Should H&R Block Hire Models to Increase Charitable Giving?

(Photo: zyphbear)

(Photo: zyphbear)

Our recent podcast “How to Raise Money Without Killing a Kitten” represented the launch of a fund-raising campaign for Freakonomics Radio. Let me say a few things about the campaign:

1. Wow! Listeners have so far responded way, way, way better than Levitt predicted they would in the podcast — so: 1a) Thanks!; and 1b) Nice job in proving a pretty smart guy very wrong.

2. Some of your comments and e-mails noted that WNYC’s fund-raising site doesn’t allow for contributions via PayPal, text, Flattr, Bitcoin, etc. That is true. Hopefully some of these avenues will be added over time. Some of you also noted that the podcast already has advertising, so why are we also asking for contributions from listeners? Good question. Short answer: WNYC is the funding producer of our podcast, and as such is responsible for paying all our producer and engineer salaries, studio time, field-recording costs, music-licensing costs, bandwidth, and a million other things, like the transcription of interviews (for every minute of talking that ends up in the podcast, we’ve probably got about five minutes of interview tape). We are grateful for the advertisers on our podcast, but that revenue is not nearly enough to produce the podcast. That’s why we came to you, our listeners, for additional support. Think of how cable TV stations make their money: yes, they sell advertising but they also extract a subscriber fee from each viewer. (And that, in a nutshell, is why cable is having an easier go of it these days than broadcast TV; if you want to learn more about this, especially the early days of cable, take a look at the book Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN, a fantastic oral history of ESPN.) Since our subscriber fee is zero (i.e., the podcast is free), we are using the standard public-radio funding method of asking for voluntary support.

3. Your comments and e-mails were also a great window into a better understanding of what makes someone want to donate to a given cause or not. You pointed out incentives we overlooked, or overvalued, or undervalued. Between blog comments, e-mails, and comments on the fund-raising site itself, there was a lot of feedback! Some scholar wishing to some day write a case study of a modern fund-raising campaign could do worse than to study this one. Here, for instance, is one my favorite comments, from a reader named Eric Kennedy:

Great show. However, you forgot a primary reason why people donate to charity: to impress their attractive tax preparers. I’m not kidding. I’m very attractive and worked as a tax preparer for two years. I’ve seen this first-hand. I now find myself considering the impression I will make on my attractive tax preparer.
The most effective way to boost nation-wide charitable giving, would be to staff H&R Block with models and encourage them to make comments about the size of people’s annual donation amounts.

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  1. Eric says:

    Eric Kennedy’s theory is interesting. I also am named Eric, also prepared tax returns, but unlike Eric Kennedy, I would only say that I am moderately attractive.

    One thing I noticed in preparing tax returns in New York City (with many clients working for big banks and internet companies), that even though they gave nominal amounts to charity (a couple hundred dollars for the most part), it was such a small percentage of their total earnings.

    When people made $500k and donated $100 to the Red Cross, I would say to myself, “Is that what true charity looks like?”

    But what kind of role models do they have? If you look to Vice President Biden as an example, they would be right on par. Biden averaged $369 in annual charitable donations in the past 10 years, or 0.2% of his income.

    But not all is lost. The country as an average whole gives more to charity:

    “Nationally, more than two-thirds of U.S. households reported giving to charity in 2004, with average contributions of $2,047 that year, according to a study released in January by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. Those households who gave to charity averaged donations of about 3% of their income, says Patrick Rooney, the center’s interim executive director.”

    It is interesting to see how the country chooses to spend and donate their time and financial resources.

    So, after reading these comments and being a listener of Freakonomics for years, I would say that I get enough marginal utility out of the podcast to warrant a donation. Look for a donation coming shortly.


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