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

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.

Should We All Just Give Cash Directly to the Poor?

Silicon Valley heavyweights like Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes and Google have a new favorite charity: GiveDirectly, an organization that makes direct transfers (via M-Pesa) to poor people in the developing world. From Forbes:

“Instead of building hospitals, why don’t we just give poor people money? Research shows it’s effective,” [Hughes] said. Hughes, who purchased The New Republic magazine in early 2012 and serves as publisher, also joined the board of GiveDirectly.

Backing up Hughes’s point was Jacquelline Fuller, Director of Giving at Google. She told the crowd Thursday night that one of her superiors at Google was extremely skeptical when Fuller first suggested that Google back GiveDirectly. “I was told, ‘You must be smoking crack,’ ” Fuller recalled. But GiveDirectly had exactly what Google wanted: lots of data on how the recipients of cash used it to improve their nutrition, their health and their children’s education. After looking at the data, Google donated $2.5 million to GiveDirectly.

GiveDirectly stems from economist Paul Niehaus's research in India, where to limit corruption the government  makes direct cash transfers via mobile phones.  “A typical poor person is poor not because he is irresponsible, but because he was born in Africa," says Niehaus, adding that GiveDirectly's transfers have had positive impacts on nutrition, education, land, and livestock -- and haven't increased alcohol consumption.  The charity is also No. 2 on Givewell's list of recommended charities.

(HT: Marginal Revolution)

Spider Altruism

In last week’s podcast, I talk with renowned biologist E.O. Wilson about spite. Although Wilson doesn’t like the term “spite,” he does tell us that there are copious examples of perplexingly self-destructive behavior in nature. Some types of ants, termites, and even bacteria can build up poison within their bodies and then explode in enemy territory – killing themselves as well as several attackers.

Wilson also mentions an act of self-sacrifice that might be better thought of as altruism: a certain species of mother spider lets her children eat her. Isabella Rossellini’s brand new video series Mammas features an episode on this cannibal spider. You can watch it here.

Charitable Giving: Why Fewer Is More

December is the holiday giving season for many, but there are a lot of charities competing for your dollars, and it can be hard to know where they will do the most good.

I’ve written before about why you should be wary of sites that rank charities by administrative expenses. It tells you nothing about if the actual effectiveness of a charity's activities. The recent Freakonomics Radio episode “Free-conomics” also pointed out that many charities themselves don’t even know if what they’re doing actually works.  This was one of the reasons I founded a non-profit which carries out research around the world to find out exactly which efforts to fight poverty work best. 

As well as choosing which charities to support, we also make choices about how we support them. Often overlooked, this choice can be just as important in influencing what our money actually achieves. Below, two experts in philanthropy, Caroline Fiennes and Phil Buchanan, explain one crucial effect of how we give. Fiennes is the founder of Giving Evidence and the author of It Ain't What You Give, It's the Way That You Give It: Making Charitable Donations That Get ResultsPhil Buchanan is president of the Center for Effective Philanthropy

This Is Your Brain on Altruism

We've had a lot to say about altruism, and how economists and others have tried to study it. A group of economists at the University of Zurich now claims to have found a spot in the brain associated with altruistic behavior. From Pacific Standard:

It’s called the right temporoparietal junction (or TPJ for short). Along with many other crucial functions, this neural crossroads gives us the ability to understand the perspectives of others—a prerequisite for empathy.

Swiss scholars report they have found a strong connection between the TPJ and a person’s willingness to engage in selfless acts.

Is Male Kindness Actually a "Peacock Tail?"

A new paper from psychology researchers Mark Van Vugt and Wendy Iredale finds that acts of male kindness may not always be quite what they seem. From Science Daily:

Two experiments were undertaken. For the first, 65 men and 65 women, all of an average age of 21, anonymously played a cooperation game where they could donate money via a computer program to a group fund. Donations were selfless acts, as all other players would benefit from the fund, whilst the donor wouldn't necessarily receive anything in return.

Players did not know who they were playing with. They were observed by either someone of the same sex or opposite sex -- two physically attractive volunteers, one man and one woman. Men were found to do significantly more good deeds when observed by the opposite sex. Whilst the number of good deeds made by women didn't change, regardless of who observed.

For the second experiment, groups of males were formed. Males were asked to make a number of public donations. These increased when observed by an attractive female, where they were found to actively compete with one another. When observed by another male, however, donations didn't increase.

More Research on Why Nice Guys Lose

A couple months ago, we wrote about a study by researchers from Notre Dame and Cornell that showed how “agreeableness” negatively affects monetary earnings, particularly for men. Translation: it pays to be a jerk. Well, not exactly, but it apparently doesn't pay to be overly nice.

Now, a recent paper from a host of researchers (from Stanford, Northwestern and Carnegie Mellon) fleshes out this notion by showing why nice guys who watch out for others generally fail to become leaders. The study looks at how contributing to the public good (i.e. taking care of outsiders, and even others in a group setting) influences a person's status on two critical dimensions of leadership: prestige and dominance. People who shared resources with their group were seen as prestigious, while those who protected their resources and even sought to deprive members of another group were seen as dominant.

Why Are We Bashing Buffett?

What is altruism? Warren Buffett recently proposed a surtax on the very wealthiest Americans, including himself to help reduce the federal deficit. (This is a mild version of Obama’s perfectly reasonable proposal to tax family incomes above $250,000, i.e., fewer than 2% of families.) Buffett is being altruistic—the tax will reduce his net income. I always thought altruism was desirable, yet I’ve seen Buffett lampooned in the press.

I suppose one can argue that he’s really doing this to preserve the value of Berkshire Hathaway stock. (The same argument might apply when I donate blood—perhaps I do it because it makes me feel good, not to help others.) But: it’s a pretty sorry state of the world when someone offers to reduce his circumstances in order to help his country and is mocked.

How to Become a Superhero (Or…Why I Would Never Donate to a Major Charity)

A few years ago there was a story in the N.Y. Post about a boy who had been locked in a closet almost from the time he was born until he was about fifteen years old. I might not have the exact details right. His parents fed him food but never let him out of the closet. So he never grew properly and he was only about 80 pounds or maybe less. The authorities took him away and put him in some sort of home for abused kids. His parents were arrested and are presumably now in jail.

Was Microsoft Wrong to "Use" the Japanese Earthquake for Marketing?

This past weekend, Microsoft tried to do a little good (donate $100,000) and use that good to market Bing.