28 December 2010

When the Left Hand Knows What the Right Hand is Doing


Susan G. Komen's tie-in with the NFL is savvy marketing, but its tie-in with Kentucky Fried Chicken, where pink buckets full of fried chicken were sold under the slogan, "Buckets for the Cure" is, if not bizarre, arguably detrimental to the cause.
Regardless of opinion on the appropriateness of Susan G. Komen's marketing strategies, they work. Total revenue was $178 million in 2008 — quite the leap from 2004's $99 million. Its 2009 annual report states that it "spent nearly $1.5 billion in cutting-edge research and community programs." Incidences and deaths over the years have decreased, but when you look at the data, it is less than you might think.
Of course, Susan G. Komen cannot be blamed for breast-cancer incidences and death not trending as low as we'd like. But we can still question motives: if people give you money because of a cause, does that properly motivate you to eliminate the cause? With big charity comes big compensation: half-million dollar packages for top employees appear frequently on Christian Science Monitor's list of top 50 US charities, which is also peppered with a few million-dollar-plus packages. What's the motivation for a cure?

Remember how Christ admonished his disciples to give secretly?  And remember how that giving was to be so secret that the right wouldn’t even be aware of what the left hand was doing?  Perhaps the reason for this command was to ensure that charity actually provided some benefit for the recipient.

When charity is publicized, the incentive to acquire social capital is introduced.  Social capital, in and of itself, is not a bad thing.  However, acquiring social capital through charitable donations creates an upside-down incentive system.

Public giving encourages donors to give to charities that are en vogue.  As a result, these charities tend to spend their time chasing down exotic (read: exciting) solutions that are highly experimental and novel.  Or they waste time “raising awareness.” 
Unsurprisingly, the most popular charities tend to be quite politically correct, usually benefiting women, minorities, or the disadvantaged.  They tend to also serve as an outlet for white guilt, or male guilt.

While the assuaging of guilt, or the desire to feel good are not inherently wrong motivations, they are entirely misguided and irrelevant motivations for charitable organizations.  Charities should be focused on find the most cost-effective solution.  They should not exist to make donors feel less guilty about their privilege.

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