the donkey sanctuary a betrayal of his social investing ideals or was it a heroic parental act? What role does and should guilt play in philanthropy? As we become more and more aware of the inefficiencies in the charitable sector, what obligation do we have to direct all of our giving towards righting those inefficiencies even if doing so draws us away from the emotions that drive our giving?


  1. Dan Elitzer says:

    Rather than look at Martin’s gift as a betrayal of his social investment ideals, I think it is more productive to see it as a positive act of consumption and parenting. Instead of viewing his donation to the donkey sanctuary as replacing a more effective act of philanthropy, look at it as replacing the purchase of a toy or movie or other consumer product or service unconnected to charity. Certainly the joy he and his daughter received from his donation to the animal sanctuary was more “meaningful” than an equivalent amount of joy from some non-philanthropic activity.

    Sean, I agree that the logical conclusion of Martin’s line of thinking would be that “we should all feel bad that we spend a penny on anything discretionary.” Inequality and injustice would cease to exist if we all felt compelled by the same moral compass that directs Martin. Unfortunately, we don’t all feel that way, and it is unproductive for people like Martin to spend too much time self-flagellating over such matters. Denying ourselves all “unnecessary” comforts does not lead to a mental state in which we are suited to effect good works on a larger scale. Granted, we all need to find the right balance for ourselves between absolute hedonism and strict abstention, but wasting too much time ruminating on the subject just prevents us from moving on with the important work we have to do.

    To Sean’s larger questions about the role of guilt in the nonprofit sector and the obligation to right inefficiencies vs. giving with our emotions, I saw we need to be aware of the role of guilt and other emotions (both rational and irrational) and better understand how they affect giving. Network for Good and Sea Change Strategies recently put out a fantastic (and free) ebook by Katya Andresen, Alia McKee, and Mark Rovner, which uses learnings from the discipline of behavioral economics to help explain why people so often make irrational decisions, especially when it comes to charity. The title is Homer Simpson for Nonprofits, and you can download it here: It offers actionable steps for nonprofits to better align their communications and fundraising strategies with the way people actually make decisions, not the way we think they SHOULD make decisions. One of the principals discussed in the book is the relative strength of social norms over market norms. If we deny the role emotions play in philanthropy, we step away from effectiveness, not towards it. Rather than beat ourselves up when we give “inefficiently,” let’s strive to direct that energy to better understanding what led us to make that irrational choice and how we can better help our rationally preferred causes take advantage of the factors that drove us to give to our emotionally preferred cause.

  2. Maya Norton says:

    Thanks, Sean and Martin, for this interesting conversation and letting us be a part of it.

    I do wonder about the shifting role of guilt-giving in new versus old philanthropy. By that I mean, defining “new philanthropy” as more donors giving smaller amounts, often online, with greater interest in hands-on guidance for how their gifts are used, with less willingness to pay overhead or fund the infrastructure of supporting organizations. (Some of that is an extension of the standard definition, but I’m allowing for leeway in my use of the term.) New philanthropy is strategic, global, and ambitious. It strives to make practical, tangible differences and its agents are less willing to pay for what they consider “extras.”

    In this way, the traditional role between the philanthropist and the foundation that oversees the programming is transformed into a relationship that has much more of a producer-consumer mentality. There is less guilt because if the new philanthropist does not like the “product,” s/he does not purchase it.

    I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

    All the best,

    ~ Maya

    The New Jew: Blogging Jewish Philanthropy

  3. Simone Rones says:

    Assuming that Mr. Brookes must view his donation to the donkey sanctuary as a charitable gift and not as an entertainment/travel expense, he might want to consider making a distinction between 1) feeling guilty for supporting the donkey sanctuary because it is an extremely well-funded group given its existing capacity and 2) feeling guilty for supporting the donkey sanctuary because it helps animals and does not help with what he mentions as the higher-priority issue of domestic violence. I can understand feeling guilty for the first reason (personally, I do tend to feel some guilt when I donate to an organization in which my marginal donation does not have a measurable impact), whereas I do not think he should feel guilty for the second reason, because the two issues (animal sanctuaries and domestic violence) do in fact overlap. The donkey sanctuary is clearly teaching children the importance of kindness to animals, and although I am not aware of a longitudinal study measuring the impact of this lesson, I do know that there is a growing body of research that shows a strong correlation between *cruelty* to animals and domestic violence (see e.g., Therefore, it is possible that by promulgating kindness instead of cruelty, the donkey sanctuary may actually be helping prevent domestic violence in the future. This should assuage at least some of Mr. Brookes’ guilt over making the donation.

  4. Chip McComb says:

    Wow! Thanks for bringing up such a weighty issue. As a father and an employee at a Global not-for-profit, I feel the weight of the same situation acutely.

    I commend Martin for seeking to adhere to his ideals, and honor as a blogger and philanthropist, however, I agree with Dan’s comment. Martin’s philanthropic giving wasn’t purely philanthropic, the dynamics of the situation changed when his daughter fell in love with one of those stinky 4 legged beasts. Therefore his gift to the donkey was in reality a gift to his daughter, even thought Martin could see the bigger picture and his daughter could not.

    The challenging issue that I would like to address is the need for us to instill upon our children and the next generation, that giving should not be and cannot be consumerist in nature. (Did Martin’s daughter feel like she donated to the donkey’s or did she feel like she “adopted” a donkey) I fear that as micro giving, and mobile giving becomes more and more prevalent the attitude of those that give, could shift dangerously to think that all giving should be as easy and as pleasing as buying a coke or a big mac, and when it’s not easy or pleasing, it is therefore not worth their time or expense. What a dangerous trap!

    But then again confronting this attitude is the job of parents, not of philanthropists.

  5. Dan, Maya and Chip,
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    I think Dan is right that behavioral economics gives us some clues as to how to harness rather than change the “irrational” behavior that characterizes most human action.

    Maya, I think the social return on investment concept that drives “new” philanthropy does change the equation so that the donor “gets something” for the donation and therefore guilt isn’t the driving force. Put differently, guilt is relived by the act of giving, while “new” philanthropy’s payoff is from impact.

    Chip, I took Martin to task, but I think his post was fantastic. Surfacing these kinds of emotions and working to understand them is critical to the development of our field.

  6. Sean,

    There are many motivations for charitable giving, and one of the best books that identified the most important ones is “The Seven Faces of Philanthropy” by Russ Alan Prince and Karen Maru File. While it focuses on major gift donors I have found the framework to be valuable at all levels, including at the annual fund and workplace giving arenas.

    The book gets my prize for “best summation of a book by just reading the chapter titles, and here they are:

    Part I – Profiling the Seven Faces of Philanthropy
    1. The Communitarian – Doing Good Makes Sense
    2. The Devout—Doing Good is God’s Will
    3. The Investor—Doing Good is Good Business
    4. The Socialite—Doing Good is Fun
    5. The Altruist—Doing Good Feels Right
    6. The Repayer – Doing Good in Return
    7. The Dynast – Doing Good is a Family Tradition

    The only one I would add is that there is a special motivation when a neighbor or friend (or their child) makes a face to face soliciation, whether it is to support the local high school band or the local animal shelter.

    Too much of the current fund raising literature presumes that there is only one motivation for giving, and that is simply not true. In my opinion, Martin did not betray his social investing ideals, nor was it a heroic parental act, he was simply being a good dad.


    Bill Huddleston

  7. Bill, Seven Faces is a great book. I understand that new research is currently being conducted that is designed to build on and update Seven Faces (which was published in 1994. A lot has changed since then and it will be interesting to see if the new research captures the motivations of people like Martin.