DUBNER: We are good people. You are good people.
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DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.
DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.
DUCKWORTH + DUBNER: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.
Today on the show: Is it worth it for charities to harass and annoy potential donors?
DUBNER: Hey, we know it’s a pain in the neck to get 18 letters a year. Do you think we like having to send out that many letters?
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DUCKWORTH: Stephen, we have an email from a listener named Michelle. Are you ready for it?
DUBNER: I’m ready.
DUCKWORTH: “Stephen and Angela: Why are charities spending money to annoy their donors?”
DUBNER: I like Michelle.
DUCKWORTH: Michelle goes on to explain: “I have, in recent years, made it priority to donate more to charities I care about, but didn’t expect that one of the long-lasting repercussions is that I am now constantly bombarded with junk mail, sometimes with a bunch of personalized address labels or other, quote, ‘free stuff’ from multiple charities, multiple times a week. This can’t be a good use of their money, right? Especially in the age of email. In fact, I tend to donate again to charities who don’t send me as much stuff, because it makes me feel like they’re focusing their money and efforts on actually doing good work. I would love to hear you discuss this phenomenon, both from the economic and psychological perspective. Best, Michelle.”
DUBNER: I agree with Michelle. This practice does seem stupid and outdated.
DUCKWORTH: It happens to you, right?
DUBNER: It does.
DUCKWORTH: You have innumerable return-address labels. I have so many of them.
DUBNER: Yeah, a lot of rainbows.
DUCKWORTH: They’re often really ugly, and you kind of can’t throw them away, because you’re like, “Well, maybe I’ll need a return label or 600?”
DUBNER: Hm. I do throw mine away. Although, I did look it up recently: It turns out that solicitations by snail mail are, per capita, much more successful than solicitations by email. So, that could be one reason why Michelle, and you, and I are still getting so many. On the other hand, I would think that because email is really, really, really cheap to send versus mail that it’s probably not a fair comparison.
DUCKWORTH: It doesn’t mean it’s more cost effective, because it’s nearly costless to send emails.
DUBNER: And I will say this: snail mail, these days, is getting pretty close to what a landline has gotten to be, which is—
DUCKWORTH: Just spam.
DUBNER: Yeah, in fact, I got rid of all of our landlines.
DUCKWORTH: Me, too. Samesies.
DUBNER: So, for Michelle, I really empathize. And, to be fair, there are ways, theoretically, to get yourself off these mailing lists, but most of them seem pretty incomplete and burdensome.
DUCKWORTH: I mean, these are charities she has donated to. So, let’s distinguish between random spam, like, “Please donate to this charity. We got your name off of some mailing list that we bought,” and “You just donated to our charity, Michelle. Thank you so much. Here’s your free tote bag, address labels, greeting cards, et cetera.” So, I think Michelle is not getting “spam” charity mailing. She’s getting mailings from charities that she’s donated to.
DUBNER Well, that may be true. But I will say this: one way that charities, and nonprofits, and all different kinds of firms, make money is by harvesting addresses from good people and then reselling them to other firms. We’ve talked about that a little bit on this show before, which is the moral licensing component. Right? If you were doing something that is prima facie good—
DUCKWORTH: Does it cancel out some little sins?
DUBNER: Does it cancel out a little misbehavior? I just read this interesting piece by a guy named Noah Smith, who used to write for Bloomberg. He’s an economist, and he now writes on Substack, and he just wrote a piece about how Oxfam, the British charity, is, as he puts it, “a serial repeat-offender of dodgy statistics.” He accuses them of fudging numbers, which then get picked up by journalists and politicians, but because they’re Oxfam, and because they’re doing charitable things, people are reluctant to either look too closely or to call them out.
DUCKWORTH: What kind of numbers?
