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:
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?