Last Wednesday I had a double dose of interesting thinking about giving.  First, I talked at a Harvard Extension social media class about Firstgiving and Twestival, then I popped in at the Philosophy Cafe to hear some deeper discussion of the limits of altrusim.  And then it snowed.

Act I: giving for free

At the kind invitation of Professor, author, educator and consultant Mary Lou Roberts, I led discussion in her Harvard Extension class, Social Media Marketing.  First, I talked about my employer, Firstgiving, and how they do business serving nonprofit organizations and people who support them.  I’m sure you’ve heard plenty about Firstgiving, so it should be enough for now to say it’s a social enterprise and uses social connections to do business and to do good, more than using what’s commonly called “social media” these days.

The second part of the class was a case-style discussion of Twestival.  There are far better recaps of Twestival (notably Beth Kanter’s) so I’ll simplify again.  Twestival was a global, all-volunteer fundraising event that raised a huge amount of money in many creative ways, but fell short of its perhaps over-ambitious $1M goal.   There were pledge donations via twitter, charity auctions, direct donations to Charity:Water, benefit music sales, corporate sponsors, and parties with door fees.

Some of my questions to the class, robustly discussed but not definitively answered, were these:

  • What was the true cost of this all-volunteer effort?  Was it really zero?  Could more have been raised by spending?
  • What’s the level of commitment that volunteer efforts and small donations generate?  Is that enough?
  • Of the $250k raised (at the time of discussion), how much came from “social media” like twitter pledges via Tipjoy, and how much from “old school media” like party cover charges and corporate sponsorship?
  • Was the event damaged or strengthened by the lack of full-time professional organization?
  • Did Twestival over-reach or under-achieve with the $1M goal?

One of my favorite comments towards the end of the class was one student who astutely pointed out that a charitably cause should optimize fundraising by taking advantage of all channels possible, even those with low ROI, as long as it’s all positive.  Indeed, why not do one more little thing, even if it’s little, if it brings a bit more funding for the cause?

Act II: freely giving

On the way home from class, I stopped by Harvard Bookstore where coach, workshop leader and author Hillary Rettig (and my former colleague and friend) was speaking as part of something called Philosophy Cafe.  I hadn’t paid too much attention to the event because I wasn’t sure I could make it after class, but I was quickly drawn in and stayed longer than I had planned.

The topic of discussion was “The Limits of Altruism: Why Do You Give What You Give–and Should You Be Giving More?” and Hillary was the featured guest presenter, discussing the story of her donation of a kidney to someone who was at the time a stranger.  To quote from the highbrow website description:

There are lots of explanations for altruism, or selfless giving, ranging from the mystical (karma), to the sociological (community standards), to the sociobiological (we “give” in ways that maximize our genes’ propagation). Whatever the mechanism, it’s clear that some people give a lot, while others not so much. Is there a proper level of giving, and how do we, as members of a wealthy society, justify not giving more to those in dire need, for instance in Nepal or Malawi–or even here in the U.S.? And what happens when a monetary reward or other incentive enters the picture?

I can’t do the intense and sophisticated discussion much justice, but I’ll summarize some interesting ideas that I heard during the part of the discussion centered on organ donation.

  • The mortality rate for a healthy kidney donor is about 2.5 per 10,000, or .025%, one fortieth of one percent.  The mortality rate for someone in need of a kidney is pretty much 100%.  Does this mean non-donors are implicitly valuing their lives at 4,000 times those of others?
  • In European countries where organ donation after death by road accident is presumed unless the person has opted OUT (unlike the US version where you must opt IN for post-mortem donation), there is generally a sufficient supply of organs for those in need of them, and little need for voluntary living donors.
  • While there was broad support in the room for regulatory solutions like changing the decision for post-mortem donation to opt-OUT, there was considerably more controversy around market-based solutions such as allowing people to buy and sell organs.  Some said that a market for organs would disadvantage the poor while others saw monetizing an organ as a potentially valuable ladder up from poverty.

After that, the discussion moved away from organs to a more general examination of how much one should give.  I had to head home so I missed that discussion, but both parts of the evening made for real food for thought on giving.

The philosophers at the cafe generally agreed that there was no obligation to impoverish or unduly endanger oneself in the name of altruism, but that there’s plenty of room in the average American life to give more.  I wonder if Twestival and other volunteer efforts are impoverishing themselves needlessly by foreswearing any paid services.  As the wise student said, why not do a little more?