Is There Just One Correct Way to Engage in #Philanthropy?

Peter Singer, a philosophy professor at Princeton University, seems to think there is just one correct way to engage in philanthropy. Not surprisingly, it’s his way, which he calls “Effective Altruism.”

While I agree with some of the elements of Effective Altruism, there are a number of points with which I disagree. Recently, both Singer and I had a chance to air some of our views on the national PBS program Religion and Ethics Newsweekly:

At the risk of providing you with a simplistic overview of Effective Altruism, here are some of its key elements and my concerns with them:

Donors should not make emotional decisions about philanthropy. They should devote serious thought and analysis when making giving decisions.

I agree that donors should make informed decisions, examine the efficiency and track record of charities, and understand how their gifts will be used. If more donors spent more time researching the charities they give to, there would likely be fewer fraudulent charities.

However, while donors should engage in more thoughtful, analytical giving — and many do — we should not ignore basic human nature and the findings of neuroscience research. It’s unreasonable to suggest philanthropic giving should be a solely intellectual exercise. The fact is that emotions are involved in almost every decision we humans make. This means, we need to give with both our heads and our hearts.

Individuals should seek to earn as much money as they can so they can donate more money than they otherwise could.

On the surface, this seems like a reasonable, worthwhile suggestion. However, in practice, this could create cultural and economic problems. For example, if everyone followed this advice, it could lead many charities to become understaffed, staffed with incompetent people, or having to take funds away from mission fulfillment in order to pay competitively much higher salaries.

Our society doesn’t just need lawyers and Wall Street traders, we need a diverse labor force, and we need people who will actually do good in addition to funding good.

Getting people to donate more does not just involve getting them to earn more. On average, Americans donate approximately two percent of personal income to charities. Without earning more, donors could certainly give more than the two percent average without having to make a serious sacrifice. The key is to inspire donors to want to do so. That’s where we get back to appealing to both hearts and minds.

Donors should give where it will do the most good.

Everyone who donates or volunteers their time wants to support effective organizations. But, how does Singer define “Effective”? It turns out he doesn’t just mean efficient and impactful. For Singer, effective is essentially synonymous with life-saving. Singer demonstrates this at The Life You Can Save, a website he founded, where all of the recommended charities focus on saving lives.

While saving lives is certainly noble, Singer doesn’t simply advocate for such charities. He ridicules donors who support charities that are not engaged in life-saving activities. Among his favorite targets are donors to the Make-a-Wish Foundation. He implies that people who donate to Make-a-Wish are guilty of murder since they do not, instead, give to a charity that buys mosquito nets to prevent malaria. You can read my analysis of a Singer anti-Make-a-Wish column here.

Actually, Singer himself is not always in favor of saving lives. For example, he has supported infanticide, what he calls “after-birth abortion.” Under certain circumstances, defined by Singer, he believes it is perfectly acceptable to murder babies. In Practical Ethics, he wrote:

Human babies are not born self-aware, or capable of grasping that they exist over time. They are not persons…. [Therefore,] the life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee.”

Singer’s support of infanticide, something embraced by the Nazi regime of the 1930s and ’40s, drew the ire of famed Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal who once wrote a strong letter of protest to a book fair that had invited Singer.

In part, Singer justifies his position based on what will achieve the greater good. Heroic medical efforts to save one baby could, instead, save many children. That might be the case. However, eugenics can lead a society down a very dangerous path. Where would we draw the line? Who gets to decide which babies live or die?

I suggest that saving lives is indeed important. However, we should also strive to enhance the quality of those lives and enable people to lift themselves from poverty. That means we need schools, universities, cultural offerings, and more. Not only do these other nonprofit entities enrich the lives of individuals, they stimulate and prepare those individuals to take steps that will benefit others, having a magnifying effect.

Ironically, while Singer opposes donations to well-financed charities and nonprofit organizations that do not save lives, he receives a salary resulting from just such a gift. Singer is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at the exceedingly well-endowed Princeton University. Furthermore, Singer had no problem promoting his new book on viewer-supported PBS.