DUBNER: Things like, “In the time it takes you to read this email, two million people have fallen into poverty.” Or “In the time it takes you to read this letter, another billionaire has been born.” So, his argument is that, if you take even a little bit of a close look at their numbers, they are somewhere between cherry-picked and exaggerated, which is another issue that a lot of people have with charities. So, that might be the bigger sin in the charity world, but Michelle’s asking about the smaller sin of — I like how she put it — “Why are charities spending money to annoy their donors?” It reminds me of something that Steve Levitt and I wrote about in one of our Freakonomics books, Think Like a Freak. And it was about this charitable organization called Smile Train. Are you familiar with Smile Train?
DUCKWORTH: Only vaguely.
DUBNER: Smile Train performs surgery on children around the world, usually from low-income places, who have a cleft lip or a cleft palate.
DUCKWORTH: That’s right.
DUBNER: The idea being that if you have a cleft lip or a cleft palate, it’s a huge detriment to the rest of your life. As I’m guessing you know from the data, physical deformities of any sort, they have really long-lasting effects in the labor markets, the education markets, the marriage markets, and so on. If it’s fixed, it can radically improve that person’s life. And so, this charity called Smile Train originally had a kind of standard American charity model, which is to say: We are Americans. We are good. We are smart. And we know the right way to do things: Raise a bunch of money from well-intended donors, take that money, and hire airplanes to fly to poor places around the world, and get surgeons in America to volunteer their time to fly to these places. Now, does that sound like a good model to you, or a bad model to you?
DUCKWORTH: Well, I was kind of tipped off by “airplane.” It sounds expensive. It sounds like they have their own private ozone hole. But at the same time, I personally can’t think of a better strategy. Plastic surgeons don’t live there.
DUBNER: You’re right. There was no one there who was willing and equipped to do it. So, they needed a different solution. And there was a guy at Smile Train for many years, named Brian Mullaney, who looked at the way they were doing business. And he thought, “Hmm, I wonder if we could readjust this business model.” So, it was a very simple tweak. They took all this money that they were raising in America, and they started to use it to train surgeons all over the world — and maybe fly in someone to supervise now and again — but basically, they set up a bunch of self-sustaining operations, and that really reoriented the way they did their work. And it was very successful.
DUCKWORTH: And the epilogue is it’s a happy ending, right? Not like aid to Africa — you know, economists are like, “Foreign aid is actually surprisingly horrible for the long-term economic wellbeing of these countries.” In this case, training doctors in localities that don’t have those kinds of doctors, like plastic surgeons, is just good. Was that the ending of the story?
DUBNER: I love that your instinct is to be skeptical, especially because almost every time I tell this kind of story, the answer is, “But it’s not as good as you thought it would be.” If you want a sad ending to the story, this era of Smile Train did end in massive lawsuits and incriminations, so that’s your sad ending. But I think that the actual adjustment of the business model was successful.
DUCKWORTH: Wait, the lawsuits were from what?
DUBNER: Oh, I’m not going to get into that. But if someone wants to use their Google machine, I think they will find an abundance of reading material with which I am, blessedly, not wildly familiar. But yeah, the world is messy, even though there were good acts being performed. But anyway, that’s not even the part of Smile Train that Michelle’s email reminded me of. Having had that success of adjusting the actual operational model of Smile Train, Brian Mullaney — who is a former ad salesman, by the way, so he knew the way people think about spending money, giving money, what makes them feel good, and so on. And he had another idea for how to change Smile Train. He began just by asking a simple question, “Why do people give money to charity?” So, Angie, let me turn that question to you, thinking as a psychologist. What do you know about why people actually choose to give money to charities?
DUCKWORTH: There are a multiplicity of reasons, but I think first and foremost, there is an altruistic impulse that maybe all of us have, at least to some degree, to help somebody else. And then, that list of reasons continues to less-altruistic ones, like: “I’m virtue signaling — I want everybody else to think that I’m kind and generous.” And then, I think there’s also, to some extent, a kind of “tit for tat.” Like: “If I donate, I get a tax deduction, or if I am a supporter of public radio, I’ll get this great tote bag.” There are other motivations, but I think altruism is the primary one.
