Activists tend to have a complicated relationship with money. Most of us likely grew up trying to avoid seeming ostentatious or materialistic. Perhaps you did your best to hide your privileges to seem more relatable, or you had mixed feelings towards those who flaunted their wealth. It seems to be a common philosophy for activists that money is responsible for more problems than solutions. After all, “money is the root of all evil”, right?
Following this logic, many may refute the claim that money can be a solution to the world’s problems. Firstly, we tend to believe that “throwing” money at a complex problem is a lazy strategy that is just too simple to be effective. We believe results come from sacrifice, and writing a check is hardly sacrificial to someone for whom money isn’t of great importance. Secondly, giving money often fails to yield tangible results. If I donate $50 to cancer research, chances are (unless the charity is unusually transparent) I’ll never know where that $50 went, or if it actually made a difference. By giving to charities, we must put our trust in those charities to use our money effectively. For many, this is a difficult pill to swallow (and a concern that we at Charity Science and other organisations like GiveWell work to address).
For this and other reasons, when most activists think about how they can make the biggest difference in the world, they think about what they can do, like volunteering at a soup kitchen, going to protests, or teaching disadvantaged youth. We do these things because the experience is visceral and real. It gives us perspective of lives less privileged than our own and it nourishes our empathy. The sacrifice we make by leaving our comfort zone makes us truly feel like we’ve given something back. And most importantly, action gives us tangible results. “I’ve built these walls and now someone will live within them.”
All of these are good, non-trivial reasons to take action, and these experiences likely expand our desire to want to change the world for the better. I would even make a strong argument for the educational benefits of action-based philanthropy.
Let us note, however, that the benefits of such charity are largely our own. For example, while computer programmer Jimmy may personally grow from the experience of building a home for a poor family, it is unlikely he will build that home as efficiently as experienced local workers within the community (funded perhaps by a charity through donations given by Jimmy and others). In other words, since Jimmy is not an expert in the field, he can probably do more good with the money he makes in an hour as a programmer than an hour volunteering as a home-builder. This may not always be the case, but it is more often than not, and we should think rationally about actions we take before taking them.
Further, we need to remember that money is a tool, nothing more. Money can be used for good or evil, but is neutral in its own right. And when used for good, money is the most versatile tool we have. By giving money, we can empower a person or team to more efficiently do what they’re good at. We can empower an organisation to help prevent one of the major causes of disease and death in developing countries. We can empower activists to combat animal suffering. We can even directly empower those less privileged than we are to make their own decisions. Most importantly, in all of these situations, a lack of money (not labor) is the most significant bottleneck preventing further intervention.
In conclusion, action is important, action is educational, and action is humbling, but in many cases, action is inefficient and serves us more than those we’re trying to help. Before deciding whether to spend our time or money to make a difference, we should consider the effects of each decision. More often than not, giving our money can do more good because as activists living in developed countries, having money is our privilege. It is our possession of wealth that puts us in a position to help others. Use that.
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