After my "Curmudgeon’s Guide to Giving Tuesday," Matthew Bishop teasingly referred to me as Ebenezer Scrooge on Twitter and in his blogged response to my post. At the end of his post he calls my concerns “a counsel of despair,” noting that such was Scrooge’s attitude at the beginning of A Christmas Carol but crucially not at the end.
While Bishop is correct about the narrative structure of Dickens’ classic, it obscures Scrooge’s transformation. We first see Scrooge once he is a cynic, but a key ingredient in his ultimate redemption is when the Ghost of Christmas Past helps him recall that he was not always so. Scrooge’s cynicism builds gradually as he encounters disappointment throughout his life.
My curmudgeonly response to Giving Tuesday is—I hope—an attempt to prevent cynicism’s development by pushing back against efforts that are likely to lead to disappointment. Giving Tuesday, at least in its current form and language, is, I think, just that.
A direct response to Matthew’s points (as I understand them):
1) Giving is better than not giving, even when giving is self-aggrandizing or a PR stunt: On this I agree absolutely.
2) The evidence that public giving ruins joy and benefit to the giver is weak: I agree that the papers I cited in my original post address this issue only obliquely. There is however, a rather large amount of academic literature on altruism that is anything but weak. A good place to start is with this New York Times article or with The Institute for Research on Unlimited Love website. Note that these resources take the definition of altruism and giving somewhat for granted—an act that is focused on benefitting others, not the giver. Showy displays of generosity don’t pass the test.
3) Publically announcing gifts may spur others to give: I don’t see any reason to believe that Giving Tuesday is going to attract people who would not otherwise give. While social networks and herd behavior are powerful, they are not omnipotent. Everyone in the US already is flooded with giving appeals and testimonials. I’m skeptical that more public announcements will cross some tipping point that nongivers have avoided thus far.
4) Giving Tuesday won’t harmfully concentrate giving on that one day because it’s just the start of “giving season”: This may be true, but it undermines the one plausible channel I can see about how social pressures might increase giving. It is possible that people who are willing to give but just forget may be nudged into giving—but that is a mechanism that would happen in the moment. And having a material impact would require millions of nudges, which would in fact concentrate giving. Of course, there were reports of a spike in giving on Giving Tuesday.
5) “Focusing on giving in general, rather than a specific cause, will encourage greater thought to go into gifts and a greater discussion of which charities are effective”: We have had many years of the message that “giving in general” is good, and it has yet to spur greater thought or discussion around effective charities. Why would it start having this outcome now? Every conversation I’ve ever had about effective charities has begun with an acknowledgement that a lot of giving is wasted or counterproductive.
6) Predicting failure in advance is counterproductive: I agree that both Matthew and I are operating on weak evidence bases, though I obviously think mine is stronger than his. But predictions and opinions are cheap. Presuming that The Economist has not, like the New York Times, decided that public wagers by its journalists are out-of-bounds, let me propose this to Matthew: If the annual charitable giving of Americans (as measured by GivingUSA’s revised totals) rises to 2.3 percent or more of the prior year’s Gross National Income, in any 4 of the next 7 years, I will make a $500 donation to The Committee to Protect Journalists (one Matthew’s preferred charities). If it doesn’t, Matthew will make a $500 donation to one of GiveWell’s top charities.
As I hope that wager makes clear, I’m not in any way opposed to encouraging giving. Nothing would make me happier than an increase in American’s generosity. I hope that I’m wrong about the impact of Giving Tuesday. I even put it to the test already—I provided a matching gift to one of my favorite charities (I matched all gifts made in response to a Giving Tuesday appeal). Analyzing the gifts that came in response, the charity tells me that most of it was from people who had not given in more than a year or who were giving above their recent trendline. Still, I’m skeptical about the actual impact, not least because I was going to give the money I did anyway. Calling it a “match” is just a semantic twist, much like Giving Tuesday.
But to hopefully prove that I’m not just a crank cynic, let me quickly propose some ways that Giving Tuesday could change that might make an impact:
1) It could become a type of pledge, like the Giving Pledge, to give a percentage of income (Matthew has suggested something like this could happen) in a transparent and accountable—at least to one’s social network—way.
2) Even better, it could model the pledge on the Give More Tomorrow idea (which in turn is modeled on Bernartzi’s and Thaler’s Save More Tomorrow work). On Giving Tuesday people make a pledge to give a larger percentage of their annual income in the future—and on each subsequent Giving Tuesday, they are held to account by their social network.
3) It could focus on effective giving, rather than just giving. While that might not increase overall giving and would likely reach a smaller audience, if it increased the effectiveness of some gifts, it would likely have a much larger effect than just a small uptick in general giving. And over the long-term, it might increase giving as people gained trust that charitable giving makes a difference as they see effective nonprofits succeeding.
To be clear, the bet still holds regardless of what steps the people behind Giving Tuesday take. And I’ll even provide an escape clause if the charitable deduction changes. I hope that American generosity will increase, I’m just not betting on it.
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