DUBNER: And there’s one more theory that’s nestled in among the few that you gave. This was a phrase coined by the economist Jim Andreoni. He talked about “warm-glow altruism” — the fact that giving to charity makes people feel better about themselves. So, it’s got a self-interested component to it. And Andreoni wasn’t saying that there’s anything wrong with that at all. In fact, it really is good for everybody. So, Brian Mullaney was working with some economists. He was working with John List and Steve Levitt, both at the University of Chicago. And he knew this literature, and he believed in this literature. He thought that people are truly altruistic. They’re maybe doing some virtue signaling. They’re maybe trying to catch some warm glows from their altruism. But he thought there was maybe another reason why people give to charities, which is that, when they’re asked to donate, the social pressure is so great that they get bullied into giving, even though they wish they had never been asked in the first place. And he suspected that this reason was actually a big driver of Smile Train’s success, because, when they would send out mailings, they would include photographs of a physically disfigured child. Basically, they were trying to say, “You’re kind of not a good person if you’re not going to do that.” He knew that that worked. They raised millions and millions of dollars, but he also knew that it didn’t really sit right with everybody. As Michelle was saying, you’ll get letter, after letter, after letter, after letter. And, in fact, with Smile Train, if you signed up and gave them something, they would send you — do you want to know how many mailings a year you would get from Smile Train?
DUCKWORTH: Oh, my gosh, this is going to shock me. Right? And I’m not even going guess. How many mailings would I get, if I had signed up once to donate to Smile Train?
DUBNER: Eighteen. Eighteen mailings a year.
DUCKWORTH: That’s horrible! So, more than once a month.
DUBNER: And the reason they did this is because the economics of fundraising are such that the acquisition of a new donor — just like the acquisition of a new customer in business — is difficult and expensive. And almost every charity loses money in that phase. But a donor, once they’re hooked, will tend to give again and again, and that’s because they’re being harassed. So, Brian Mullaney thought, “Well, hang on a second. What if we try to change this dynamic? If people don’t like getting hassled, but they are giving, would it be worth thinking about offering a different solution? What if we offered donors a way that they would agree, if they gave money, that we’ll never be in touch with them again?” He called this a once-and-done letter.
DUCKWORTH: Like, forever?
DUBNER: Pretty much. In fact, he wanted to trial this and run an experiment. So yeah, there were three options in this card that you’d get in the mail. Option one: “This will be my only gift. Please send me a tax receipt and do not ask for another donation again.”
DUCKWORTH: I love this.
DUBNER: Number two: “I would prefer to receive only two communications from the Smile Train each year. Please honor my wishes to limit the amount of mail sent to me.” And number three was: “Please keep me up to date on the progress the Smile Train is making on curing the world of clefts by sending me regular communications,” which means, I guess, 18 letters. So, Angie, imagine you’re on the board of Smile Train, and I come to you, and I say, “I think the way we’re doing this is totally backwards. I know it’s expensive to acquire donors, and therefore, once we have them, we should just milk, and milk, and milk them. But I think, in the end, we might do better by offering people a once-and-done.” What would you say, as a board member?
DUCKWORTH: Well, on one hand, I know we might, as a charity, be net-positive from sending 18 mailings, but that’s just a wasteful thing, and it may not be good for the greater society wellbeing to have all this wastage, so I would’ve chosen the two-a-year, because the acquisition costs of a new donor are considerable — trying to get another person to know about you and get out their checkbook. And, actually, honestly, if I were the recipient of such a letter from Smile Train, I think I would not say, like, “Leave me alone for the rest of my life.” Twice a year is what I would have chosen.
