Over the last year I have spent a non-insignificant amount on charities and causes that I would normally not consider giving to, and quite a few of them are things that I wouldn't consider the most effective or most beneficial charities. For someone that spends a good portion of my life and energy promoting the most effective causes, and encourages everyone to think hard about what they spend their philanthropic money on, it seems counter-intuitive that I would throw money at a lot of non-optimized charities & causes. For most people who identify with effective altruism it is irregular to donate outside of the top GiveWell charities.
That being said, I would wager there are lots of people out there who think deeply about philanthropy and giving that do wind up donating to causes they wouldn't necessarily recommend to others. There are a number of reasons I've chosen to do this and I thought I would share a few of mine with you.
1. It is my friend's pet cause
Now most people who buy into some idea of effective giving are going to say that is a terrible justification for donating to a cause, but let me explain. Primarily I will say that I don't donate to causes I think are not doing good or potentially doing harm. Usually I trust my friend's judgment on this, but a quick reputation check helps.
Whenever a friend puts up a "Donate to this" request on Facebook I usually try to throw at least $10 at it. I used to do more but that isn't always a viable option every time. Now $10 seems like a paltry amount - and it is - but anyone that has run a fundraising campaign knows most of the time you are stalking the page watching little donations tick in, spending time trying to figure out who that anonymous donation was from, and wondering why Aunt Agnes hasn't ponied up yet. There is a Pavlovian response we have to watching donations roll in. It is warm and fuzzy! $10 seems like a good deal to give my friend have such a great warm fuzzy feeling.
It is also substantially easier to ask friends and family to donate to your fundraiser when they know you donated to theirs. So while my money may not be doing the most good, it is an investment in generating a lot of good in the future.
2. It makes me more likely to continue to donate
I definitely fall into the moral consistency camp when it comes to moral-licensing. I do something I think of as good and my brain gets a kick of dopamine (or maybe the dopamine comes into play as I enter my credit card information). Point is I get a big kick from my reward system. I am doing good things! I am being morally consistent with my stated values! I am helping! Good girl *pat*
This means donating becomes increasingly Pavlovian as well! Beyond a kick in the short-term happy pants, there is lots of research that shows that donating more actually leads to an improvement in overall life satisfaction. So I'm happier and more fulfilled in general. This all leads to a great internal reward system.
Plus, it turns out I never lament spending that money. I will frequently look at my bank account and think about that latte this morning that I didn't really need. I've never had the experience of looking at my statement and thinking "If only I hadn't given that $20 to the 'Save the Cute Animals and Cure the Terrible Sickness Foundation' "
3. Add my name to the list please!
There are loads of groups out there that, on top of doing their mission work, also work on public policy, advocacy and lobbying. Planned Parenthood is a great example of this. While 65% of their budget went to medical services, 16% went to non-medical services, many of which centered around petitioning and advocacy.
Part of what makes any advocacy work successful is the ability to cite their number of supporters. In a democracy, numbers are king. If you can say you have 8 million supporters, chances are better you can get a representative to listen. Large numbers add clout and legitimacy to your campaigns.
So even if I just give $10 or $2 my name, little as it is, gets thrown in that pile of names. A lot of advocacy can boil down to comparing who has a bigger pile. Policy reform is a big sticky mess that is hard to measure and harder to influence, but a small amount of money to add my name to a list of people who say "yes I agree with this thing, please count me in" seems like a good, low cost start.
4. It is a service I use/appreciate or think I should be paying for anyway
I am lucky enough to live in the amazing city of Seattle; if you've never been to the Pacific Northwest - it is terrible, please don't move here. Just kidding, it is great you should totally come visit. We'll get coffee. At midnight.
Aside from an abundance of caffeinated millennials Seattle also has some of the best radio around. You remember radio right? That thing you used to listen to in the car? Well Seattle has such good radio even the White House press office takes note. So when John in the Morning comes on and asks me to pony up some spare change, I do.
This public radio station is a service I use almost daily. It adds dramatically to my life satisfaction and my feeling of being connected to the world, and particularly to my city. I don't consider this philanthropy, these donations come out of my entertainment budget. I am giving for me, for selfish reasons, driven by my passions and needs. So I don't consider this part of my philanthropic giving, but the US tax code does, so I'm listing it here.
5. Signal boost a campaign or cause
I'm not the only one that runs event fundraisers. Loads of people do! Most of the time my friends choose highly effective charities, so usually it is something I'm totally on board with. Sometimes it is just a great concept for a fundraiser, and I want to encourage people to think creatively about fundraising and philanthropy. Sometimes it is for a unique organization that I support in theory, but don't have any evidence for yet.
Really this bullet can be summed up like this: Hey person, I dig your thinking and I support you. +1
6. A handful of other EA/rationalist related items
These are sort of tertiary justifications that lend legitimacy to my above reasons.
- I'm in favor of being cause neutral. I don't want to get stuck in a giving pattern that may make me ineffective, so flexing my donation muscles in other places seems like a good plan.
- I don't know everything and you are probably loads smarter than me. No seriously. If someone says "hey this thing over here is really important" I should lean towards giving it a shot, or investigating further.This cause you have identified could be super duper important and I just don't know it yet.
- Sometimes ineffective or high-cost things have enormous nu-knowable great outcomes.
- I wouldn't have spent the money on any other charity. Some utilitarians would argue that by giving money to less than the absolute best cause I am actually doing harm and costing lives. However the money I donate to one-off fundraisers and annual memberships is money that I otherwise would have spent on toys for my cats, or a meal out with friends.