Trent Stamp says charity can never be cool. He appears to have history on his side, given (a) the number of powerful people who would love charity to be cool, and the amount of effort and the number of campaigns they’ve devoted to it; (b) the fact that charity isn’t cool, and has never been as far as I (the authority on these matters) know.
Is it a lost cause? I hope not, because it would be awesome if charity were cool. Imagine if people were as voluntarily, proactively, and obsessively interested in fighting diarrhea as they are in poker, fantasy football, Second Life, sudoku, or any of the kaschmillions of other dumb things that people spend ungodly amounts of time and money on. Why isn’t this happening? Can it ever happen?
Consider the following observations, backed by nothing except my supreme coolness:
- Things that are cool are generally controversial. It’s fun to be part of a group that opposes / makes fun of another group. Well, if you’re pro-charity, who are you against? No one, as long as charity is conventionally thought of as something that never involves any disagreement of any kind – the current attitude (and the attitude promoted by these campaigns) is that all charities are wonderful and that the more you give to any charity, the better. When’s the last time you heard someone slam a particular charitable cause? (This blog doesn’t count.) What “cool” things can you think of that you’ve never heard anyone slam?
- Hobbies and other obsessions generally have a competitive element. At the very least, they require some sort of skill beyond spending money (even fashion requires taste). Yet the conventional attitude in charity is that all donors are winners, end of story. If two people spend the same amount, there’s no consideration of who spent it better. Can you think of something people do for fun that works like that? I can’t.
- Hobbies are time-consuming. Of course, a large part of the reason people want to make charity cool is because they hope it will encourage people to spend more time on it. But … what is there to spend time on, as long as donating consists of writing a check?
Here’s something to chew on. I would say about half of the original eight members of GiveWell had never had much interest in charity before the project started. That includes me and Elie. We initially saw our research as a chore. But once we discovered that donating well takes brains, not just money, well … we love using our brains. Once we realized that there is such a thing as a bad donation decision, and we can criticize and argue with and oppose ourselves to those who make them … let’s admit it, that’s fun. Once we dropped the conventional notion of charity, and realized that we were doing something that takes hard work and smart thinking, our interest level went way up. Elie and I are now as addicted/obsessed as any poker player I know of. What no PR campaign has done for us, the realization that charity is something we can argue about has.
Unlike sports or fashion, this hobby is all about hard work and brains. It doesn’t involve our athletic abilities (thank God) or our sense of style (amen). So I’m not sure that our attitude has the potential to make charity specifically “cool.” But it does have the potential to make people spend time and effort in a way that they hadn’t before. In other words, I think our attitude toward giving can make it possible to be a charity geek … and that’s not a bad start.