DUBNER: So, according to Brian Mullaney, even he himself thought this was, maybe, a totally stupid idea, that you’re just cutting off your source of funding. You get these donors and you’re immediately saying, “We revoke the right to keep coming at you,” but he thought it was worth a trial. I believe they sent hundreds of thousands of letters with this once-and-done message. And it contained a reply card where each donor could check one of the three boxes. So, it turns out that households that got this once-and-done letter were twice as likely to become first-time donors as people who got a regular, standard solicitation letter. By fundraising standards, this was a massive gain. Twice as many people were giving for the first time. Also, they were giving a little bit more money. On average, it was about $56 instead of $50. So, Smile Train immediately raised millions of extra dollars, but then you have to ask yourself: Are they sacrificing long-term? Because now every new donor has the option to tell Smile Train to get lost. So, you might expect that all the new donors would check box number one — “This will be my only gift. Please send me a tax receipt, do not ask for another donation.” But only a third of them opted out of future mailings. Most donors were very happy to let Smile Train keep harassing them. And overall, this once-and-done operation, it raised donations by 46 percent. And because some people did opt out of future mailings, Smile Train actually raised more money by sending fewer letters because they’re saving so much on expenses as well. So, as we were trying to figure out why this worked, we came up with a few explanations. Do you want to guess how we tried to explain this remarkable success?
DUCKWORTH: I assume that there are people who would not donate to a charity like Smile Train, anticipating the bombardment over the next year, and by assuring them and giving them that option, you’re just picking those people up that you wouldn’t have gotten. That’s my guess.
DUBNER: That’s a really good explanation. The other explanations that we came up with — one would be the novelty. When’s the last time a charity — or any kind of company, really — offered to never bother you again? So, maybe that alone gets your attention. We thought about candor. Have you ever heard a charity acknowledge what a hassle it is to get all those hassling letters?
DUCKWORTH: Almost empathy. Like, “Wow, you get me.”
DUCKWORTH: “You see me, Smile Train.”
DUBNER: Control maybe? We all like to have control over our destiny.
DUCKWORTH: I do think there’s research showing that, like, give people choices, even if they’re arbitrary choices, they just feel better.
DUBNER: There’s one more explanation we came up with — hard to empirically argue, and I don’t know if you’ll even buy the argument without empirics — but I think one thing that happened here is that this charity, Smile Train, that they kind of changed the frame of the relationship between themselves and their donors. I think what the one-and-done campaign did was really shifted how potential donors felt about this charity. If I get this letter, I’m thinking, “Wow, these are people who are plainly doing something that’s good for the world. But rather than hound me with a hard sell, they’re changing their message. And they’re saying to me, ‘Hey, we know it’s a pain in the neck to get 18 letters a year. Do you think we like having to send out that many letters? It’s really expensive. So, rather than think of us as the adversary that’s wringing money from you, let’s decide that we’re on the same team. We are good people. You are good people. Together, we can conspire to do some good in the world.’” That’s what I mean by shifting the frame of the relationship by making themselves appear more as allies with you, as opposed to trying to milk as much donor money from you as possible.
DUCKWORTH: I like it. I think it’s closely related to just being really empathic, and kind of acknowledging the not-so-great aspects of soliciting charitable donations. I feel like this with public radio and public television campaigns. Sometimes the hosts will kind of turn to the audience and, in so many words, say, “Doesn’t this suck? Doesn’t this just suck that we have to take a 72-hour break from our normal programming? You can end this suffering right now if you would just collectively donate! None of us wanna be here, but all of us would recognize that this is a project that needs money. So, come on. Let’s do it!”
DUBNER: Do that work on you?
DUCKWORTH: Well, we have continuously supported public television, public radio, and a number of different charities. So, it works in the sense that we’re donating. I’m not sure it works in the sense that, like, we wouldn’t donate if they didn’t say those things. It certainly makes me feel better when I have to weather those campaigns. We would probably donate anyway, but it is comforting to know that the terribleness of some of these charity campaigns is acknowledged.
Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela discuss whether those personalized address labels actually get people to donate.
DUCKWORTH: I appeal to charities, publicly, to stop sending us [BLEEP].
