Sunday, March 09, 2008

The Need to Be Philanthropic

Today’s New York Times Magazine is devoted almost entirely to articles addressing philanthropy. (Even the cooking article was about donations by restaurant owners and chefs.) It was a pretty interesting issue. I read much more of it than I normally do on Sundays.

Some of the stories analyzed the rational effectiveness-monitoring of billionaire donors. Another one was about the substantial impact of celebrities such as (see photo), , who boost the popularity of particular causes. And another one was about economists who try to explain the logic operating in the decisions of about whether, and how much, to give. This one interested me more than the others, because it elucidated some social . For example, it seems that people are somewhat more likely to give if their contribution will go into a grant that will be matched by another big donor. That makes sense; they will get more “bang for their buck” if it is matched by someone else.

But the principle doesn’t hold up consistently. For example, people don’t seem to care how much the matching donor will give. Most such offers are on a one-to-one basis. But if the big donor promises to donate four dollars for every one received through ordinary , the average person is not likely to increase his donation to take advantage of the extra “bang for their buck.” One-for-one matching ratios elicit as much cooperation as three-for-one or four-for one ratios, which doesn’t make sense rationally.

On the other hand, there are other ways in which rationality seems to be involved. For example, if prospective donors are told that a fund has reached half of its goal, they are more likely to contribute than if they are told that so far there only a small fraction of the goal has been reached. That makes sense to me, at least; I wouldn’t want to contribute to a fund that might never reach its goal. If they are already half-way there, it’s more likely to succeed in the end.

There were other interesting observations coming from these researchers too. The author concludes with a study dealing with incentives to get citizens to save money by salting their income away in schemes. There must be a certain tax benefit to make it worth while. Yet it may be possible to reduce the amount of tax savings offered, yet get people to contribute just as much. The particular amounts would have to be worked out, but if these numbers can be determined, it might save the government billions and billions of dollars that could be invested elsewhere. That could be useful research.

Still, the studies did not offer any insight into a question that has been bothering me for about twenty-four hours. I think I discovered a motivation for philanthropy that cannot be considered rational at all, and which is nevertheless powerful and deserving of respect.

Last night I had a visit from a friend of mine whom I have known for about six years and whom I respect as an honorable man. I won’t describe his predicament fully because of privacy considerations. However, I can say that he served for many years as a guerrilla jungle fighter, then gave it up and immigrated to Canada. Though he expected to be able to bring his wife and three children to join him, this aspiration remains blocked far longer than usual, and until his immigration has been completed, he will remain virtually unemployed and unable to bring his dependents to join him.

His family had lived as refugees in a tent for ten years, but they went to another affluent country six months or so ago. Shortly after their arrival, the wife was killed in a car accident, along with two other members of her family. His three teen-aged children survive, and receive welfare cheques where they live, but still cannot come to Canada.

Twice this man has turned to me and his other local friends for financial help,. I am absolutely sure that he and his children genuinely need help, and I am glad that I can afford to give it, both times by donating more than $1,000. Last night was one of those occasions. My friend is a courageous man, but he is understandably depressed, for several other members of his family have also been killed or are now suffering. He has great dignity and does not reveal his pain readily, but it was nevertheless palpable to me.

Shortly after I had written the cheque for him, there was a moment when the clouds seemed lift. Brightening up suddenly, he told me that he will receive a little insurance money — about $16,000 — for his wife’s death. He has already spoken with his children about how to spend it. With their consent, he will keep about $5,000 for their immigration expenses, but set up a “foundation” for giving away the rest.

I was astonished, and at first I exclaimed that he and his children will need that money and that he should keep it. It’s a tiny amount anyhow, as compensation for an auto fatality. But immediately I realized that I should be quiet. There was some other motivation involved that I should respect.

“I want to create merit for my wife,” he explained. “She was a good wife and mother. I will invite the children who are still in that refugee camp to write to me and I will help one of them go abroad to school.”

“You speak of creating ‘merit’ for her,” I said. “But you are a Christian, not a Buddhist.”

“True,” he replied. “But I want to her. The people in the camp all knew her and I want them to remember her with respect. This will be a memorial to her.”

As a practical, rational matter, this man has no basis whatever for giving away the pittance that he will receive, and which will be required to support and educate his own children. But I saw that I must listen and give him the respect that this donation is meant to elicit for his dead wife.

This is not in the same sense as the contributions of or , or even myself. My friend needs to give more than he can afford. His donation will help him cope with his losses and his ongoing struggle. But to relieve his suffering at all, it must be a gift beyond any that he can afford.

I don’t have a language for explaining his motivation. The theories of economists or even of psychologists fall short. This philanthropy is something that he needs to do. And it is an honorable motivation, one that I must respect. I do not understand it, but I know it represents a worthy human quality.

In a way, I do understand it — and yet I cannot explain it. Can you?



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