Belated Philanthropy: Update

Last December, I wrote a post about a concept I call “belated philanthropy”.

In summary: When someone solicits me on the street, asking for money, I don’t give it. Instead, I make a note of the incident in my mind. Later, I donate to a charity based on how many people have asked me for money since my last “belated” donation.

Here’s why:

Life presents us with many chances to do good immediately. Someone asks us for money on the street; charities ask for a dollar when we swipe a credit card at the drugstore; we see a banana peel on the sidewalk and worry that someone might slip and fall.

In the case of the banana peel, we can pick it up, throw it away, and go about our business. But money is different. Unlike our banana-peel disposal services, our money can be transferred across the world in the blink of an eye. In addition, money is “fungible”; it can be spent on a wide variety of goods and services.

If we want to use our money to help others, we face a difficult decision. Money can be spent on many different causes, but we only have a limited amount to give.

I used to give money to people who asked for it on the street — not all of the time, but sometimes, depending on how I felt that day, whether I was carrying cash, and so on.

But while people in New Haven who ask for money on the street are often homeless, or otherwise struggling to get by, giving to them probably isn’t the best use of the money I can spare for charity.

There are several reasons behind this; I’ll focus on the “cost of living” reason. Life in the U.S. is expensive. To buy food, and to pay for a bed in a homeless shelter (many shelters in New Haven are not free), a person might need $10 a day or more.

However, in another country, where the cost of living is lower, someone might be able to support an entire family for a week with $10. If we treat both people as equally important, it seems better (considering this factor alone) to give to someone in a poorer country (countries that are cheap to live in tend to have poorer people).

This is a difficult thing to remember, and even harder to act on. When someone stands in front of you and asks for money, you see only them. You don’t see someone in Ghana, or rural India, whose family is starving, or whose children are at risk for malaria that might be prevented if someone had the money to buy them a cheap mosquito net.

To fight this bias — perhaps a useful bias, but a bias nonetheless — I developed “belated philanthropy”. I don’t carry cash most of the time; when someone asks, I honestly say that I don’t have money. Instead, I add one to my mental count of requests, and note the new number when I get home.

It may seem cold to deliberately refuse an honest request for help. But I try to remember that, while the person in front of me happens to live nearby, it is not the fault of Ghanaians or Indians that they live far away. Their needs should count equally, and their needs are likely greater.

(If I ever meet someone who is at imminent risk of dying or serious harm, and I am in a good position to intervene with my body and my time, I will. I can’t use my body or time very effectively to help other people, and ignoring someone who is at risk of death is a terrible action in almost any situation.)

* * * * *

Today, I noted my “count” since I wrote the first belated philanthropy post in December. 76 people had asked; 76 times, someone was in genuine need, and I said: “No”; “Sorry”; “I can’t”; “I don’t have money”.

For each of those incidents, I gave two dollars (more than I’d give to someone on the street) to Givewell, which will redistribute it to some of the most effective charities in the world. The $152 is roughly the amount needed to support a family for three months in the nations those charities serve, though it might also go towards the control of the tropical disease schistosomiasis.

(My belated giving happens outside of my typical giving schedule. It doesn’t take away from what I would give anyway.)

* * * * *

This might not be the best course of action. If you think there are good reasons I should sometimes give to people in front of me, please tell me; I’m eager to hear them, and I value dialogue about these very important problems.

I’m not sure that belated philanthropy is a good idea. It might make me a more callous person, or leave me too dependent on others’ ideas about the meaning of “worthiest cause”. But after thinking about it once again, I’ve decided to start my second cycle, with the count reset at zero.

If you’d like to try belated philanthropy yourself, I recommend doing so. It may not suit you, or you might find it valuable; either way, let me know what happens.


7 thoughts on “Belated Philanthropy: Update

  1. I sometimes do willpower trades in other areas — e.g., if there are too many suffering insects in front of me for me to help, I can incline myself more toward doing online activism for insects later. The problem that I find with this approach is that it creates a mindset of altruism based on guilt, which seems inferior to altruism based on enthusiasm. The same activity can suddenly become less fun once someone makes you do it. So if you’re already devoting a reasonable portion of your efforts to altruism, it’s not clear that guilt shocks are helpful. Maybe they are if you’re well below your altruism carrying capacity. (My selfish brain tries to tell itself that it’s at carrying capacity, even though that seems far from the case in objective terms.)

    • I agree that enthusiasm > guilt in most times and most places as a motivator! However, there are some situations we inevitably encounter in life where enthusiasm doesn’t come to us naturally; I’m not going to refuse a solicitor’s request with a huge smile on my face, but my belated-philanthropic mindset helps me walk away from those encounters with a determined expression rather than a gloomy, downcast one. And it helps that I’m the one “making” me donate later!

    • Good question! Some thoughts:

      1) The word “okay” implies that there is a genuinely “bad” decision to be made here. I have trouble imagining a situation where I’d say the words “it is NOT okay to give money to the homeless”, especially given the broad range of situations that can be implied by the words “homeless in a third-world country”. If you do give money to these people with an altruistic, I don’t personally think of that as a “bad thing”. (Same goes for the homeless in the first world — I certainly don’t look down on people who do give to solicitors in the U.S.)

      2) Other people have done very interesting research and reporting on what happens to money that gets donated to people on the street, both in rich and poor countries. The best article I can think of immediately is this piece in Slate, which strongly argues against the practice:

      I personally would not make a habit of giving to the homeless directly, even in a country much poorer than the U.S. My (limited) knowledge of philanthropy leads me to believe that organized charities are likely to do more good for the poor with my money than I could alone, thanks to their experience, ability to spend lots of money at once to do structural good, and various other factors.

      To conclude: There’s nothing “wrong” with giving to the homeless directly, but your money will probably do more good in the hands of certain charities.

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