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Before we return to Stephen and Angela’s conversation about charitable giving, let’s hear some of your thoughts on the subject. We asked listeners to tell us about the best — and worst — incentives that charities use to solicit donations. Here’s what you said:
Byron DUVALL: Every once in a while, we’ll get solicitations from charities that include a refrigerator magnet, or mailing labels, or a calendar. And I assume they do this in order to make you feel like you owe them something so that you’ll give a donation. But unfortunately for them, I have no shame, and I will put the magnet on the refrigerator or the calendar up, and wind up not sending anything in.
Chloey GARZA: When I was an undergraduate, I took some classes at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and one year there was a fundraiser where they were giving away t-shirts to anyone who had donated to the MIT annual fund. So, if you were anything like me, you could give a dollar and receive a pretty nice t-shirt in return. Now, at first, their initial loss doesn’t seem so bad, because if I wear the t-shirt, that’s brand recognition. And, also, they now have my data so they can send me emails and paper mailers, and maybe I’ll donate again in the future. But unfortunately, I lost that t-shirt within the year, and I unsubscribed from their email list almost immediately. I will say that, six years later, after what must be hundreds of dollars’ worth of postage, the MIT Annual Fund Development Team and I still have a very strong snail-mail relationship. But if I’m being honest, it’s probably time for them to break up with me. I’m not a very giving partner.
Katie TSAI: Hi. My name’s Katie. I live in Philadelphia, and my favorite, most successful fundraising strategy was: When I was in high school, we sold pieces of duct tape. It was one piece of duct tape for a dollar, and each piece of duct tape went towards taping our principal to the wall of our school gym. And I think at the end of our fundraiser, we raised, like, $300. Our poor principal was plastered against the wall with all these pieces of duct tape. His feet weren’t even touching the ground — that’s how much tape was on our principal. And not only do we make a lot of money through our fundraiser, but we even got our principal safely off the wall.
That was, respectively: Byron Duvall, Chloey Garza, and Katie Tsai. Thanks to them and to everyone who sent us their thoughts. Now, back to Stephen and Angela’s conversation about the many surprising methods that charities use to raise money.
DUBNER: So, do you know of any good recent research about what is an optimal way to make people give? What can charities do or not do that is most likely to warm the heart of a potential donor?
DUCKWORTH: There was an article that came out a couple of years ago in Marketing. This article’s called, “Coins Are Cold and Cards Are Caring: The Effect of Pre-Giving Incentives on Charity Perceptions, Relationship Norms, and Donation Behavior.” It’s an article that kind summarizes the research that’s already been done to date. But they also compare this kind of return-address-label, gift-card, non-monetary, pre-gift incentive to, just, cash. And here’s what I learned. When you get those letters in the mail from a charity that has a little dollar in the window, or a quarter, et cetera, you are more likely to open it. I think very few of us can just throw that envelope in the trash. But, if you compare monetary incentives (like coins, dollars), non-monetary incentives (greeting cards, return labels), and then just, like, no incentives, which of these modalities is the best? It’s actually giving nothing. That said, you do get people to open more when there’s a coin in the window, et cetera. It’s just that the average donation isn’t necessarily more, and then you have to subtract the cost of the coin or the dollar. And then, I think one of the most important things that I got out of it is that, when you send somebody a dollar, or a quarter, or a nickel, asking them to, in turn, make a donation to this charity, however you frame it, you’ve actually changed that relationship. And now you’ve made this a transaction. You’re no longer in the kind of altruistic mindset. This is more now “tit-for-tat.” Like, “Well, they gave me a dollar, so I should probably give them fill-in-the-blank.” So, I appeal to charities, publicly, to stop sending us [BLEEP]. I don’t need any more address labels, and this research suggests that, in the long run, just for your own fundraising, you may not be doing yourself any good at all.