Sadly, while Singer benefits from the type of nonprofits he wishes people would stop giving to, he harshly criticizes those who do support such organizations. Singer and his acolytes, including blogger Dylan Matthews, have made a sport of shaming donors who do not conform to their philanthropic beliefs. You can read my review of Matthews’ criticism of David Geffen and his $100 million gift to UCLA by clicking here.

We need to recognize that donors tend to support a variety of charities. For example, while Geffen supports the arts and education, he also donates to AIDS research. Instead of criticizing philanthropists, we should celebrate them. We should encourage people to give. Charities should make sound cases for support to inspire people to give. Publicly shaming donors who do not agree with our philanthropic choices should never be an option.

Through greater philanthropy, the pain of poverty can be eased.

Singer wants to ease the pain of poverty. Again, that’s a noble goal. Unfortunately, Effective Altruism comes with an unintended side-effect. Philanthropy that is focused exclusively on life-saving gifts can actually worsen poverty and create a culture of dependency.

Perhaps, that’s why 2.7 billion people around the world remain in extreme poverty despite charitable efforts and international aid programs. While the global economy has grown 17-fold over the past six decades, about three of every eight people in the world exist on $2 per day or less!

While working to ease the pain of poverty, we should also seek to end poverty.

Charities most certainly have a role to play when it comes to dealing with poverty. However, the viable solution will come from the business world. Mal Warwick, the legendary direct-response fundraising expert and entrepreneur, and Paul Polak, a leading social entrepreneur, have written the book The Business Solution to Poverty. You can read my review and an excerpt from the book by clicking here. Warwick and Polak write:

Poor people themselves tell us that the main reason they are poor is that they don’t have enough money. We agree with them. At first blush, this seems simple and obvious, but conventional approaches seem to focus on everything but helping poor people improve their livelihoods as the most important first step to ending poverty.”

Investing in social entrepreneurship can run counter to Singer’s Effective Altruism. Singer would rather we take those dollars and donate them to a life-saving charity. He would rather we seek secure, high-paying employment for ourselves so we will have more to donate rather than taking a risk on creating or investing in a business that can actually help end poverty.

Effective Altruism offers a simplistic solution to the world’s complex problems. Nevertheless, I applaud all individuals who wish to embrace Singer’s philanthropic philosophy. As I’ve said, it’s not completely problematic. For those who reject Effective Altruism and wish to live by a different set of philanthropic values, I applaud them as well.

There is not just one correct way to engage in philanthropy. We need to recognize that and celebrate all philanthropy that makes the world a better place.

As I’ve written in a previous post, here are five things that charities can do to inspire greater philanthropy:

1.  Maintain the highest possible ethical standards. All charities should adopt the Association of Fundraising Professional’s Code of Ethical Principles (or a similar code) as policy.

2.  Avoid coercion and outright manipulation.

3.  Operate transparently and provide accurate, factual information to prospective donors so they can make their own informed decisions.

4.  Make a strong case for support. When a charity has a strong case and relates it in the form of a story about an individual or small group, the cause will be more relatable and the charity will be more likely to generate support.

5.  Resist the temptation to blame prospects for their lack of support. Instead, organizations should look inward to discover how they could have better educated and cultivated the prospect and how they could have more effectively inspired a donation.

While Singer will continue to advocate for Effective Altruism, I’ll continue to advocate for Effective Fundraising. And I’ll continue to celebrate philanthropists.

That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?


UPDATE (Dec. 23, 2015): USA Today picked up this story in an article you can read by clicking here.

11 Responses to “Is There Just One Correct Way to Engage in #Philanthropy?”

  1. Michael- great article, very thoughtful in reaction to Dr. Singer. Thank you for doing what you do.

  2. A very good post, thanks Michael. I haven’t read Peter Singer’s book but one thing that stands out to me in your article: “Individuals should seek to earn as much money as they can so they can donate more money than they otherwise could.” – To me this is completely polar to the egalitarian philosophy that I have when thinking about charitable giving and indeed the founding principle of the charity sector. Earning as much as one can is not a mantra that I would associate with a philanthropist who wants to address inequality, be it social or economic.

