The Politics of Altruism

It has come to my attention due to some comments of various caring people I know that much like economics in general, there are two major theories of philanthropy at work in our society. Neither of these two styles is wrong, they just approach our societies problems from a different angle. And, much like any other cause with differing methodologies, they are often pitted against each other.

Aid To The PoorThe first method that many of us are familiar with is the direct approach. With this we go out and help build a home for Habitat For Humanity, we donate blood to the Red Cross, or we send canned food to the local food bank. With each of these there is a relatively short road from the donor to recipient. Even in situations like the Red Cross or Goodwill where there may be an administrative level of isolation, there is still a direct connection between the organization we are giving to and the recipients of that donation. Maybe we should call this “Main Street Philanthropy”.

In the second method, there is a more indirect approach. Here we have practices as varied as educating people about problems in other areas of the world to holding benefits to raise money for charities. There isn’t anything at all wrong with this methodology, but there is a bit of distance put between the donor and the recipient. In addition, due to that distance and often infrastructure overhead, there is a certain signal loss before the end is achieved. We can call this “Trickle Down Philanthropy.”

An example of what I am talking about is this. If I have $100 to give, I could go to the grocery, buy $100 worth of food and give that out at the food bank. In this instance, 100% of my donation reaches the end recipients. Conversely, if I took that $100 and sent it to any number of well known charities, part of it would go to processing fees. Part of the donation would also go to pay for office staff, rent perhaps, and maybe even transportation. In the end, it is possible that only $50 of my donation would actually reach the recipient at the end.

And if instead I spent that $100 to give a few lecture or classes on the plight of the impoverished and starving, then it is also conceivable that absolutely none of my money would reach those in need. It is possible that all that money I had to offer was simply washed away.

This would seem like a clear choice to make until we realize that when the Trickle Down Philanthropy method works, it can actually amplify our donation. If that class I spent a $100 to teach was paying attention, didn’t fall asleep, and heeded my message, it is possible that each of the 25 people in attendance reached into their purse or wallet and made a $100 donation to the food bank. And they may also take what they have learned, spread the lesson, and triggered more donations. That amplification of effort is the magic of the Trickle Down theory.

So, here we have two methods of donation – one direct and one indirect. As I said before, neither is write or wrong. Certain people feel drawn to the direct satisfaction of the Main Street method and others have the vision and planning for the Trickle Down method. The truth is, each one needs the other to survive. Without feet on the street doing the work, the Trickle Down method is just so much posturing and conjecture. And without individuals doing the background education, fundraising, and paper work, those people doing the work on the street would have no funds, supporters, or growth. The key is finding where you fit in the picture and applying yourself there. And realizing that just because someone uses a different method, that doesn’t mean they are doing it wrong.