DUBNER So, based on that paper, based on what you’d know about psychological appeals generally, based on what we talked about with the success of the once-and-done initiative by Smile Train — if you could just bring together a hundred executive directors of nonprofits and give them a few bullet points to consider for optimizing fundraising while minimizing the garbage that Michelle, and you, and I, don’t like getting in the mail, can you reduce it to some first principles?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Let me try. One is: When you are appealing to a public audience for a charitable donation, that you should not give gifts or tit-for-tat incentives. I am sure that there are some people for whom that works wonders, but, on average, the net-effect, especially when you take into account the cost of doing it, real costs, but also maybe the relationship costs — shifting to a transactional relationship from what it should be, which is an altruistic, communal kind of relationship. This article, by the way, that I just mentioned, didn’t even talk about environmental costs when you layer in the costs of junk mail to the environment, et cetera, it’s a pretty clear thing. Like, don’t send stuff. I’ll borrow from the Center for High Impact Philanthropy. It’s a think tank at University of Pennsylvania, which is my home university, but it’s also run by Kat Rosqueta, who’s a very good friend of mine. And I think she would argue that, when you are soliciting charitable donations, you should emphasize what the real return is for any donor, which is your impact on a problem that they care about. So, quantify: How much have you moved the needle in the lives of other people and in what way. I think that is the best kind of appeal. A third bullet point would be that you can’t expect everyone to donate to everything. And there is research by Deborah Small — I think now she’s at Yale, and she studies charitable giving — that people’s personal preferences actually matter a lot. So, we’re not robots, and we’re not all effective altruists in the sense of people who are only looking at the net return. If you like farm animals, you are more likely to donate to one of those “buy a sheep for village” things. Like, that’s going to matter more to you than, “Oh, but this other charity, which is working on clean water has a net higher impact.” So, I think when you design these campaigns, you should think about targeting people who just personally care for maybe idiosyncratic reasons. And then, finally, I’ll just say this: I think keeping in mind that people are people is helpful. One of my pet peeves is when they do food drives, like, “Please bring in a can of soup or something from your pantry.” Or “Let’s have a bake sale.” These are ways of drawing attention to and resources toward charitable stuff. But they’ve always bothered me, because it’s really inefficient. Like, if I bake a batch of brownies for $12 and you sell it for $10, net, it’s negative two, and couldn’t I have just signed you a check? So, I may be irritated by bake sales and food drives, but the fact that they persist, and the fact that there are some people who would not give otherwise, suggests that, you know, human beings are complicated and they give for lots of different reasons — including that they like to bake, or that it feels good to them to put a can of soup into a little box at the front of the office.
DUBNER: I share your frustration with, you know, churches and synagogues that do food drives and they say, “Go to the store and get cans. This is what we need.” So, I could see how, if you’re cleaning out your cupboard, it’s more efficient, because maybe you’re taking something that you’re not going to use.
DUCKWORTH: Right, the cream of celery soup that you were like, “Why did I buy that?”
DUBNER: Oh, have you not read the “hundred great uses of cream of celery soup” website lately? But I share your frustration. It’s so inefficient. In fact, when Russia invaded Ukraine, a bunch of organizations around me started holding these fundraisers of different sorts. And a lot of them were drives for supplies, like food, and diapers, and bandaids.
DUBNER: And I’m thinking, like, “What the hell is wrong with money? Isn’t this exactly what money was invented for?”
DUCKWORTH: Right, it’s fungible. Currency was a great invention.
DUBNER: But I do like your point, which is that, yeah, if you want to include the whole spectrum, some people are, for whatever reason, more comfortable, more excited about giving in a different domain.
DUCKWORTH: It’s visceral. You know, they don’t have to use their imagination. I think I can both accommodate the psychology of people who feel good about seeing a pencil in somebody’s backpack and, on the other hand, somebody like you and me who’s like, “Wait, that is deeply inefficient. There are economies of scale in purchasing the pencils. Also, how are you going to manage the inventory? Like, it’s so dumb.” But here is what I would say, and I think actually this idea goes back to Kat Rosqueta. She was like, “If you feel better about the soup can, why don’t you collect the checks in empty soup cans?” There are other ways to, like, bring home the visceral, the imagery. Maybe we can do that with the right kind of messaging, but not actually do deeply inefficient things, like sending people greeting cards, or having them bring in soup cans.
