I feel ashamed, the sort of shame that fills up my lungs and spreads slowly into my arms until my whole body feels heavy. I feel like a wet blanket and not because of the bad things that I’ve done but because I have made such a stupid oversight for my whole life up until this point. But no more.
TED talks are a staple in the life of almost every literate person I know. Sometimes speakers share a new scientific discovery, sometimes they discuss the work of their charity or foundation, and on very special occasions, a speaker points something out to you that is so obvious that you would have seen it yourself if you weren’t so buried in the tropes and conventions of society. Well, TED recently threw me a curveball that was so utterly obvious and destructive that I felt compelled to share it.
When we donate to charity, many of us object to our donated funds being spent on advertising, fundraising, and really anything but the cause itself. I too feel that my hard earned money should go directly to those in need rather than pay the salaries of professional fundraisers. This is naive and harmful.
You see, we have a system for making money. It has been developing and evolving since the feudal system fell. Who is it that’s expert at making money you ask? Corporations! They spend lots of money on advertising because advertising brings in customers. It’s not rocket science. Yet when a charity wants to advertise to encourage donations, they’re wasting money. If you donate a dollar, that dollar can be spent on an advertisement that brings in five dollars. You would be a monster to insist that your money go to the cause. Charities are crippled by our insistence that they not take advantage of any of the proven methods for making money. This mad system would only make sense if we thought that profits were better off in the hands of capitalists than in the hands of non-profit organizations.
There are reasons for this stupidity. It’s well understood that humans often respond to individual murders more strongly than they do to genocide because it’s easier to connect emotionally with an individual than with a group. Perhaps the reason people want their charitable donations to go directly to the cause is to maximize their emotional payoff by cutting out the middleman. I suspect also that the majority of people are afraid to see charities advertise because it forces them to confront the moral dilemmas of living in the richest part of an impoverished world. When you are aware that it costs only $200 to cure someone of leprosy, it makes you feel pretty guilty about your $200 boots or purse or jacket.
Whatever their reasons , once people are aware there is no more room for debate. Charities should be allowed to operate with the goal of maximizing the value of their donations in dollars, not minimizing their operating costs as a percentage of the whole. Anything else is unethical.