What motivates charitable giving?

Many of you don’t read Grant Writing Confidential, the other blog I contribute to, but “Philanthropy is not being disrupted by Silicon Valley” has wide applicability and will interest many of you, so I’m linking to it from here. There’s also a subtler, deeper point that I didn’t elaborate there: I think most people don’t understand what motivates charitable giving (I didn’t, for a long time). That may be good—perhaps greater ignorance leads to greater giving—but it seems obvious to me now.

It seems strange that greater ignorance would leave to more giving, but I think about my own experiences, since I’ve worked for nonprofit and public agencies in varying capacities for about 15 years. And I’ve been associated with universities in various capacities for about the same length of time. Before I began working in and around universities, for example, I likely thought that donations to universities are an axiomatically good thing.* Now I know a lot more about them and am also a lot more skeptical: universities use far too much of their money on administrators and amenities—signaling functions, basically (the hate for colleges in some precincts has its origins in excess administration). Now I’m much less pro-university and, if I had a bunch of cash to give away, I’d be very unlikely to dump it on a university. I know there’d be a decent chance that most of that money would fund runaway tuition sticker prices.

To be sure, there are probably good ways to give money to universities. Probably the best is to fund particular science labs at non-elite, non-wealthy schools. Stanford probably doesn’t need more money in its labs, but most University of [State] schools probably do, and funding them is underrated. But to learn which labs at which schools need funding is such an undertaking that knowledge would-be donors might simply not bother. In that respect, ignorance might be good—for me, too.

I also used to be convinced that more transparency is better in the vast majority of human realms. Now I’m not so sure. We seem to have far greater political transparency than we once did, thanks to the Internet and some other features of the modern media, but has that made politics better? If so, I don’t see it: We can’t get infrastructure built, and many lobbies are good at pushing their narratives out.

The truth is not transparent and obvious, as I once thought it was, and virtually all of us are susceptible to advertising, marketing, and sloganeering. That last one is especially apparent on Twitter. We “know” some of the important solutions to improving infrastructure development, but in the same sense we (in the sense of “the human race”) know how quantum mechanics work. But I can’t give you a detailed, technically accurate description of quantum mechanics, and how many humans can? A million, maybe, out of seven billion people? Less? I know more about what needs to be done regarding infrastructure, but to explain it all would take a long time a lot of background reading. Most people won’t bother. What good is transparency if the best answers are difficult enough to comprehend that no one seeks them?

Even this post is less likely to be read and understand than a random sloganeering, virtue signaling Tweet is going to be repeated. Knowledge is hard and feelings are easy. That itself is not a popular thing to say but it is true. And if “Knowledge is hard and feelings are easy” were turned into a viral Tweet, it would only demonstrate its own point! Frustrating, in a way, but perhaps the lesson is “chill out, because it’s really hard to get substantive improvements in the world, and most of those improvements probably don’t happen on the Internet.”

You may have noticed that I’ve wandered a long way from the title of this post. That’s deliberate. What motivates human giving probably shouldn’t be stated, because stating it runs contrary to social desirability bias. I will say that “effectiveness” and “ensuring the greatest efficiency per dollar spent” do not motivate the vast majority of donors—though almost all donors will cite those ideas. If you’re the sort of person who wants to know what motivates giving, and you’re frustrated by the way this essay doesn’t directly answer your question, see “Philanthropy is not being disrupted by Silicon Valley,” which offers some answers and links to better ones. But I don’t think most of us really want to know.


* The word “likely” is important because I don’t fully know my mental state from a long time ago.

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