DUBNER: Does it bother you when a nonprofit sells their mailing list to other firms, whether nonprofit or otherwise, and then you get bombarded with others? And if so, I may have a partial solution for you.
DUCKWORTH: I didn’t really fully appreciate that, Stephen. It hadn’t occurred to me. So, does it bother me now that you have raised that to conscious awareness? Yes, it does bother me. I don’t like people trading mailing lists of any kind. So, what’s my pro tip for solving the problem?
DUBNER: Well, this is not really a pro tip for solving the problem. This is a pro tip for kind of feeling slightly better about understanding the problem. Now, if you really want to solve the problem, there are these registries, like the equivalent of “do not call” registries, but we all know how inefficient “do not call” registries are, typically, and I think the ones for getting off mailing lists are similarly ineffective. But one trick you can use — and Michelle might get a kick out of this, because she will see just how widespread the handoff of her information is — every time you sign up to give money to a nonprofit, you list as your name, your real first name — so, let’s say, “Angela.” And name a charity that you’ve given to recently, or that you might want to give to sometime in the near future?
DUCKWORTH: Like Character Lab, for example. But also — I know, that was a little selfish. That’s my charity. But, like, Outward Bound. Let’s say Outward Bound. I love Outward Bound.
DUBNER: So, let’s say that a niece of yours writes a letter and says, “Angela, I have been working with Outward Bound this past couple years, and I found them to be a remarkably upstanding nonprofit. And I really want you to give, if you’re willing and able, blah, blah, blah.” And she sends you a link, let’s say. And so, when you go to sign up, rather than just writing “Angela” under the first name field, and “Duckworth” under the last name field, if there is a middle name field, you take advantage of that. If not, you give yourself two first names, and your second first name will be “Outward.” So, now you are Angela “Outward” Duckworth. And now, on all the mail that you ever get that was sold by them, you will know exactly where it’s coming from. And so, I would say to Michelle, this probably won’t solve her problem, but if, let’s say, the big charity she wants to give to is, like, “Puppy Love” that rescues puppies, then at least from now on, she’ll be Michelle “Puppy” whatever her last name is, and she can get at the very least a smile out of it.
DUCKWORTH: It’s like contact tracing for these mailing lists, right?
DUBNER: That’s exactly right. Now, here’s the big problem. Let’s say Angela “Outward” Duckworth gives some money to Outward Bound, and then Outward Bound starts sending her 18 letters a year, like Smile Train used to do, including a bunch of return address labels—
DUCKWORTH: That say Angela “Outward” Duckworth! Then what am I going to do with those damn labels? I could change my name, I guess.
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No Stupid Questions is produced by me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. Before we move on to the fact-check, let’s give listener Michelle, our question asker, the last word.
Michelle YE: I loved this discussion. I didn’t know about the Smile Train story, but I would be so thrilled for the “once and done” to catch on with every charity. In fact, I will personally pledge on public record to double my annual donation to any charity that gives me that option.
And now here’s a fact-check of today’s conversation.
In the first half of the show, Stephen says that the original business model for the charity Smile Train involved flying surgeons to low-income areas around the globe to operate on children with cleft lips or cleft palates. This is not quite correct. Brian Mullaney and Charles Wang, the co-founders of Smile Train, had previously been board members of Operation Smile — a similar charity that did use this model. When Mullaney and Wang split from Operation Smile to create Smile Train in 1998, they decided to use the new, more sustainable model that Stephen described, and began training and funding local surgeons instead.