    • Samuel, thank you for sharing your thoughts. When it comes to philanthropy, there are complex social, cultural, psychological, and economic issues in play. This is why one-size-fits-all philanthropy does not make sense. Effective Altruism may resonate with some, but it certainly won’t resonate for all. Some elements of Effective Altruism might be embraced by some who will never fully embrace the philosophy. Still others will find a completely different philanthropic path. At the end of the day, it’s about individual choice, and that’s a good thing.

    • I think that whilst earning money it’s important to go into careers that do good or at worst, have a neutral impact, and EA career advice would heavily recommend against going into harmful careers for the sake of some extra money.

      Also it is only suggested for some people to go into high earning careers, there is a need for people to be in all sectors to strive to improve the world, researchers, politicians, lobbying for rights, education etc.

      • David, thank you for sharing your thoughts and the article links. When Peter Singer speaks of seeking a high paying job to practice Effective Altruism, he offers no qualifiers. Furthermore, contrary to what you’ve said, if EA is the ideal to which we should all aspire and if everyone follows Singer’s recommendation to seek the highest paying job we can get, our economy would fall apart. You mention that “some people” should go into high paying jobs while others don’t. Well, who gets to decide? You? Singer? The government? In the old USSR, it was the government that decided; we see how well that worked out.

        As for deciding which careers are worthy or neutral, that’s not always clear. For example, one of the articles you reference says that weapons manufacturing is harmful. Idealistically, I agree. If we could wave a magic wand and eliminate weapons manufacturing from the world, that would be a very good thing. However, since we can’t do that, we need to be realistic. Unilateral disarmament leads to horrible results. Just look at what happened in Europe when the UK and France disarmed while German grew its weapons program; we ended up in World War II.

        While there are certain aspects of EA that are certainly worth embracing, we need to be sure to operate within reality and recognize that we do not live in an Ivory Tower theory chamber.

      • “You mention that “some people” should go into high paying jobs while others don’t. Well, who gets to decide? You? Singer? The government? In the old USSR, it was the government that decided; we see how well that worked out.”

        I’d like to think it was the person who was choosing what career to go into, EA isn’t that prescriptive and is more about supplying the information for people to make their own minds up, and using the skills they have to good effect.

        “As for deciding which careers are worthy or neutral, that’s not always clear.”

        I agree, and I think most articles and research that comes out of EA organisations will say there is a large amount of uncertainty rather than being prescriptive on what everyone should do.

      • David, as I’ve said, I’m in agreement with many of the elements of EA. My problem is that Peter Singer has taken EA to an extreme with almost complete disregard for human nature, neuroscience, and economics. I also have a problem when Singer publicly shames people who do not behave in the way he thinks they should. Because my issues are primarily with Singer’s brand of EA, and much less so with EA itself, I was sure to point that out in my post. By contrast, I think you and I share much more common ground. Thank you for the good conversation.

  3. I agree with you, Michael, and with the concepts of your post, and with Sammy’s comment. By restricting philanthropy to a certain socio-economic level, we restrict much philanthropy, I think. Consider this story of giving by men who live in a Calgary, Alberta Homeless shelter to Ronald McDonald House:

    While the $1100 gift to RMH will not be the largest gift they receive by far, the impact both on RMH and the men giving the donation was huge! The charity will benefit by the publicity and may encourage others to give, and the public will see, that these men have nothing to gain from this act of charity. Additionally, the planning required to give this gift took a year – the men were not concerned with making their lives better, but in making someone else’s life better.

    We also observe similar behaviour in some children: 5 or 6 year old kids can see a need and, with help, can establish a plan and fulfill that need, all the while gaining little for themselves. Here is an example of a charity started by a child:

    Contrary to Mr. Singer’s ideas, philanthropy’s impact comes not from the size of the philanthropist’s wallet, but from the size of their heart.

    • Stan, thank you for sharing these two heart-warming stories. One of the things I like about the story regarding the homeless philanthropists is that the act of giving builds self-esteem. These men are not victims. The act of helping others is empowering. That’s got to have a profound impact on how they view themselves and their place in the world. I also like the story about the children and teaching philanthropy. I did my first fundraising when I was eight. That experience has shaped my entire life, both personally and professionally.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: