The GiveWell Blog

Can charity be cool?

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.


  • Gayle Roberts on May 3, 2007 at 9:48 am said:

    Hey Holden,

    Charity may not be cool, but it is sexy. I find someone who volunteers their time, cares about the future of the environment, and gives some of their money to causes they care about to be attractive.

    I’d much rather be hot, than cool. Wouldn’t you?

    Fundraising for Nonprofits

  • Katya on May 3, 2007 at 1:55 pm said:

    I’m not going to even try to be hot or cool, but I can say the act of giving is intrinsically personal and therefore not overtly cool. People usually give to charity for deeply personal, emotional reasons. “Cool” usually refers to a more collective, cultural sensibility, like a movement or fashion or aethestic in the context of a social group. So by that measure, cool is not a term that’s highly relevant to the act of making an individual donation. By contrast, doing something that benefits a good cause can be cool, if it is based on an act that is not personal but rather a public, sometimes rebellious act. Witness: yellow LiveStrong bracelets, the Truth campaign, ONE, Avon walk, etc. That’s social (and thereby cool) by nature. The trick is to get the people who think this kind of participation is “cool” to then convert to a gift. And that would be victory. We don’t need charitable giving to be cool, we need the actions that lead to a relationship with the charity – and a donation – to be cool.

  • Gillian on May 3, 2007 at 7:31 pm said:

    But lots of people ARE voluntarily, proactively, and obsessively interested in particular issues!!
    There are literally thousands of passionate charities that are run and supported by people who are totally devoted (obsessed with) to making a difference. These great projects seem to attract lots of supporters and really pick up momentum.

    The School of St Jude, in Arusha, Tanzania, was started by the force-of-nature, Gemma Sisia, in 2002. By 2006 donor support had grown to $1mill pa, and a second school has been begun. How far can this woman go?? She takes bright children from the poorest homes and gives them quality education, meals and clothes. To spread the benefit, she takes only one child per family. That must break hearts!!

    Given enough support, she’ll be providing excellent education to half of Tanzania, one of the poorest countries in the world.

    Controversial? — no
    Competitive? — yes – to be the best! the school already outperforms upmarket international private schools on exam scores.
    Time-consuming? — oh, yeah, and I’m just a supporter. Check out my blog —

    I reckon this project would stack up well on your guidelines for effective philanthropy. What do we have to do to be looked at?

    Don’t ask little of me, you might get it.

  • Holden on May 4, 2007 at 8:10 pm said:

    Gayle and Katya – both of you, in my view, are talking about getting people engaged in donating through something that’s almost like a “trap” – getting their interest through one thing (a charitable “image” that increases sex appeal; a social event distinct from donating) and then hoping that this will translate to another, more valuable but not quite connected thing (actual donating).

    This isn’t necessarily a bad or futile approach, but it does have that inherent obstacle. What I am talking about is a way to get a much smaller group of people to be genuinely passionate about donating itself – the donation decision is interesting once you drop the mentality that all charities and all donations are wonderful.

    Gillian – I responded to you via email about the School of St. Jude.

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