Stephen also mentioned “lawsuits” and “incriminations” related to the charity, but doesn’t go into further detail. He may have been referring to a 2013 summary judgment that ruled that co-founder Brian Mullaney needed to repay Smile Train UK more than £633,000 that he allegedly received in unauthorized payments. Or perhaps he was thinking of when the company received criticism in 2017 for an October-themed mailer that read, quote, “What if every day felt like Halloween?” accompanied by a picture of children with cleft palates.
Finally, Stephen references the concept of “warm-glow altruism” as defined by economist Jim Andreoni. The phrase Andreoni coined is actually the synonymous, but slightly more alliterative, “warm-glow giving.”
That’s it for the fact-check.
Coming up next week on No Stupid Questions: Is your anger physically hurting you?
DUCKWORTH: In the few hours that follow a very angry outburst, you are more likely to have a heart attack or a stroke.
That’s next week on No Stupid Questions. For that episode, we want to hear your perspective on whether anger is a healthy or an unhealthy emotion, and why? And what strategies have you found that help you manage it? To share your thoughts, send a voice memo to NSQ@Freakonomics.com with the subject line “Anger.” Make sure to record in a quiet, indoor space with your mouth close to the phone, and please keep your thoughts to under a minute.
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No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and Freakonomics, M.D. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was mixed by Eleanor Osborne. We had help this week from Lyric Bowditch. Our staff also includes Neal Carruth, Gabriel Roth, Greg Rippin, Morgan Levey, Zack Lapinski, Julie Kanfer, Ryan Kelley, Jasmin Klinger, Emma Tyrell, Jacob Clemente, and Alina Kulman. We had additional research assistance from Anya Dubner. Our theme song is “And She Was” by Talking Heads — special thanks to David Byrne and Warner Chappell Music. If you’d like to listen to the show ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. You can follow us on Twitter @NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to email@example.com. To learn more, or to read episode transcripts, visit Freakonomics.com/NSQ. Thanks for listening!
DUCKWORTH: Stephen, are you beeping?
DUBNER: I think we’re hitting the trifecta of New York City noises right now. We’re hearing construction beeping. We’re hearing some sirens. And I think we’re hearing angry car horns. Now it’s making me wonder if they’re coming to get me. Do you think I should bar the door?
- Jim Andreoni, professor of economics at the University of California, San Diego.
- Steve Levitt, host of People I (Mostly) Admire and professor of economics at the University of Chicago.
- John List, professor of economics at the University of Chicago.
- Brian Mullaney, co-founder and former C.E.O. of Smile Train.
- Kat Rosqueta, director of the Center for High Impact Philanthropy at the University of Pennsylvania.
- Deborah Small, professor of marketing at Yale University.
- “Oxfam Serves Up a Lot of Dodgy Statistics,” by Noah Smith (Noahpinion via Substack, 2022).
- “Coins Are Cold and Cards Are Caring: The Effect of Pregiving Incentives on Charity Perceptions, Relationship Norms, and Donation Behavior,” by Bingqing (Miranda) Yin, Yexin Jessica Li, and Surendra Singh (Journal of Marketing, 2020).
- “Impediments to Effective Altruism: The Role of Subjective Preferences in Charitable Giving,” by Jonathan Z. Berman, Alixandra Barasch, Emma E. Levine, and Deborah A. Small (Psychological Science, 2018).
- “Once and Done: Leveraging Behavioral Economics to Increase Charitable Contributions,” by
- Think Like Freak Chapter 6: “Like Giving Candy to a Baby,” by Stephen Dubner and Steve Levitt (2014).
- “Former Smile Train Trustee Ordered to Return Payments That Were Agreed but Not Authorised in Writing,” by Andy Hillier (Third Sector, 2013).
- “Impure Altruism and Donations to Public Goods: A Theory of Warm-Glow Giving,” by James Andreoni (The Economic Journal, 1990).
- “What Makes a Donor Donate?” by Freakonomics Radio (2011).
- Smile Train.
- Center for High Impact Philanthropy.
- Outward Bound.